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May 16, 2017

The World of Henry Orient


George Roy Hill - 1964
KL Studio Classics Region 1 DVD

As a student at Yale, George Roy Hill studied music under Paul Hindemith. This may explain why the scene of Henry Orient performing in concert may be a bit longer than it might have been with another director. Only someone with knowledge of music would be able to create a comic scene that gently pokes fun at "avant-garde" music, with a piano solo stretched out due to the ill-rehearsed star not concluding his solo in the correct notes. The performed composition itself takes Elmer Bernstein's lyrical theme heard during the opening credits, and reworks it as a discordant composition.

Hill's film is likewise about harmony and discord. It's not so much Henry Orient's world, but that of two young teenage girls, known by the nicknames of Gil and Val. Gil, the middle class student at an exclusive New York City private school, and Val, the daughter of absentee parents, are two outsiders who discover each other by chance. Their first "adventure" together finds them accidentally discovering Henry Orient in one of his series of failed trysts with a married woman in a hidden section of Central Park. The identity of the man seen at the park, and later at an Italian restaurant, is revealed when Val and Gil are taken to the described concert. Val is infatuated, joined by Gil in observing Orient from not so afar.


The film was adapted from Nora Johnson's first novel, inspired from the author's own youthful infatuation with Oscar Levant. From what I've been able to find out about the novel, published in 1958, is that it takes place during an unspecified time. Had the book been more strictly autobiographical, it might have taken place around 1947. This film, though, takes place in the then present day New York City, albeit cleaner, friendlier and safer. Even if the setting is an idealized New York City, the story is clear eyed about the fragility of relationships between friends, and parents and children.

Coming between Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark, Henry Orient is Peter Sellers in a low-keyed comic performance. Early on, it is revealed that Orient is Brooklyn born, disguising his roots with a vaguely European accent. There is no attempt to hide that Paula Prentiss, as object of Seller's attentions, was slightly taller, if not quite as manic. Two acclaimed cinematographers closely associated with New York City, Boris Kaufman and Arthur Ornitz, are credited. It may be worth noting that about thirty years earlier, Kaufman was the cinematographer for Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduit. A scene with Gil and Val leaping in slow motion in Washington Square park may well have been inspired by Vigo. The film does belong to the two young actresses, Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker, both making their debut here. Spaeth chose not to pursue acting after a couple of roles, while Walker had a short-lived career for about seven years. It's enough that two young women had the talent to briefly outshine the top billed stars.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 16, 2017 09:28 AM