Color, 1971, 91m.
Directed by Hal Ashby
Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Ellen Geer
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Paramount (DVD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The same year the outrageous El Topo was making history as the first official midnight movie in America, another watershed cult film that made the career of its director, Hal Ashby. Now considered one of the most important (albeit unstable) filmmakers from the '70s, Ashby had only one film under his belt at the time (the charming counterculture comedy The Landlord) but firmly established himself as a talent to be reckoned with here, paving the way for an entire decade of classics like The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and the closest cousin to this film, Being There. Unfortunately the '80s weren't so kind (and he wouldn't live to see them out), but even if he had only made this one film, he'd be one for the history books.
Teenaged Harold (Cort) lives an affluent but dissatisfied life with his distracted mother (Pickles, star of Ken Russell's Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World). Obsessed with death (or at least using it in failed attempts to get attention), he stages elaborate phony suicides, spends time with his shrink, and spends an inordinate of time going to funerals... "for fun." However, his life takes a turn at one of these funerals when he meets Maude (Gordon), a spirited 79 year old whose perspective on life gradually comes to inform his own.
While many midnight movies can be tough going for the casual viewer, Harold and Maude is the perfect gateway film for anyone thanks to its humanistic outlook and, apart from Harold's hilariously gruesome snuff vignettes, comparative lack of anything potentially offensive. This is really a romantic comedy for those who hate romantic comedies, a whimsical forerunner to everyone from Tim Burton to Wes Anderson. There are so many little pleasures in this film they're hard to number, but chief among them is the powerful soundtrack of Cat Stevens songs (with two songs in particular guaranteed to lodge in your cranium for days after viewing). While The Graduate and Easy Rider got their first, the use of popular music here still feels unique and fresh, offering a perfect accompaniment to both Harold's morbid shenanigans and Maude's chipper personality. Both Gordon and Cort are perfectly cast, making for one of the oddest but most endearing couples in cinema history; maybe it's the kind of film you have to see at a young age at the right time, but if you're in the right mind set, this is a film that sticks with you for life. (Also, since it's always fun to try to figure out what the heck Roger Ebert was smoking after he was done writing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, be sure to check out his review.)
A perennial TV and home video favorite, Harold and Maude has also been the subject of a surprising wealth of critical material over the years. To that heap you add this welcome special edition from Criterion, which easily eclipses the standard versions cranked out by Paramount (which only included a pair of trailers, both oddly missing here). Of course the big draw here is the new HD transfer, which is pretty darn impressive; crisp, very colorful, and featuring a nice cinematic texture, it's a treat to sit through from start to finish. No complaints whatsoever, and you'll never want to watch it in standard def again. The audio is presented in both original mono and a two-channel stereo mix (focused mainly on the songs, of course); either way will get the job done just fine. Optional English subtitles are also included. The biggest extra is a new audio commentary by Nick Dawson, author of Being Hal Ashby, and producer Charles B. Mulvehill, who talk about the film's genesis as a project by writer Colin Higgins and its development into the hands of Ashby including the fascinating casting process. As for the late Higgins (who went on to work on two of the best Hitchcockian comedies of the '70s, Foul Play and Silver Streak, as well as write and direct the '80s classic 9 to 5), he's represented here with a 12-minute AFI audio seminar from 1979 in which he talks about how he came up with the idea at UCLA and was originally supposed to direct it. Another AFI seminar (both are illustrated with shots from the film's shooting and other assorted photos and clips) features Ashby himself discussing the making of the film in 1972 including testing actors for Harold and how it found its audience after becoming a surprise hit with an unorthodox PR campaign in Baltimore. Finally Yusuf (aka Cat Stevens) turns up for a new 11-minute video interview about his path to music beginning with the Beatles and being approached to compose songs for the film while it was still in pre-production, as well as Ashby's fondness for playing Cat Stevens songs during the editing process. The very thick liner notes booklet includes an essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, Leticia Kent's 1971 interview with Ruth Gordon, a conversation between Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo, and an abridged discussion about Higgins between executive producer Mildred Lewis, producer Edward Lewis, and their daughter Susan.