Harry and Tonto Director: Paul Mazursky Stars: Art Carney, Phil Bruns, Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman 'A' Rialto (120 minutes).
What Changed Charley Farthing? Director: Sidney Hayers Stars: Hayley Mills, Lionel Jeffries, Warren Mitchell, Doug McLure 'A' Studio Two (95 minutes).
Harry is a retired professor living in a New York apartment with his cat, Tonto. At first we see him among a lot of wizened old faces against a musical score of Chopinesque sadness. It looks as if we are in for a frightful wallow. This fear continues as the old man (Art Carney) talks to his cat about the good old days before the muggers came. It seems that one of the great things about the neighbourhood's past was "the aroma of corned beef and cabbages". This is terribly boring stuff and is obviously meant to be. For a time we are persuaded that Harry is an ignorant old fool and that we are facing a two-hour session of trying to feel compassion for him.
Suddenly the situation changes. The old man is driven away from his apartment by demolition men. He fights to the last moment, is removed by police and goes to stay with his son's family in the suburbs. From then on he begins to develop as a real person. Instead of hanging around waiting to die, like a hunk of tired flesh, he responds energetically to each new stimulus. He is fascinated, for instance, by his grandson's interest in Zen Buddhism and by the vow of silence the boy has taken. We see that Harry is able to look at such eccentricity with an educated, mature mind, instead of bombarding the boy with a lecture on traditional values.
This is the beginning of an adventure which shows Harry's continued ability to win friends and influence people. And to be influenced, in turn, by the people he meets. He comes across so many characters of independent spirit. including a salesman, a Jesus-freak and a high-class hooker — that we end up by seeing him too as a loner, not as a lonely man.
A clever thing about the film is the way it begins in a claustrophobic apartment and then takes Harry through encounters in airports, bus-drives and hitch-hikes to the broader landscapes west of Chica go. When the closing credits roll over him, a tiny figure beside the Atlantic in Los Angeles, we have watched the broadening of his mind. He has escaped from the restrictions of a resigned retirement.
We have no idea what Harry's future will bring him. But we do know he has the security of financial backing from his children. And more important, he also has the security of a talent for making temporary friendships. If his new relationships are only temporary, this is the way he wants them. He resists offers from elderly widows to share his expenses and his life. He even turns down the suggestion of living with a ne'er-do-well son — a boy who believes he needs his father. Harry has the sense to see that however much this companionship could mean to him, it can only damage his son's chances of making a future with a decent job and a family.
Tonto the cat dies, of course. But this is not a film about a man's maudlin affection for an animal. The cat's real purpose in the story is to trigger off Harry's adventure. When he leaves his New York family, in a burst of independence, he sets off to see a daughter in Chicago. This is where Tonto gets usefully in the way. Harry refuses to part with him at the airport, transfers to an express bus and abandons this too because the driver cannot cope with the habits of a long-distance cat. He buys a second-hand car, picks up a girl running away from home to a commune and then helps to solve her problems simply by being around with the right people at the right time.
That is the mood of the picture. No one really plans to do anything. Everyone drifts, including Harry, who is too old to do anything else. Or is he? The film leaves a nasty uncomfortable feeling because old age looks a nasty uncomfortable state if you haven't yet reached it. I 5:lon't think many people will see this filim..Nvithout feeling either a twinge about their experiences with old people, or a touch of apprehension at their own impending fate.
But that is not why I dislike the film. I dislike it because it makes me uneasy to see so many people living so pointlessly. When the old man finds his former girl friend in an old people's home, he learns — against a background of cor anglais and guitar—that she is out of her mind. He makes promises to her that he cannot expect to keep. When he meets a hooker on the way to Los Angeles (harmonica music here, with a Western flavour) he buys her insistent services without protesting. When he talks to an Indian medicine man, who speaks casually of the spells he uses for murdering people, Harry has no comment to make. It seems that his moral standards are either non-existent or dying slowly with him.
And why shouldn't they be? This is a film about Harry as he is, not as we might prefer him. But I came away from the film depressed because although it says so much about Harry's worth, it offers no real hope for all the characters blown about by chance. In the end it becomes tedious watching people who have no driving force. I longed to see just one person who could echo that marvellous line by Robert Frost: "I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep".
I enjoyed much more a nice piece of slapStick called What Changed Charley Farthing? This is very good entertainment of its kind, somewhere between television comedy at its best and Ealing comedy at its worst. It has even less to do with the art of cinema than most arty films. But it has everything to do with good belly-laughs.
The plot takes place on the coast of an obscure island peopled by stupid foreigners. (I expect you remember the stupid foreigners we were permitted to laugh at before conscience made serious-minded cowards of us all.) There is a everything here that a lot of people will dislike, including a missionary lady with overtones of Katherine Hepburn, jokes about kilts and repetitive shots of people sitting accidentally on cacti. There is some good comedy acting by Lionel Jeffries and Warren Mitchell and some very funny fighting sequences. And Hayley Mills looks prettier than ever, in spite of her daft accent.
If I sound patronising I certainly don't mean to be. It's just that I get this rather shamefaced style of writing whenever I enjoy a film enormously instead of merely appreciating it.