Shadows in the Cave: The World of Henry Orient

The World of Henry Orient (1964, dir. George Roy Hill)
Starring Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley

When I see George Roy Hill’s name I think of The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I never expected this small, delightful film. This is one of those pictures where New York City is a player along with the actors. There’s that sort of innocent magic about the city as seen through the eyes of our adolescent protagonists. And despite Peter Sellers receiving top billing, this is most definitely not his film. While I love Sellers, I would have hated for his character overshadow the performances of the two young women in the leads. He works perfectly as the awkwardly charismatic pianist paranoid over the two young girls he believes are stalking him. And as life imitates art, Sellers was actually dealing with a real life stalker during the filming of Henry Orient.

Marian (Spaeth) meets Val (Walker) one morning on the first day of school at St. Mary’s. The two hit it off splendidly and Marian quickly learns of Val’s highly imaginative nature and penchant to go on adventures in the city. During an excursion in Central Park, they happen across a man and woman in the throes of passion. The man spies them and they run off. Later the same day, they run into the man again and eventually learn this is Henry Orient (Sellers), a well known avant garde pianist. Val becomes obsessed with him and dreams that she will eventually woo the befuddled man. From Henry’s perspective these two little girls are harbingers of doom and possibly spies for the husband of the woman he is seeing. The film perfectly balances the comedic misunderstandings and the coming of age story that centers around Val. Her parents (Lansbury and Bosley) come into town and we immediately see that Val’s mother exhibits a strong coldness around her.

The film lives and dies on the performances of the two female leads, and thankfully they picked two great unknown actress for the roles. There’s some interesting elements, particularly in the third act that feel very much of the time, but I’d like to think director Hill was going against the grain up until that point in the film. The girls are very much kids, while parents pressure them to socialize with boys, they really have no interest. They would rather play and, when Val does develop a “crush” on Henry, its never done with any seriousness. Its simply a continuation of the imagined world she and Marian have invented. You can tell Hill actually cares about these two and shows them as three dimensional, intelligent young women, not yet bogged down by the seriousness of the adults. Its reflected in how scenes featuring adults in the movie are never as interesting as the ones with the kids.

It’s interesting to note that rather than casting “superstars”, Hill opted to go with two unknowns and Sellers who was famous, but not as much as other comedic actors. Originally, it looked like the three roles would go to Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, and Dick Van Dyke, and while they are all great actors, the film would not feel as special. The movie evoked such strong emotions of happiness from me, reminding me of the way it feels when summer starts to turn to fall and how intimate and safe the worlds you imagine as a youth can feel. The film has been retold with a contemporary slant in Ghost World (the film moreso than the comic book) and a poster for Henry Orient even pops up in that picture. The film’s greatest feat is balancing adult themes and ideas while never diminishing the sense of joy and play. A great picture that deserves to be known by a larger audience.

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