Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Colin Higgins
Producers: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis, Charles Mulvehill
Starring: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 91 min
Harold (Bud Cort) is a wealthy young man disconnected from society and obsessed with death. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is a gleeful near-octogenarian with a passion for life and a desire to try new things. Bizarrely, these two opposite ends of the spectrum meet and become friends – and possibly more.
I was very excited to see Harold and Maude because I’d heard a lot of comparisons between it and Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, which I loved. I am therefore very pleased to announce that it lived up to my considerably high expectations, and I found the film oddly charming, whimsical and often exceedingly funny, in a similar vein to the likes of Wes Anderson. Harold is a character that, when I was a few years younger, I probably would have identified with a great deal. He’s bored with life, with few-to-no friends and even fewer hobbies, besides repeatedly faking his own suicide in various different manners. In fact, he does this so often I began to think this was secretly a vampire film, and that in effect he was actualy immortal, and was so bored because he’d been alive for centuries, and his fascination with dying was derived from the knowledge that he could never embrace it.
Harold’s mother, played by Vivian Pickles, is an overbearing presence in his life, and she dearly wishes to marry him off to some bright young thing. She takes out a dating form in her son’s name, filling in all the information as though it was for her – because surely her own son must think the same way she does – yet she becomes distraught when the dates don’t always go as planned. The manner by which they go awry is not technically her fault though, as Harold takes it upon himself to ‘test’ the resolve of his potential bride by martyrdom or mutilation, but always in a cool, calculated manner, and always hilarious in a dry, unexpected way.
Ruth Gordon’s Maude, on the other hand, is vibrant and bright, the exact opposite to Harold. Whereas he lives in his mother’s stately home, surrounded by all of life’s luxuries, she lives in an old train carriage, complete with veranda and garden, bedecked with trinkets and artefacts she has either collected or created throughout her life. Her character is handled wonderfully – one fleeting shot of numbers tattooed on her arm is the only explanation required for why she values every second of life she has. At times the relationship formed between these two seems, well, icky, especially as Cort looks about twelve, even to the point of the film’s vicar (Eric Christmas) giving Harold a speech about how disgusting he finds it all, but to me this was all hilarious, particularly Christmas’ delivery of the line “flabby buttocks,” which is something you never really expect a priest to say.
Other than the suicides, there are many more enjoyable set pieces in the film, the highlight of which was a brief car chase. Maude, it seems, has something of a disregard for the law – she doesn’t believe in driving licenses, for one thing – and she regularly steals cars just to drive them around, and to teach their owners a lesson in ‘here today, gone tomorrow.’ One of these sojourns sees her liberate a tree from a city – the smog gives them asthma, you see – which results in a chase between Maude and Harold in a stolen truck with a tree in the back, and Tom Skerritt’s Village People motorcycle cop. It’s joyous, and random, and wonderful to behold.
I liked this film far more than I was expecting to and there are many reasons for it. The soundtrack, exclusively sung by Cat Stevens, is full of some previously unknown gems of his I’ll be seeking out again soon, though, as with Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate, the same constant vocal style became distancing after a while, so maybe it works better without the film in front of it. The brand of humour was right up my alley, with Harold’s one-armed war veteran uncle – apparently General MacArthur’s right hand man, despite him now only owning a left – who rouses Harold’s death obsession with tales of the war, and whose bundled up sleeve can perform a drawstring salute, and the treatment Harold provides the new car his mother buys him is great, potentially inspiring the creation of Pimp My Ride.
Above all else, what I really dug was the characters, and the impact they had upon one another’s lives. By the climax Harold has been on a journey that’s turned his beliefs, idealisms and entire life upside down. It’s doubtless he’ll remain a bit of an oddball, but maybe he won’t be so obsessed with death – at the start he even fascinates over the last trail of smoke from a snuffed match, watching the last remnant of life slowly drift away. There’s a real sense of joy in this beautifully shot film, and it’s one I plan to revisit many times in the future. These are characters I want to spend more time with, in situations I long to see more of, and Cort is an actor whose filmography I now need to delve deeper into.
Harold and Maude is out on July 14th on both Blu-Ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema series. the extras include an audio commentary track with Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill, a Q&A video with critic David Cairns and a 40-page booklet featuring interviews with Hal Ashby, writer Colin Higgins and a profile of Ruth Gordon.