This film brought together a great team of actors, Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and was also May’s directorial debut. Broke playboy Matthau needs to get married to make some money, and, having borrowed $50,000 from his uncle and former guardian, gives himself 6 weeks to find a rich woman to marry or lose everything. After wining and dining several rich girls, he finds shy, nerdy professor Henrietta, who has the added attraction of having no family to inherit her wealth. They marry quickly, and the idea of murdering her for her money is never far from his mind.
The film was initially three hours long, and Robert Evans (who everyone knows as the infamous cokehead producer who brought out Chinatown and The Godfather and wrote a memoir about this era, The Kid Stays in the Picture) basically fired May. She tried to have her directorial credit removed but was unsuccessful. Her version was supposedly a much darker film, with two murders, but in the edited version, as the film’s Wikipedia entry puts it, “they literally walk off into the sunset together as birds sing and twee music plays.” In other words, the film is a compromised version of May’s original vision.
Supposedly the budget doubled during the making of the film, a problem she would face again during the making of Ishtar. And when May refused to show Paramount a rough cut of the film ten months into the editing process, it’s not hard to see why she ended up losing the project.
A New Leaf appeared in the same year as Harold & Maude, Bananas and M.A.S.H., and just didn’t have the quirky, slightly darker edge of these comedies. So despite having a Golden Globe nominations, a reasonably good critical reception and a big Radio Music Hall run, it was a flop. It would be quite interesting to see if the cut footage exists, and if a “director’s cut” could be constructed, because the last act really suffers. Evans clearly thought himself an auteur when working as a producer, and his confidence was misplaced.
Matthau was at the peak of his powers as an actor at this point, with the classic The Odd Coupleand his ‘60s comedies behind him. His move into darker film roles really began with A New Leaf. May is also great, able to pull off a geeky female character before that was a well-known cliché. This is a new high-definition transfer with image restoration by Eureka, on Blu-Ray. The only special features are a film essay by critic David Cairns and a 32-page booklet with new and old writing on the film.