Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) is a madly egocentric and overly amorous avant-garde concert pianist who is hilariously pursued all around New York City by two fourteen-year-old fans. The girls, Valarie "Val" Campbell Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian "Gil" Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) chase a harassed Henry all over the city, thwarting his afternoon liaisons with a married woman and leaving utter chaos behind them - until Val's sexually promiscuous mother, Isabel (Dame Angela Lansbury), appears on the scene to put a stop to the girls' shenanigans.Written by
Peter Sellers may be the bait, but two girls supply the hook that keeps this coming-of-age comedy in people's minds 40 years on.
Sellers has the title role as Henry Orient, a pianist more interested in practicing his lines than his scales, but the film's focus is on a lonely young Manhattanite named Gil (Merrie Spaeth) and her new pal Val (Elizabeth "Tippy" Walker), two adolescents who decide to make Val's crush on Orient into the secret center of an adventure-filled friendship.
"Henry Orient" is a film of two parts co-existing uneasily at times. Val and Gil's bond occupies the realm of real life, with Walker and Spaeth giving spot-on performances that seem spontaneous and alive to every moment. The best scene in the movie by far, very much in line with the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in the same year's "Hard Day's Night," shows the pair running along a city block, "splitzing" over fire hydrants and tryke-riding boys, their eyes alight with joy as they literally rise over their city surroundings. It's a captivating exercise in what scholars would call "pure cinema." If the rest of the film doesn't rise to that level, it never entirely disappoints, either.
Sellers' sequences are weaker. He's actually quite enjoyable to watch, doing one of his best voice performances as a Brooklynite who affects a French-Italian accent to charm the ladies (listen carefully and you will hear his Brooklyn undertone throughout) but he and Paula Prentiss as the married object of his desires seem to be in a completely different movie, playing a broad farce at odds with the real, sometimes gut-wrenching tone of the rest of the film.
This could be a bigger problem but for Elmer Bernstein's lilting yet driving score, featuring one of the most arresting themes I've heard in film, which seems to carry Val and Gil from one delirious moment to the next with complete abandon while allowing room for darker, contemplative passages. Director George Roy Hill had a gift for employing music at the right moment (see "The Sting"), and the score of "Henry Orient" is a secret strength as it skates over the thinner plot elements.
More obviously a strength is the script by Nora and Nunnelly Johnson, which really captures a sense of how young people talk, goofily, quickly and all-at-once, skipping over the stuff that doesn't matter, like when Val and Gil first meet at their ritzy school. Val asks Gil if she likes being there.
Gil tries to be diplomatic: "They say it's the finest girls' school in the country." "I don't, either," says Val.
Or the priceless exchange they have when taking out a cigarette butt they cadged off of Orient's table during a midday stalk. "No filter!" "He's not scared." One wishes the film found more to draw Orient and his youthful admirers together, though the detour into the state of Val's parental relations has merits of its own, especially with Angela Lansbury doing another of her classic nasty-Mommy turns.
While it didn't set the world on fire in 1964 and, like its young stars, slipped off the radar screen too soon after its premiere, "Henry Orient" remains an engaging glimpse at American youth post-Salinger but pre-Beatles. Sidewalk placards still advertise color TV, while a rich girl's idea of rebellious fashion sense involves wearing a plaid skirt with a mink coat. Trends come and go, but feelings of the kind celebrated in "The World Of Henry Orient" live on.
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