Harry and Tonto: A man and his cat on the road

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 19, 2019 12:01 hrs

Paul Mazursky’s 1974 film follows a 70-year-old and his cat’s cross-country journey as they discover individuals of various dispositions

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need. You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as age, wretched in both.”

This line from Shakespeare’s King Lear might seem like an anomaly in a 1974 Hollywood dramedy about a modern day odyssey of a retired English teacher and his cat. However, in the hands of director Paul Mazursky and actor Art Carney, this urban reworking of Lear (minus all the killing) is a befitting tribute to old age and the yearning to continue onward till death knocks.

Harry and Tonto traces the life of septuagenarian widower and retired English teacher Harry Coombes (Art Carney) as he is evicted from his New York apartment building so it can be razed for a parking lot.

Harry has lived at the apartment with his faithful cat Tonto for years and is the sort of guy who has no intention of fading into the twilight. Although he misses his late wife Annie, Harry is glad to be alive. Like a latter day Hume, he enjoys chatting with his good friend Rivetowksi, an ageing radical who hates capitalism. Harry is a bundle of contradictions, a curmudgeon who likes to quip as well as a sagacious man who sees all things and all peoples with glint of sadness.

As he is evicted from his home, Harry claims a kinship with King Lear: “He gave up his real estate too.” As he protests his eviction the cops are forced to carry him out in a chair.

His son Burt invites Harry to his suburban home but witnessing the dysfunction in his son’s family Harry opts to move out. In an amusing little scene, Harry asks his grandson, who has taken a vow of silence, if he does drugs.

What follows are a series of vignettes of Harry travel travails as he attempts to go to Chicago through Las Vegas and eventually reaching Los Angeles to the American west coast.

Throughout his episodic journey, Harry meets all sorts of characters, from a Bible-quoting hitchhiker, an underage runaway, a cowboy who sells vitamins and electric blenders, a happy hooker who rides with her trusted dog, and an American Indian tribesman who heals Harry’s ailing shoulder. Harry visits his daughter (played by the inimitable Ellen Burstyn), who runs a bookstore and shares a bristly but mutually affectionate relationship with her father.

Harry even takes time to visit an old sweetheart (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who is now housed at a retirement home and barely remembers him at all.

Throughout this journey, Harry’s only sure companions are his wit and his trusted cat, Tonto. Not unlike Harry, Tonto too is old (almost eleven). The two are allies in their age and allies further in their undying optimism about the future. Harry seems to have no stated mantra for living but Tennyson’s ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ might fit quite well.

Much of the delight in the film comes from Art Carney who plays Harry. Since the story never drifts away from Harry, the camera is always fixed on Carney who (in real life 15 years younger than the character he was playing) brings a sense of agreeableness with the character. Carney’s makeup, by artist Bob O'Bradovich, is so effective that a viewer might not be able to identify him as being only a decade older than some of the actors playing his children.

And yet, armed with director Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld, Carney depicts Harry as both tolerant and ill-tempered simultaneously a kind old man and stubborn old fool.

Harry and Tonto is often remembered these days for Art Carney’s win at the Academy Awards beating out Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) for the 1974 Best Actor Oscar.

This is a quiet, unassuming film, the sort whose modest budget and naturalistic tenor will bring the viewer along to see the world as Harry sees it without ever spelling what his views are.

The journey that is seen in Harry and Tonto gives the viewer a sense that this isn’t an ordinary road movie but a sort of farewell journey that one might take with a warm and cheery old man who in old age is capable of being grateful for the small surprises that life might offer. The achievement is partly Mazursky’s, partly Carney’s and partly Tonto’s.

P.S. Carney had noted that prior to his work in Harry and Tonto he "never liked cats".

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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