Neglected Films No.2: ‘Harold & Maude’

The Arts

Believe it or not, there was a time when people associated with the film industry could simply phone stars up and chat. Knowing that my business partner loved Hal Ashby’s dark romantic satire ‘Harold & Maude’, I rang the Atheneum Hotel, where the industry used to put all of its stars, and spoke to Bud Cort, who was shooting in London. I asked him to a party. Cort happily turned up and presented my partner with a copy of the film. As a result, they remained friends for years. Cort had learned his comic timing from his extraordinary friendship with Groucho Marx, in the same way that George Cole had been mentored by Alistair Sim.

Looking at the 1971 film with fresh eyes now, ‘Harold & Maude’ seems downright subversive.
‘Would you like some liquorice?’ asks concentration camp survivor Maude, picking Harold up at a funeral where neither of them knew the deceased.
‘Do you stage these suicides for your mother’s benefit?’ asks Harold’s psychiatrist. ‘No,’ Harold replies softly and sardonically. ‘I would not say ‘benefit’.’

For a while ‘Harold and Maude’ was a true cult favourite, endlessly screened in rep cinemas. Harold (Cort) is a rich, spoilt, suicide-staging teenager. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is a poor, life-affirming 79 year-old. They fall in love and start sleeping together, to the horror of Harold’s society mother (Vivian Pickles), who arranges ghastly dates for her son which he continually sabotages. The beautiful Cat Stevens soundtrack became the most requested score of all time, but has never been released.

And yet the film has more or less vanished from collective recall. Hardly anyone I know has seen it. Ashby’s movie came out at a time of great upheaval in the US, and reflects this. Recruited by his militaristic uncle, Harold outgrosses the one-armed officer with descriptions that effectively amount to excerpts from Lt. William Calley’s testimony after the Me Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Maude’s cutesy folk-wisdom is repeatedly undercut by her behaviour – she constantly steals and ignores the law, sauntering on her own way through life, determined to lead a young boy astray. The skies are rain-threatening throughout, the images grainy and realistic, the writing, based on Colin Higgins’ wonderful book, is black as hell.

Writing and direction perfectly match. Harold’s mother fills in a dating questionnaire for him, slowly adding her own opinions until they eclipse his. Meanwhile, in the background, Harold is aiming a pistol at her, then at himself.
As a funeral empties out, it unfortunately coincides with a passing parade.
One of Harold’s dates waits for him to appear while we see that he’s busy setting fire to himself.

It’s common knowledge that Wes Anderson developed his style from Hal Ashby films – there’s a distancing effect at work, with humans observed from the middle ground. And there’s always something happening in the back of the scene.
Of course there are heavy-handed moments and satirical jabs that don’t work, but it was a low budget film about a taboo subject, and still offers myriad treats.

13 comments on “Neglected Films No.2: ‘Harold & Maude’”

  1. Red Wolf says:

    I’ve always loved this film.

    Wacky about Bud Cort and your business partner. I love that things were just done that way then. Lovely!

  2. Gretta says:

    The title very vaguely rings a bell, but I know I’ve not seen it. I have a feeling it might have been one of those things spoken in hushed tones(probably accompanied by nudges and winks) by adults when I was a child.

    (Pedantic point: it’s My Lai, admin)

  3. admin says:

    That’s what I thought, Gretta, by my stupid Wordcheck corrected me when I spelled it that way.

  4. Jez Winship says:

    It’s a wonderful film, as is Ashby’s last, Being There. His lack of grandstanding and cinematic bluster and concern for character over spectacle has meant that he’s become rather eclipsed by others of the American new wave of the 70s. Bud Cort was good as a similarly dreamy, fantasising outsider in Robert Altman’s very strange Brewster McCloud from around the same time – another film that’s vanished from view.

  5. Richard H says:

    Great film – probably first saw it in the days when late night tv didn’t want you to gamble… One of my favourite lines is Maude’s to the cop at the turnpike: “You’re not yourself when you’re officious – That is the curse of a government job.”

  6. BangBang!! says:

    I haven’t seen this film for years. In fact I think I’ve only watched it once when I was a young teenager. I remember being slightly repelled by the age gap. I suspect my newly arrived hormones couldn’t cope with a young man who wasn’t interested in nubile young girls. I’d like to see it again and find out how I feel about it as a more mature (ahem!) bloke.

  7. Wayne says:

    Yet again you pick up on one of my favourite movies…. Where next “Travels with my Aunt” Pick that one up and we may get a DVD re-release. My VHS transfer is really poor.

  8. Roger says:

    ‘And yet the film has more or less vanished from collective recall. Hardly anyone I know has seen it.’

    Pity you didn’t post this a week ago: it was on at the Ritzy last Sunday.

  9. Cat Eldridge says:

    The soundtrack was released on vinyl some time back in a rather small lot of twenty-five hundred units. A copy now fetches several hundred dollars on the market.

    Soundtracks oft times get held up from release because of music rights clearance issues, i.e. The China Beach series soundtrack is still not released.

  10. Richmonde says:

    Brilliant, brilliant film. Why don’t film companies release their entire back catalogues on DVD instead of by dribs and drabs? Why isn’t there an old movie channel that just shows /everything/?

  11. mikenicholson says:

    Always one of my favourite movies, and I don’t think it’s that hard to get hold of.
    Strange that so few of your friends know of it, Chris.
    Here in the UK to splendid(-ly cheap) FOPP chain of film/ music/book shops had copies of it at a few quid within the last few months, I’m sure.
    A cracking time-capsule of a movie from days when film took leaps into weirdness regularly and unselfconsciously (AKA the early to mid-1970s?).

  12. Lisa Q says:

    Wow, worlds colliding! My favorite mystery author discussing my all-time favorite movie! Thank you for posting about it!

    The Criterion Collection edition is really good- surprisingly crisp images and the sound is excellent.

    I grew up in the Bay Area, where it was filmed (and still live here). I’m on a quest to visit the filming locations over the next couple months and blog about it. It’s as much a love letter to the film, as it is to my home.

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