Harry and Tonto (1974) Review

There is something freeing in each and every one of the road movies. Many of them become instant cult films, like Easy RiderBonnie & ClydeVanishing PointThelma & Louise or more recent Mad Max to name a few. There is a joy of exploration, the element of surprise, a rapture of adventure. But there’s also something more sacred to be found on the road. It’s a learning process or a rite of passage if you will. Germans had the term bildungsroman  – an entire genre devoted to the stories where the main dramatic force was depending on the process of coming of age and taking charge of one’s life and destiny. Thanks to the linear narration used in most of the road movies, somehow there is an element of battling or defeating time. Tom Waits used to say: no dog ever pissed on a moving car. The road movie is a natural platform, perfect for film medium – metaphorically both are synecdoches of life. Dramatically it’s almost a promise of change and evolution of the character. It’s a metaphor for the path to self-discovery.

Art Carney playing Harry Combs

Harry Combs is a vibrant and a little cranky New Yorker coping with losing his wife. As a widower, he pretty much depends on the everyday conversations at the nearby square with his friends and neighbours (one of which is unforgettable Riyetowski). Soon into the story, we find out that Harry is about to be relocated by the city officials. The building he’s living in is being torn down. As a sign of protest, Harry refuses to move and chooses to visit his kids before making a permanent decision. One of his last obligations in New York is to identify the corps of departed Riyetkowski. By mistake, Harry is using his own name instead of the deceased. Later on, he ends up on the road identifying himself for the first time in his life. Presence of his beloved cat Tonto seems to be the only unchangeable feature in his life.  In this unique Mazursky’s movie, we have a twist of the counterculture model mentioned earlier. Because the protagonist is in his seventies, we can suspect he knows himself pretty well by now. We can’t rely on cat’s transformation either. But there is something very remarkable how Harry ends up on the road. He didn’t plan it from the start. But once he starts moving, feels the freedom and excitement, he cannot stop. Moving forward is like a drug for him. Harry and his attitude prove it’s never too late to experience life. It’s one of the first movies to explore the subject of elderly people in the nuclear family model. And The Pacific Ocean serves as a final frontier.

Harry and Tonto is a sentimental journey. Harry is cranky but witty and humble, he doesn’t pretend to know everything. While talking to a hitchhiker on their way to Chicago he admits: I don’t know how it is to be 16 these days (she replies: me neither). That shows respect and restraint. Harry embodies the trans-generation dignity and hails the humanity. His journey can be either read as a sign of courage or running away. Mazursky, being the great humanist of the screen, managed to paint this fissioned experience flawlessly. It’s an intimate portrait of senility or second childhood wrapped up in a road movie convention. The movie has a quality of a documentary. Mazursky, always interested in examining the human condition, was so accurate it’s almost unbelievable he based the script solely on observations. An Unmarried Woman (1978) was the other example of his bold simulation of an experience he knew nothing about first hand.

The film was really well received by critics. They praised Mazursky for finally giving up on being American Fellini and settling on just being an American film director. As if the public urged him to explore his own backyard more. Due to the Oscar-winning by Art Carney and a second screenplay nomination for Mazursky, he (with his co-writer Josh Greenfield) wrote a novel based on the script. It was published on January 28th, 1974 by E P Dutton.

During the sit down with David Poland (DP/30: The Oral History Of Hollywood), Mazursky shared some anecdotes concerning working with Art Carney. Apparently, the actor warned Mazursky that he hates cats and animals in general. The only pet he could agree on was his pet rock he kept in his bedroom drawer (“it don’t piss, it don’t crap” he said). After approximately 8 weeks of shooting Art was in love with the cat and they really did become best buddies. The director also said that he never directed Carney stating: “when you have gold…let gold alone“. Casting the movie was not an easy process. First Mazursky (writer and director) thought of James Cagney for the main role but he retired then. The same thing happened with the next best choice – Cary Grant. The third actor, who already agreed on playing Harry’s part, was James Stewart.  Eventually, Mazursky turned him down. Finally, the role was offered to Art Carney. At first, he was offended by this proposition as he felt he was way too young to play the part – Carney was 59 at the time. Ultimately he took it and as they say: the rest is history. And it really is… To this day every conversation about Harry and Tonto brings up the 1975 Oscars’ Awards and Carney’s winning a statue for Best Performance by an Actor in the Leading Role. He won that year beating Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (Godfather II), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) which to this day causes quite a stir.

In the research process for this review, I came across some interesting websites, like this one for example Cinema Cats Website.


©  2018 Anna Jozwiak

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