Criterion // 1971 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // July 5th, 2012
They were meant to be. But what exactly they were meant to be is not quite clear.
Like a weirder, darker cousin of The Graduate, Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude makes its excellent Blu-ray debut courtesy of the good people at the Criterion Collection.
Harold (Bud Cort, The Life Aquatic) is a young man with a death fetish, constantly faking/fantasizing his own suicide. Maude (Ruth Gordon, Rosemary's Baby) is a 79-year-old woman whose outlook on life is the polar opposite of Harold's: she does what she wants, when she wants and embraces being alive with everything she's got. They're an unlikely couple, but sometimes love is like that.
On paper, Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude seems so obvious: a young man with years ahead of him but who wants to die learns to appreciate life thanks to an 80-year-old woman who still loves being alive even though she is, in her own words, on her way out. There are so many different ways this material could be handled, and so many ways it could go wrong (the romance between a kid and an octogenarian might make for cheap laughs -- and, if the movie were made today, probably would be handled exactly that way) that it's amazing just how delicate, sweet, and special Harold and Maude ends up being.
Ashby, a gifted filmmaker whose career was ruined by addiction before being cut short entirely, isn't known for being a particularly formalist director. His movies are often somewhat shapeless, more content to hang out and present interesting characters and ideas than to be locked down by style. Harold and Maude is one of the exceptions, though -- there's a reason I referred to it as a darker cousin of The Graduate. It focuses on a young man adrift within his family and society at large. A relationship forms between the young man and an older woman. The photography, while not quite as stylized as what Nichols was doing in 1967, certainly owes something to The Graduate. A single songwriter fills the soundtrack; instead of Simon and Garfunkel, here it's (the artist formerly known as) Cat Stevens, whose songs give the movie an air of beautiful melancholy and, ultimately, optimism. A movie that's all about bucking what's conventionally accepted and doing your own thing adopts "If you want to sing out, sing out" as its anthem.
Of course, so much of the movie's charm is thanks to its performances. Again, it would seem that so much of what Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are doing is easy -- sullen young man and daffy senior, respectively. But writing off their characters as just "types" is to a disservice to what interesting people both actors create; Gordon is more than just a kook, and Cort is more than just a depressed or odd kid. What makes the performances really work, though, is that the sum of the characters is more than the parts -- they work best together, and sell us on the idea that these two could actually be in love and fill in the missing pieces in one another's lives. It's no easy task getting the audience to overlook what's significantly different about both the characters and the actors (namely, their age) and just get us to buy into the emotional connection they form. The movie very quickly surpasses its own gimmick and becomes about the two characters, and the two leads deserve a lot of the credit for that.
If you weren't already convinced of its classic status, Harold and Maude has now been designated so by the Criterion Collection with this new Blu-ray release. As the gold standard of home video for decades now, it's difficult to find a Criterion title that doesn't offer the best possible presentation of a movie. Their work on Harold and Maude is no different; the AVC-encoded, 1.85:1/1080p HD transfer looks incredibly film-like, with a healthy layer of grain over everything, no digital tinkering and deep, natural colors. The movie has the kind of hazy softness that was prevalent in '70s cinema, but that's true to the source and not a function of an especially soft transfer. There are two LCPM audio tracks included: one stereo and one mono. Both are lossless and are actually difficult to distinguish from one another; the mono might be more faithful to the original theatrical presentation, but the stereo carries a little bit more weight behind it. Because the dialogue is consistently handled well, viewers really can't go wrong with either track.
Criterion has put together a commentary track over the movie with Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles Mulvehill that's very informative, covering the history of the movie and various aspects of production. The two men avoid being too dry or stiff in their discussion, and anyone interested in delving deeper into Harold and Maude is going to get a lot out of it. Also included is a collection of audio-only interview excerpts from Ashby (recorded in 1972) and writer/producer Colin Higgins (recorded in 1979), a new interview with Yusef (formerly Cat Stevens) and a booklet containing more essays and interviews. It's not as massive a collection of bonus features as some other Criterion releases, but it's all good and does a nice job of rounding out what's special about the movie.
As of this writing, Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is currently in theaters, and it owes a lot to Harold and Maude: both movies are about how love can make life worth living, even if we know we only have a short time together. It's a beautiful message, and one that isn't often acknowledged by the fairy tale romances typically offered by Hollywood. It's part of what makes Harold and Maude special. It is anything but typical.
If you want to sing out, sing out.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG