Though its themes are universal and its message indelibly—even naïvely—romantic, Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude is a film that could have only been made in the direct wake of the Summer of Love. Like one last gasp of earnest, sincere faith in the interconnectedness and perseverance of mankind before New Hollywood would be swallowed whole by the bleak realities of The French Connection, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and the Godfather films, Harold and Maude set its sights on something less outwardly ambitious yet just as vital: the very heart of the human condition. Love—and all the odd permutations and involuntary reactions stoked by its flame—is the lifeblood of the film, which just so happens to contrast the winking yet darkly suicidal fantasies of the 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) with the eternally wide-eyed, carefree existence of the soon-to-be 80-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon), who initially share an interest in funerals and not much else.
The effortless depiction of their growing camaraderie and unconscious courtship is one of Harold and Maude's great charms, as Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins transpose fading ideology into boundless truth across a modest framework of pitch-black exposition and glowingly pastoral aesthetic touches. If Harold Chasen and Dame Marjorie Chardin's relationship, built on shared understanding and an outgrowth of genuine affection, remains one of cinema's most endearing, it's not because of the novelty of the age chasm or the perversities society foists on such a pairing, but because of the shared experience, the utopian vision of true friendship that we all strive to experience, and the embodiment of love that ultimately burrows deeper than physicality and with more permanence than mortality, let alone matrimony.
And this embodiment is seamless. At this point, it's less that Cort and Gordon perfectly realized these eccentric characters, but that they've totally transcended their respective characterizations and simply continue, even for Gordon in death, to live, breathe, and endure as Harold and Maude themselves. Their chemistry is palpable, manifesting itself immediately through the duo's initial glimpses at an anonymous funeral (Maude sneezing and gnawing on an orange in the distance), which in turn sows the seeds for adventures in grand-theft auto, military recruitment, smoke-a-thon sing-alongs, and existential dialogues in cemeteries and fields of daisies. Taking Harold under her wing, Maude is a veritable flower child of unassuming enlightenment through which Gordon imbues potentially hackneyed sentiments—"The earth is my body, my head is in the stars," "Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage," and "Pray? No, I communicate...with life"—with an acute gravity and a lifetime of experience. She's friend, confidant, and mother figure all at once.
At home, Harold is a wandering ghost of post-teen (and post-hippie) discontent, channeling his angst into staged suicides of macabre rebellion against his mother (played with aristocratic archness by the wonderful Vivian Pickles) and their upper-class privilege. He buys a hearse for everyday transportation, acts out self-immolation and seppuku rituals in the company of potential female suitors to the abhorrence of his mother, but to his unending satisfaction, and observes demolition rituals on the side, presumably to revel in the general destruction of it all. He's everyone and no one all at once, a relatable soul with the gumption to confront life's least comfortable topics head-on in a true effort at self-realization. That this odyssey is facilitated by a woman 60 years his senior is perhaps evidence that this process is an on-going one, something one lives with and through on a daily basis, before ultimately reconciling personal belief with greater truths.
Ashby's reserved gaze and casual staging allows these themes to flower into something not only approachable, but tangible, with no undue force exerted to coax meaning or insight from what his images and Higgins's words so naturally accomplish. And yet the Cat Stevens soundtrack—unquestionably one of the greatest in the history of the medium—that plays as both running commentary and harmonic transition device, adds an essential dimension to Ashby's vision, quelling the manipulation of a traditional score while still reflecting and reinforcing his motifs. Stevens's lyrics work almost as voiceover narration, coloring and enlivening an otherwise dark, deadpan comedy. He's an omniscient presence, a character unto himself, a spiritual gateway for an audience cold to such guileless expressions of humanity.
But at the same time, a certain resignation arises from the surface of the film. America in 1971 was a country in flux, a demoralized and disillusioned populace searching for answers through potentially perilous means (sexual, substance-related, etc.), and even occasionally though violence ("War is just a shot away/Love is just a kiss away," the Rolling Stones famously put it just a couple years prior, their own proclamations arguably inciting the tragic murders at Altamont). Society may have felt defeated coming out of the '60s, but the idyllic nature of Harold and Maude still feels like a beacon of serenity as the prior decade's tumult turned to progression by the mid '70s. And we'll always have Harold and Maude themselves, two characters that will never age despite each confronting death in their own ways, preserved as if in amber, alight with innocence and beaming with life via the revelation of true, undying love.
Rendering the now 12-year-old Paramount DVD irrelevant, the Criterion Collection's gracious new Blu-ray debuts Harold and Maude in high definition—and on both A/V fronts the transition is impeccable. The original 1.85:1 image is particularly impressive, with the new transfer preserving the film's thick early-'70s grain structure and balancing contrast at an appropriate level. The film's dark, earthy color palette is transferred equally as well, with the splashes of blood red and daisy white popping when contrasted with the generally overcast Bay Area locales. Meanwhile, skin tones—from Harold's pale pallor to Maude's weathered visage—translate as accurately as I can remember, having seen this film a few dozen times over the years. Overall, this is about as close to a film-like appearance as a movie from this period can reach in 1080p.
Sound is likewise given a boost. Though Harold and Maude never utilizes demonstrative effects, the two mixes presented here—both linear mono and stereo PCM tracks—are appropriately handled, crystal clear and with no outlying noise or distractions to note. Cat Stevens's music is expertly mixed, never overpowering the action yet ringing out with satisfying clarity. And dialogue is similarly balanced and easily audible. Optional English subtitles complete the sterling presentation.
Despite its generation-spanning appeal, Harold and Maude is a film built on context, and thankfully Criterion has gathered a satisfying combination of digital and critical supplements to put the work in perspective. The package is highlighted by a wonderful audio commentary track by Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and Harold and Maude producer Charles B. Mulvehill (recorded separately but nicely branched), wherein the two outline production and casting details, the unfortunate critical response to the film, and its subsequent embrace and lasting legacy facilitated by audiences. It contains plenty of worthwhile information for new and long-time fans alike.
Elsewhere, Stevens sits down for an interview about his contributions to the film and how he shaped a few of the original songs around the themes presented in Colin Higgins's script. There are also two illustrated audio excerpts from American Film Institute seminars dedicated to Ashby and Higgins, who provide firsthand thoughts on the film and its growing popularity. Rounding out the package is one of Criterion's typically excellent booklets, featuring an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, a vintage New York Times profile of Ruth Gordon, and two contemporary interviews, one with Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo from 1997 and one with executive producer Mildred Lewis from 2001.
Hal Ashby's indelible fable of love and death receives a glorious debut on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Augmented by a strong selection of extras, this is now the definitive version of the '70s cult classic in the digital realm. [Slant]