Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Continuing in the string of offbeat 1970s road movies, director/co-writer Paul Mazursky's 1974 film Harry and Tonto turns in a story about a character out to re-discover and re-invent himself during a cross-country journey. Instead of following a younger crowd out for some kicks or the having the main character experiencing a mid-life crisis, however, Mazursky's film follows the journey undertaken by 72-year-old widower Harry Coombs and his pet cat, Tonto, after Harry has been evicted from his New York City apartment. Throughout its duration, the film illustrates a striking contrast between Harry's old-fashioned values and attitudes and those of the various younger people he comes across on his journey, establishing an intriguing portrait of popular mindsets in the mid 1970s.
In the way Harry and Tonto plays out, it almost reminded me of Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop had that film been designed more for popular consumption. Many of the basic ideas of Hellman's film show up to some degree in Harry and Tonto and in many ways both films more or less leave it up to the viewer to "figure out" the message. After being introduced to Harry, rather abruptly he's forced out of his comfortable, solitary life when city officials determine that his apartment building would be of more use if the building was demolished and turned into a parking lot. Finding himself with nowhere to go, Harry winds up staying for a while with his son Burt and his rather dysfunctional family. After causing headaches both for Burt and his wife, Harry sets off to visit his daughter in Chicago on a bus, but eventually buys a car and sets off cross-country on his own.
Like many of the road movies of its day, Mazursky's film throws in plenty of eccentric characters and odd situations, but unlike a film like Vanishing Point which more or less tossed these oddities around in an effort to provide almost Biblical symbolism and give the film a surreal vibe, Mazursky and co-writer Josh Greenfeld seem to be going after a commentary on America's changing values, and the sociological landscape off the country circa the mid 1970s. Harry, of course, is the counterpoint to most of the depictions of younger characters: quite set in his ideologies and at odds to really relate to any of the characters in the film aside from his cat. The film has some very funny moments sprinkled throughout (Harry’s jocular conversations with Tonto almost make it seem like the cat acts as Harry’s conscience), and also some quite dramatic ones, and overall, I found the screenplay to be very heartfelt, (sometimes painfully) realistic, and affecting.
The standoff between Harry's values and those of the younger crowd are perhaps best depicted in a scene detailing his interactions with his grandson Norman, who's first seen following an Eastern-type religion by fasting, remaining virtually silent, and engaging in copious drug use. Harry strikes up a (one-sided) conversation with Norman about his choice of lifestyle, eventually attempting to get on an even playing field with the youth. Despite telling the young man that in his own youth, he did some dumb things as well, the body language of Art Carney as Harry clearly shows that he has no frame of reference to approach Norman’s way of thinking; while Harry is open-minded to many of the indiscretions of the youth, he simply has nothing worthwhile to offer or discuss.
Another interesting interaction in the film involves Harry and a young female hitchhiker he picks up on the road. This young girl, Ginger, has run away from home and is on the way to a commune where she intends to live. Harry never seems to talk down to the girl, or even be overly critical of her decision even though it seems that her ideals are a contradiction to his own. This seems a commendable choice for the screenwriters when so many works would probably have chosen to depict Harry be the moral voice of reason for the wayward girl, instead he seems tolerant of her opinions. It's also interesting that, despite having the girl clearly act as a sort of commentary on Harry's repressed sexual feelings (an idea that shows up several times in the course of the film), Harry makes no attempt to put the moves on the girl. One can almost imagine that if made today, Ginger would act as a Lolita figure to Harry, and that the film would likely go down the road of American Beauty in having Harry attempt a physical relationship with her. Again, I think it's a credit to the script here that Harry doesn't go down this route.
With it poignant commentary on the process of aging and the mindset of its elderly main character, this film obviously would need a strong actor to carry the film, and they've clearly gotten one in Art Carney. Carney's performance precisely captures the subtle eccentricities of the Harry, seeming absolutely authentic and true to the character throughout. I'd have to say that Carney probably was a dark horse candidate for the Oscar for the role, but he absolutely deserved the Best Actor win. Along with Carney is a stellar supporting cast, including Ellen Burstyn as his commandeering daughter, Phil Burns as his frustrated son Burt and Larry Hagman as his emotionally unbalanced playboy son Eddie. I really enjoyed Herbert Berghof as Harry's elderly friend Jacob, a Polish immigrant who's equally quick to criticize both the socialists and capitalists, and who has a really funny scene describing his early sexual encounters. In slightly larger roles are Joshua Mostel, who is quite amusing as the aloof Norman, and Melanie Mayron as Ginger. I found these last two performances especially effective, since its through these two characters that perhaps the most effective observations between Harry and the younger generations are made.
Overall, Harry and Tonto is a universally excellent film. The screenplay is extremely well thought-out, delivering many quirky, enjoyable and poignant scenarios in detailing Harry's process of rediscovering his own life after years of ennui and boredom. There's a couple of hangups here and there: some of the elements seem rather familiar after years of similar “journey of rediscovery” stories in the cinema. There's also the fact that a viewer just knows from the start that this story isn't going to be all sunshine and rainbows throughout, so the expectations for some sort of tragedy are present from the opening frame. Additionally, I found some of the opening scenes to be presented awkwardly, particularly the scene where Harry's apartment is being demolished. This might be the effect director Mazursky was going for, but the scene comes out of nowhere and seems jarring, almost as if an establishing scene had been removed from the final cut of the film. These things aside though, the performances are superb, Michael Butler's cinematography is excellent and seems to capture the flavor of the various locations quite nicely, and Bill Conti's music score is right on the money, often creating a pleasantly nostalgic mood. I can't quite say that this is my favorite road movie of the '70s, but I'd easily call it one of the best and one that most audiences would probably enjoy. It's a sophisticated and subtle effort that requires some investment from the viewer, but Harry and Tonto would certainly be worth your time.
Blood & Guts = Some emotionally wracking scenes
Profanity = Generally, fairly mild
Fap Factor = Ginger gets naked, but, unfortunately, only briefly
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older