Harold and Maude
Release Date(s)1971 (June 12, 2012)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Criterion - Spine #608)
Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude became a cult classic after bombing at the box office upon its initial release. Since then, it has gained greater popularity among different audiences and is considered to be one of the finest comedies, as well as one of the best films, of the 1970’s.
It’s no surprise that Criterion would get their hands on Harold and Maude at some point (or any of Hal Ashby’s work on down the road). It just seems to fit with their sensibilities and philosophies about filmmaking. I, for one, waited patiently for its delayed release. I had seen it before, but since I didn’t have a copy of it, I was eager to see it again. That all being said, I can certainly understand why it was rejected by both critics and audiences in 1971. It certainly wasn’t your typical ‘boy meets girl’ type of love story. In fact, it’s not much of a love story so much as it is a fairy tale that just happens to have a relationship between two people in it. The only major difference is that not only do they come from different backgrounds but their age is completely different, by sixty years even. Even Cat Stevens’ famous music in the film can’t completely sway you into falling for the story. You kind of have to care first.
The truth is that even though it’s a dark comedy, the film has an awful lot of heart to it, and feels much more authentic than other stories about two people coming together than most films like it. There are many subtleties woven into the film, such as the fact that Harold’s psychiatrist happens to be dressed almost exactly the way he is dressed. Little details like that probably wouldn’t matter to most directors of this kind of material, but Ashby saw fit to have them in there to have something more to look at and think about. It’s unfortunate that things like this weren’t appreciated at the time. I know I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye when the film was released, but it’s hard to imagine everyone universally hating on the film. I find myself laughing out loud at it at times as well as being moved by it, which is a perfect combination if you ask me. The details of the story may be unorthodox in nature, but intriguing only begins to describe the story and its eventual outcome.
Thankfully the film’s look hasn’t been compromised on this Blu-ray release. The picture quality is outstanding. The film itself is full of soft focus shots as well as a lot of dark scenes, so I judge this according to what it is inherent in the film itself and if the transfer spoils any of that, and it doesn’t. There’s a strong grain structure throughout the film, perfect contrast levels, accurate skin tones and lovely color reproduction. Honestly, the film looks as it should on the format provided. For the audio portion, you get two options, both PCM tracks: English mono and stereo. Both tracks sound great, if a bit aged, but the stereo track is a bit sweeter because of Cat Stevens’ music really dominating the soundscape. On both tracks, dialogue is perfectly clear and audible. There isn’t much in the way of sound effects, but what’s there works with the film very well. You can’t really go wrong with either track. There are also subtitles in English for those who need them.
The supplemental material is brief but informative. You get a very good audio commentary with Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill; some illustrated audio excerpts with Hal Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins; an interview with Cat Stevens; and a 36-page booklet with an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, a 1971 New York Times profile of Ruth Gordon, and two excerpted interviews: one from 1997 with Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo and the other from 2001 with executive producer Mildred Lewis.
All in all, this is quite a satisfactory release for Harold and Maude on Blu-ray and well-worth the wait. If you haven’t seen the film and you’re into dark comedies at all then I highly recommend that you check this one out.
- Tim Salmons