This film is note-perfect in every scene. Paul Mazursky always cut to the heart of things and this sort of movie is directly up my cat-loving, cinematic alley. I’ve watched this film a few times and each time I love it even more and I find new things to get excited about. Sentimental and very effective at making you cry but never not without honest intent and clear-eyed purpose, Harry & Tonto is about the power of the human spirit, about the enjoyment of interaction with others, and how there can be an intrinsic bond between a person and a feline that can make the heart grow in exponential ways.
But for every moment where you feel that Mazursky might be going for the emotional jugular too often, you never forget that the entire piece was done with such honesty, and each scene feels real and tangible, so there’s no sense in trying to resist. And to think that Art Carney beat Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) at the Oscars for Best Actor back in the day – look at that murderer’s row of talent! And guess what? Carney’s role of an old man travelling the country with his orange tabby cat by his side as he looks to reconnect with family members may not have been the flashiest of sexiest choice in the room, but it’s a performance that encapsulates all that’s potentially good about a person, and how there are some of us who are inherently kind and favor an different view of the world than the rest of us.
Mazursky was always interested in what it was to be a human being, and how the circumstances around his characters dictated their motivations and decisions, rather than arbitrary plotting setting the mood and tone. Harry & Tonto is an absolutely wonderful movie that deals with the human condition in a very humble and gracious way, and the film is yet another reminder that the 70’s produced some of the absolute best American films ever crafted. And then there’s the cat! Ohhhh that cat! You just can’t believe what they got that cat to do, or, more accurately, what the cat gave them and allowed them to film. It’s just incredible to observe, and I think it’s VERY clear where the Coen brothers got their inspiration for the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis.
And you know what else I loved about this movie? Every single actor who had a speaking part got to display a believable character. You got to know everyone in this film, doesn’t matter if it’s only for a moment, or if the character is just someone sitting on a bus eating a sandwich. The way the film was constructed allowed for the smallest bits of character to float to the surface, creating a rich tapestry of people, places, feelings, and memories. If you’re not familiar with this rarely discussed movie then you owe it yourself to check it out!
Review by Nick Clement