With the idiosyncratic American fable Harold and Maude, countercultural director Hal Ashby fashioned what would become the cult classic of its era. Working from a script by Colin Higgins, Ashby tells the story of the emotional and romantic bond between a death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) from a wealthy family and a devil-may-care, bohemian octogenarian (Ruth Gordon). Equal parts gallows humor and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with the ones that separate people by class, gender, and age, and it features indelible performances and a remarkable soundtrack by Cat Stevens.
'Harold and Maude' is one of the greatest love stories ever told. While I let that sink in for a moment, I'll add this is, of course, strictly my personal opinion. It's not some dyed-in-the-wool absolute that everyone is expected to agree with but don't be surprised if I suddenly question your taste in movies for not seeing things my way. I simply love Hal Ashby's 1971 cult film, and I have ever since I first discovered it as a teenager. Over the years, and after countless repeat viewings, the most recent being about two months ago with live entertainment at the Alberta Rose Theatre in downtown Portland, I've come to appreciate the real beauty and genius hiding beneath Colin Higgins's original script.
Ostensibly, the story is one of the most unusual and quirky tales of love and friendship, which in effect challenges our understanding of those two abstract ideals. Harold (terrifically gloomy Bud Cort) is a well-to-do kid with suicidal tendencies, while Maude (the absolutely delightful Ruth Gordon) is a carefree 79-year-old woman who lives every day by trying something new. He performs elaborate grisly acts of death to get a rise out of his haughty, domineering, and indifferent mother (Vivian Pickles), as well as terrify prospective brides. She blatantly disregards the rules of the world in favor of a life with endless excitement and surprise, which extends to her fearless view of death. The two eventually meet because they both enjoy attending the funerals of strangers.
From that synopsis, we could reasonably describe the film as a dark romcom, particularly when we consider the same strange hobby which brings them together, but the narrative actually digs deeper than the bond this peculiar pair forms. The romance shared by the titular characters is not the physical attraction customary to romantic-comedies — though they do have one funny scene of intimacy that includes blowing bubbles while lying in bed. No, their love is a spiritual connection that transcends age or any socially-imposed boundaries. Their curious relationship grows from how much joy they bring each other and from their unique outlook on life in general. On the surface, they're the most outrageously mismatched couple we've ever seen, but upon closer inspection, and by removing our pretensions of normalcy, we discover there's never been a more perfect match.
Where the film becomes a more profound and meditative motion picture, functioning as a cleverly subtle social commentary on the turbulent Vietnam era, has a great deal to do with our free-spirited heroine. Her background and history — the reasons behind her untroubled and breezy attitude — are a complete mystery until the moment we see the tattoo on her arm. The connection between the two takes on a deeper meaning as two distant generations of war find common ground. Only, Maude serves as a reminder and example for cherishing every moment, contrasting the nihilistic pessimism growing within the youth culture of the period, which Harold stands to represent. Her inner beauty and influence reveals to him that we are responsible for creating our own sense of purpose and meaning even in something as silly as learning the banjo.
By now, my initial comment that 'Harold and Maude' is one of the greatest love stories ever told should have sunk in. And I have my reasons for believing that, even if only a few were to agree. Hal Ashby's film of a very unique affair between a mismatched pair of outcasts is one which entertains with a dark sense of humor, challenging our preconceived notions of a loving relationship. But Colin Higgins's fable digs further as an intelligent and profoundly insightful response to the morbid cynicism of the Vietnam era, which unfortunately grew progressively worse as the war dragged on. 'Harold and Maude' lives on as a much-beloved cult classic that still rings true today. One of these days, I will learn the banjo and build my own black hearse-hybrid, but with a 1968 Camaro SS in the front instead of the Jaguar XKE sportscar. It'll happen. I promise.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Harold and Maude' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #608) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is an illustrated 37-page booklet with an insightful essay entitled "Life and How to Live It" by journalist Matt Zoller Seitz. It also features a curious reprint of a 1971 New York Times article by Leticia Kent and two separate conversations with cast and crew conducted by James Rogers of the Colin Higgins Trust. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According the accompanying booklet, the original camera negative of 'Harold and Maude' was too severely damaged for a proper scan, so it had to be wet-gated and a new 35mm interpositive was created. The results are marvelous, giving fans the best possible presentation of the classic comedy ever before seen on home video.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the AVC-encoded transfer displays wonderfully deep, true blacks, but shadows on occasion engulf minor background info during interior scenes. It's not a wholly distracting issue, but it's noticeable in several spots. Contrast levels are accurate and well-balanced, pretty much as one would expect from a film of this age or of the era. The color palette is brighter and fuller, especially in the primaries. Definition and clarity are also a tremendous upgrade, revealing plenty of texture and fine lines around faces, clothing and inside Maude's railway car home. A few, forgivable sequences show their age with slightly poorer resolution, but overall, the extensive restoration efforts pay off with first-rate high-def video.
Things only get better, with Criterion offering two uncompressed PCM soundtracks — the original monaural or a stereo track. Either choice is a winner, but surprisingly, the latter seems to take a slight edge because Cat Stevens' music feels fuller and more encompassing. Dialogue remains clear and crisp in the center of the screen, but every time a song comes in, the soundstage suddenly opens up and pulls the listener into the moment. Minor discrete effects are clearly audible in the background, which also broaden the imaging and give the lossless mix a great deal of presence. Dynamic range and acoustics are sharply detailed with plenty of low bass, making the music that much more palpable.
Supplements in this Blu-ray are shared with its DVD counterpart.
With remarkable performances by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, 'Harold and Maude' remains a splendidly entertaining comedy about the most unlikely couple you'll ever encounter. From an original script by Colin Higgins, Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic goes beyond a heartwarming fable about enjoying life's surprises and offers an intelligent response to the growing cynicism of the Vietnam era. This Blu-ray edition of the film from The Criterion Collection features a marked improvement in video and audio, but supplemental material is in short supply. Nonetheless, the overall package is wonderful, sure to please fans everywhere.