How difficult is it to try and express the genius of Harold and Maude through written words? Enough so that this Masters of Cinema release foregoes the usual essay of critical analysis and appreciation that accompanies virtually all of the label's editions.
The 1971 classic directed by Hal Ashby and written by Colin Higgins is an extraordinarily special movie. The mere effect of seeing it every few years serves as a kind of cleansing of one's soul. It's a reminder not only of the gentle humanism Ashby excelled at, but also the greater power of film as an art form which can transform an immediate mood for an extended period of time. Seeing it just puts you in a better place both during and after its runtime. The Cat Stevens songs clinch it, making the movie feel as ageless as its female protagonist.
As hugely influential as Harold and Maude has been - and it must have dozens of offspring by this point - there's still never been anything else in quite the same vein as this odd mix of black comedy and unlikely romance. The unique qualities here are a big part of what makes it such a satisfying experience. It's also something which works far better in finished form than it might seem to in theory. The idea of a privileged young man entering adulthood meeting and eventually falling in love with an eccentric woman sixty years his senior hints only minimally at the film's pleasures. How Ashby and Higgins achieve it is where the joys arrive. Like all great films, Harold and Maude brims with excellence in so many areas in order to fully form its completed whole.
For one thing, it looks incredible. The cinematography from John Alonzo gives San Francisco a British-like atmosphere that's dense and thick. The interiors of Harold's mother's estate conjure up feelings of insulated wealth. The funerals he attends look cold and dank but at least afford some degree of freedom from that stuffy home life. Also, Stevens' songs, particularly the two originals done for this film "Don't Be Shy" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" but also the other contributions, do something that's rarely been accomplished for the medium. They essentially provide a singular voice other than the actors for everything being shown. Simon & Garfunkel got there first when they did the soundtrack to The Graduate in 1967, but this is arguably the only other example of the time to really land with a similar impact. The delicacy and grace in those songs synchs so perfectly with what's on the screen that they're almost inseparable.
There are also so many little moments and instances of inspiration that only grow richer with each viewing. One, maybe the most famous, is when Harold slyly turns to the camera and gives a little smile of satisfaction at thwarting his mother's attempt to set him up on a date. It brings the viewer in as a kind of co-conspirator on Harold's antics. The montage set to Stevens' "Trouble" and the very final sequence are likewise deeply affecting pieces of the whole. Even the opening scene, in which we hear "Don't Be Shy" and see movement and preparation minus any identification as Harold sets up his elaborate hanging, is pretty much perfect in setting the tone of the film as something darker and more surprising than normal expectations would have probably dictated. First-time viewers are left believing this young man has crawled into a noose and committed suicide in his home. And just before his nonplussed mother enters the room! It's an immediately jarring effect, establishing from the start that Harold and Maude is unafraid to defy and subvert normal expectations.
This ode to nonconformity registers with such charm that it can unintentionally ruin much of cinema for the viewer. Those who become enamored with the film might seek out something else to satisfy that fix and it's really just not going to happen. Harold and Maude is the absolute only film of its kind. It's not cynical or sentimental. It isn't burdened by an afterlife or corrupted by time. The reputation it does have keeps it somewhat alive in the public consciousness without raising expectations inordinately high. For those who watch the film but don't get it, maybe it's not the right thing for you or perhaps you just need to revisit it a few years down the line. The realization I've found myself adopting of late is films like this - ones which are shorter in runtime, meandering in narrative and pleasing in tone - are the best kinds to return to again and again. It becomes a revisiting of characters instead of an attempt to reengage with something more boldly important, frequently bloated, and plot-driven.
This Region B Blu-ray from Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series is kind of the UK's answer to Criterion's release of the film a couple of years back. The transfers are basically identical and some of the extras are also repeated so the MoC edition might best suit the region-locked and those who've not yet imported (and don't plan to) the Criterion version.
Any differences between the Criterion and the MoC are surely minor and, having seen both, I'd say you really can't go wrong from a quality standpoint. It's a bit naturally soft, owing just to the filming conditions and such, but there's a stark improvement over the previous DVD put out by Paramount. Grain takes on a far better role by settling into the image so nicely. Here we have a damage-free transfer of the movie in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio that appears tight, wonderfully detailed and faithful to the accepted color scheme. The interiors are often cool and distant but some of the exteriors, such as when Harold is driving, look outstanding. It's simply not a reference-quality film in terms of sharpness and can't be, by necessity, but the result here is plenty strong.
The audio comes in both stereo and mono versions, both English LPCM two-channel tracks. It's lovely to hear Cat Stevens come through, even in the rough demo quality present at times, with such commanding audio. It's absolutely great. Dialogue, too, emerges without compromise and minus any damage. The listen is clean and unfailing. Subtitles have been included in English for the hearing impaired.
Things get a tad more complicated in terms of extra features when trying to compare the MoC and Criterion editions. On the whole Criterion wins, both for having a better booklet and for including a relatively short, exclusive interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens. MoC has pinched the CC commentary featuring Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill but also added a lengthy new video piece (25:44) from critic David Cairns.
Missing from the MoC are Criterion's audio extras featuring Hal Ashby and Colin Higgins but many of the same points found in those can be read in the MoC booklet. That 40-page insert doesn't entirely satisfy in comparison. As mentioned previously in this review, there's no critical appreciation essay (while Criterion had Matt Zoller Seitz pen a nice piece). A 1971 New York Times profile of Ruth Gordon is repeated, leaving just interview excerpts with Ashby and Higgins to otherwise fill the non-stills, non-credits part of those 40 pages.
So even if the Criterion Collection release of Harold and Maude is likely a bit better, it's imperative that fans of this film indulge in a Blu-ray edition and the Masters of Cinema version is a more than viable alternative. Those region-locked or simply loyal to UK labels are strongly urged to find a place for the MoC Series offering of Ashby's film.