Our review of Harold and Maude (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published July 5th, 2012, is also available.
If you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free.
Harold Chasen is your typical disillusioned youth. His favorite passtime is tormenting his domineering mother with elaborate mock suicides and converting expensive Jaguars so they look like souped-up Hearses. Well, Harold's mother has decided that it is time he did something with his life and assumed some responsibility. His mother has decided it is time for Harold to get married. Prospective dates come and prospective dates go, usually screaming out of the house. But when he least expects it Harold does meet his perfect someone in the form of Maude. Harold meets Maude at a funeral and in the process of getting to know each other, Maude teaches Harold what it means to live. So Harold has decided he wants to marry Maude. The only problem being is Maude turns 80 in a couple of days.
To try and describe everything that goes on in this movie is to ruin the surprises that it holds. It is equal parts funny and equal parts wise. It is also one of my personal favorites in a genre of films that is very subjective in taste: the black comedy.
Black comedies are always a risky venture, but for me, this movie scores on a pretty consistent basis. It goes in quite a few directions most movies today would not dream of.
When people say they don't make movies like they used to, I sometimes think they should say, they can't make movies like they used to. Harold And Maude is a pretty good example of that. The plot of a suicidal 21-year-old who meets, falls in love and makes love to an 80 year old woman is not exactly the pitch these days that would get a screenwriter the three picture deal with a back end on international distribution rights that they so dearly hope for. Harold and Maude dates back to 1971, when there were no real hard and fast rules about what could and could not be done. Films were made in accordance with the wishes of its creators and not at the whims of a test screening audience. It was a purer art form then and movies like Harold And Maude stand as proof.
Screenwriter Higgens would go on to bigger, more commercial successes but with Harold And Maude he would pen his edgiest, darkest material. With his classic set of outsiders, one at the beginning of life, not knowing how to love and one at the end of life hoping to love one more time, he would give birth to one of the most original screen couples ever created. His words ring with a true kind of sweetness and his situations flow with a sense of the natural, no small feat in a movie that is sometimes quite outrageous. Its a beautiful and well crafted screenplay.
The movie is helped in no small fashion by the direction of Hal Ashby. Ashby was no slouch in the filmmaking department, with his movies looking good and moving at a deliberate pace. His true gift though was with the way he handled his actors. Can anyone tell me if David Carradine was ever better than in Bound For Glory? In the later stage of his career would Peter Sellers produce stronger work than as Chance the Gardener in Being There? Or would Ruth Gordon (My Bodyguard, Where's Poppa?, Rosemary's Baby) give a more rounded performance than as Maude in Harold And Maude? I think the answer to all three of those questions is a big no. Ashby had a wonderful talent for keeping his actors honest and drawing out the truth in their roles. His best films were never flashy, just warm, wonderful slices of life and character.
As I mentioned, Ruth Gordon is quite good as the elderly free spirit Maude. Gordon was an actress with a limited bag of tricks that would often wear thin quickly. Here though she just seems so right. All of the mannerisms that she would like to use are held in check and used to good effect. Her creation of Maude is, to my mind anyway, the pinnacle of her film career.
As the other half of the films romantic duo Bud Cort (Dogma, Brewster McCloud, M*A*S*H), is wonderful as Harold. He has such a childish glee in tormenting his mother and his potential brides with each faux suicide that he is impossible not to like. He is like a long lost puppy dog with the most expressive and sad eyes that when Maude actually gets him to smile, I found myself smiling with him. He is the center of the movie and his performance is the key to its success.
In support and as the mother from Hell, Vivian Pickles (Candleshoe, O Lucky Man!, The Looking Glass War), is hysterical as the calm, clueless Mrs. Chasen. While the character would be forgotten if played as simple caricature, Pickles and Higgens make her truly care for Harold. It is her love and concern for her son that make the portrayal really work. Again nothing flashy just solid, well written, well directed and well acted work from seasoned professionals.
Rounding out the actors is Charles Tyner (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Longest Yard) as Harold's Uncle Victor. Part of Mrs. Chasen's plan to make Harold into a man is to get him into the army. Uncle Victor is a one star general who is not only unpopular at the Pentagon (he thinks we need to keep fighting "good wars" like those with the Germans), but is also a bit of a loon. The plan that Harold and Maude come up with to keep Harold out of service is one of the highlights of the film.
Paramount has done a 5.1 remix for Harold And Maude and it actually sounds pretty good. It is certainly a front loaded mix with the surrounds being used to limited but good effect. Dialogue is never a problem with the mix being distortion free and the songs from Cat Stevens, which make up the movie's soundtrack, sound great. Paramount also provides the movies original mono soundtrack. It's not a bad sounding soundtrack but I did prefer the 5.1 because of the greater fidelity it showed.
The discs only extras were the film's two original theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As has been common practice of late Paramount has given Harold And Maude a brand new anamorphic transfer. It maintains the films theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but it is far from a perfect job. The film has not aged well with problems running all the way through it. There are lots of nicks and scratches with quite a bit of film grain present throughout. Colors often look muted and washed out with there also being a slight degree of edge enhancement rearing its ugly head. The film needed some serious restoration and Paramount dropped the ball.
Harold And Maude is a Paramount catalogue title so we all know what that means. No special features or extras to speak of. I know most of the principals have passed on but still, could we have not gotten at least some kind of making of featurette. Is it really too much to ask for?
As for the style of film Harold And Maude is, well, the humor in black comedies is very subjective by nature. So as for the film's laughs, your mileage may vary.
Harold And Maude…a great movie that is both very warm and funny. The disc itself is short on extras and the picture could have been better. It sounds good though and has a place of pride on my shelf as one of my all-time favorite movies.
I would think if you have never seen Harold And Maude before, its a solid rental. If you laugh as much as I do, then by all means, pick it up.
Harold And Maude is acquitted of all charges. Paramount is thanked for dipping into its vaults and releasing one of my favorite movies. I just wish they had done some restoration for it, not to mention doing some work on a documentary of some sort. Case dismissed.
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