Harold and Maude (1971)

Film #2: Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude is a classic “dark comedy” by director Hal Ashby. Harold (Bud Cort) is a taciturn young adult with a macabre interest in staging suicides for his oppressive mother (Vivian Pickles – yeah, for real). While attending funerals of strangers, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an eccentric octogenarian whose philosophy is to live life to the fullest. A relationship develops, and Harold finally begins to find happiness in life through Maude’s relentless carpe dieming. While his mother and veteran uncle try to move him toward a life of stable responsibility, Harold gets it in his head that he wants to marry Maude. Unfortunately for him, her plans for the future don’t coincide with his.

I’ve been meaning to watch this for a long time and now that I have, I’m sorry that I put it off for so long. A lot of times I find that comedies from previous decades simply don’t hold up against the evolution of societal humor, but this is definitely an exception to the rule. Harold and Maude is absolutely hilarious, in a very dark and absurd way. Some of the humor comes from the apathetic way Harold’s mom reacts to his elaborate suicide performances (which number no less than 8). Some of it comes from Maude’s defiant attitude toward society and sanity. There’re lots of moments that feel pretty modern, like when Harold gives a knowing smirk into the camera after driving off the first of his mother’s arranged blind dates. And with a runtime of only 90 minutes, the film is over before you’re ready to part with the leads and their unusual, but endearing, relationship. Despite its black humor surrounding the subject of death, Harold and Maude ends on an optimistic note, with Maude’s influence hopefully infused into Harold and leaving him with a sense of what it’s like to really live.

The oppressive conformity of Harold’s mother’s upper-class lifestyle is overtly evoked by the cinematography’s stringent symmetry in the scenes taking place at home; similarly, Maude’s chaotic influence in Harold’s life is represented by the disorganized clutter of her humble abode. Cat Stevens provides a truly kick-ass soundtrack, with two songs written specifically for the film (one of which is repeated several times throughout – it WILL get stuck in your head). The leads are all fantastic, with Gordon giving a truly unforgettable performance as Maude. And props to whoever came up with the idea of Harold’s uncle’s pulley-system salute for his amputated arm; I just about lost it when it malfunctioned during Harold and Maude’s charade to keep him from being drafted into the service.

Harold and Maude is a classic well-deserving of that title.

Final rating: 9.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

    • Tons of awesome lines in this film, but my favorite bit of dialogue might be this exchange between Maude and a motorcycle cop played by Tom Skerritt:

“You’re in a lot of trouble, lady. I have you for several offences, including possession of a stolen vehicle, resisting arrest, and possession of a stolen tree. Where is it?”
“We planted it.”
“You planted it. Is this your shovel?”
“No.”
“Possession of a stolen shovel.”

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