Harold And Maude Review
Harold And Maude is one of the most unexpectedly charming films ever made. In summary it sounds grotesque, but the magic of the film is how it avoids slipping into the abyss of what Mel Brooks called "bad bad taste", around which it so delicately hovers. Instead, it's constantly funny, strangely poignant and, ultimately, life-enhancing.
The splendidly odd Bud Cort (an actor who should have had a better career) plays Harold, a young man dominated by his appalling mother and fascinated with death. For fun, he fakes suicide attempts and attends the funerals of strangers. His mother, a society matron who embodies all the worst aspects of borgeois complacency, is getting to the end of her tether and decides that Harold must either be married as soon as possible or packed off into the army under the care of his maniacally militaristic Uncle Victor. However, fate takes a hand in Harold's destiny when he meets, at a funeral, the equally bizarre Maude (Gordon), a 79 year old woman who believes that the freedom of the individual spirit should be placed above anything else. This manifests itself in cheerfully bad behaviour in public, such as stealing cars and digging up trees to be replanted in the forest. Maude gets away with it because she's so brazen about it - no-one seems to believe that this old lady could really be doing anything wrong. Harold and Maude are two lost souls who find, in each other, connection, affection and, eventually, love.
Now, most other Hollywood films would become tediously bogged down in soap-operatics at this point, as the couple's love is frowned upon by society and they are torn apart with tragic consequences. But that doesn't happen in this movie. All this melodrama is in there, around the edges, but Hal Ashby and the writer Colin Higgins choose to focus on the wonderfully off-beat couple and celebrate their relationship as the triumph of the individual over the repressions of middle class culture. Ruth Gordon makes Maude more than just a whimsical old lady and finds an undercurrent of sadness that is complemented by Bud Cort's ironic melancholy as Harold. What stops the film tipping over into sentimental slush is the black comedy that keeps erupting - this was one of Hal Ashby's specialities in his early work, balancing the poignant with the absurd as he did so brilliantly in The Last Detail. Much mileage is gained from Harold's disastrous meetings with the computer dates his mother has selected for him; the girls in question are slightly discouraged by Harold's little quirks, like apparantly setting himself on fire or cutting his arm off. In a nice touch, the last girl he meets is an actress who finds Harold's bloody demonstration of ritual suicide sexually exciting - sadly, by this time, Harold has already made up his mind to marry Maude and propose on her 80th birthday.
There are some flaws in this film, although it's easy to forgive anything which is so original, including the obvious cuts made to get it to ninety minutes. The respected Irish actor Cyril Cusack (best known as the gunsmith in Day of The Jackal) is fourth billed but appears on screen for about two seconds, and I suspect his scenes would have fleshed out Maude's day to day existence. I'm also not too sure about Vivien Pickles' performance as Harold's mother. She's funny, but she's also a laughable caricature and tends to go for easy laughs. It's in her scenes that you see the vulgar side of Colin Higgins' writing that dominates his later scripts for Nine To Five and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. My other reservation is about Cat Stevens' songs which make up the score. Now, some people run screaming at the first chords of Where Do The Children Play, but even as someone who likes the simple, charming songs in the film, I'm not sure that they actually work in context. They are too saccharine for the black comedy and too false for the emotional side of the film.
But, whatever the flaws might be, there are many memorable scenes in the film. The opening scene, as Cat Stevens' paen to individual freedom accompanies Harold hanging himself; the encounter with the motorcycle cop; the dinner in the midst of the demolition site; and the extraordinarily moving ending, all the more affecting for being so low key and shot without dialogue. Hal Ashby's loose, fresh and deceptively simple directoral style is perfect for this material and John Alonzo's sharp cinematography - good at both the vast expanse of the scenic locations and the low-light clutter of the interiors - is similarly imaginative. The well paced editing means that the jokes are hit and then left, a technique which seems to have become less common in recent comedies, where every gag is done to death with supposedly hysterical and pointless reaction shots.
The real triumph of the film, however, is to take a subject that many people find deeply tasteless (a reaction mercilessly parodied in the film by the reaction of the local Priest) and turn it into something rather beautiful. Ashby skirts around the more physical aspects of the relationship (the couple do have sex, but we are spared the explicit details), a decision which was probably wise but which does sometimes look, in retrospect, like something of a compromise. What he does communicate though, quite clearly, is the message that love isn't something that is turned on and off at will, but an emotion which expresses itself in myriad, sometimes unexpected ways. It's a familiar message, but the film expresses it with such freshness that it comes up as both joyously optimistic and even a little bit profound.
Considering that this film is something of a cult favourite in America, Paramount haven't exactly gone to town with the DVD release. But at the end of the day it's good that the film is available at all - it hasn't been available in Britain in any format for a long time.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1. The aspect ratio is not stated on the case, but it's certainly less than 1.85:1 and it looks as if the film was actually made full screen and then matted for cinema release. The framing is fine, and the quality of the image is generally good. The opening Paramount logo is in appalling condition and put me on tenterhooks, but the rest of the film is much better. There is a slight grain to the image throughout, but this is only really noticable in selected scenes, and the darker interiors look very good, without any serious artifacting. Colours are rich and well saturated and the definition is generally acceptable. One or two scene look a bit soft, but this isn't a major problem. Considering the age of the film and the quality of the print used (which has some slight damage in places), this is very pleasing.
The soundtrack isn't as pleasing. There are three options - English and French mono tracks and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The mono tracks are rather muddy and some of Ruth Gordon's dialogue is difficult to hear. The 5.1 remix is slightly puzzling. Firstly, why did anyone think this film was a prime candidate for the wonders of 5.1 ? Secondly, the remix only really affects the songs, which admittedly sound great, and some of the dialogue. Otherwise, most of the sound is oriented around the centre channel. I would rather have had a cleaned up version of the original mono soundtrack personally.
The only extras on the disc are two theatrical trailers, one of which is done in bizarre jump cut style. The other is more conventional, but still misrepresents the film as a sick, laugh a minute black comedy (which, to be honest, it isn't). There are a generous 26 chapter stops and static menus.
Harold And Maude was very popular on its release but doesn't seem to have been remembered as fondly as it deserves to be. It's a minor cult favourite, but it deserves wider recognition as one of the films which make this period of Hollywood history so wonderful. The DVD presents the film well and perhaps the lack of extras does serve to emphasise the fact that this is the sort of film which you will either find easy to brush off or find affecting on a strangely personal level. In this respect, I think it reminds me most of the recent Rushmore, a film which resembles this one in a number of ways. Harold And Maude is certainly worth considering if you like your films to be a little bit off-centre.
Since writing this review in the spring of 2001, the film has been released on DVD in the UK. My other comments stand and I have no hesitation in offering a hearty recommendation.