"Harry and Tonto" is Paul Mazursky's road movie about an old man and his cat. But more than that, it's a story about about life and change.
Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is a seventy-two year old, retired school teacher and widower. He lives alone in his Manhattan apartment with Tonto, his cat and closest companion. He spends most of his day talking about life with his friends, Tonto always by his side. His neighborhood is, as Harry states it to Tonto, "becoming run-down". He's been mugged four times in the past year. Still, he loves his neighborhood and enjoys the company of his city friends, but alas, his building is on the slate to be demolished. Resistant to the very end, with the rock-solid determination that only a seventy-two year man can muster, Harry and his furniture are carried out of the building by police who are also kind enough to chase-down the hoodlum who recently mugged him.
Harry's son, Burt, gladly takes-in Harry and Tonto allowing them to live with him and his dysfunctional family in suburban Long Island. Life with Burt and his family, away from the city, prove a difficult adjustment for Harry. A failed apartment hunt and the heartbreaking death of Harry's good friend, Jacob, prove a turning point in Harry's life. With nothing but a couple of suitcases, his fedora, his social security and Tonto, Harry sets-out on a journey to experience life and the world he never could as a younger man.
On their way to Los Angeles to see Harry's son, Eddie (Larry Hagman), Harry and Tonto meet a colorful and varied cast of characters including: Ginger, a sixteen-year-old runaway; Jessie, Harry's (now senile) high school sweetheart; Harry's daughter, Shirley (played by Ellen Burstyn); a "snake oil" salesman; a traveling prostitute named Stephanie; Sam Two-Feathers (Chief Dan George), an indian medicine man who cures Harry's bursitis. Eventually, Harry and Tonto make it to Los Angeles where they find that Eddie is a financially ruined wreck. We are also confronted with a heartbreaking loss.
Throughout "Harry and Tonto" Harry reflects on his life and the changing world around him, Tonto seems to listen. Harry and Tonto have a relationship unlike any pet-owner relationship ever seen on screen. Tonto is more than Harry's pet, and Harry more than Tonto's owner. They are true and loving friends, when Harry talks, Tonto listens. Not as a pet, but as a confident, a sidekick, an equal. The loss at the end of the film is truly, truly heartbreaking. This is especially poignant when you learn that Art Carney did not like cats, but being the consummate performer that he was, he are convinced of Harry's love for Tonto.
Paul Mazursky had under his belt the successes of "Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice" (1969), "Alex in Wonderland" (1970), and "Blume in Love" (1973), all of which were films that examined the changing times and reflected the open attitudes of the period. "Harry and Tonto" seems to step-back a little and look at the changing world through the looking glass of an aging man who sees the changes not as a participant, but as an observer with a seasoned eye.
All of the performances, just about without exception are perfect. They are just what they're supposed to be. Art Carney, who found fame playing Ralph Cramden's foolish neighbor, proves his worth with this film. He was made for the role, and the role written just for him. The relationship between Harry and Tonto, Harry's reflections and digressions about the past, the present, and the meaning of life, along with Bill Conti's beautiful soundtrack make "Harry and Tonto" a tear jerker. Harry reminds you of your grandfather, and with that, all of the emotions attached are used by Mazursky to bring-out the audience's sympathy and emotional grounding. The only type of person who can view "Harry and Tonto" and not have tears in their eyes by the end are sociopaths.
With that, I recommend "Harry and Tonto" to anybody... ANYBODY.