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Harold and Maude (1971)

November 16th, 2005 · No Comments

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A teenager (Bud Cort) – who drives a hearse and is so disaffected by what he sees around him that he repeatedly fakes suicide to get the attention of his mother – has an affair with a spitfire seventy nine year old woman (Ruth Gordon) in this black comedy.

Directed by Hal Ashby, written by Colin Higgins and a box office failure at the time, the film has earned a reputation as a cult classic or midnight movie. Harold and Maude is really of the highest artistic pedigree and belongs proudly in the Paramount library of the 1970s with The Godfather I and II, Paper Moon, The Conversation and Chinatown.

You can almost see the fingerprints of Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson all over this film. Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) must have enjoyed the use of Cat Stevens’ great songs during key scenes. Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums) had to have enjoyed the dry, abstract sense of humor and anachronistic relationships between adults and youth.

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Harold and Maude is neither complex nor epic in proportion (it’s 91 minutes), but is great because it knows exactly what it is: an offbeat story about a boy who tells everyone he wants to die but doesn’t really. He befriends a woman who tells him she loves life but decides it’s come time to end hers.

Harold’s “suicides” are hilarious. Just when it gets repetitive watching him pull various stunts on his non-plussed, snobby mother, mom invites female suitors over to meet her son, in hopes that a good woman is what he needs to join proper society. When watching these bachelorettes run away in hysterics is about to get repetitive, Harold then has the misfortune of meeting an actress so far in outer space, she tries to upstage his death with one of her own.

Though the tone and subject matter suggest a novel adapted to screen, this was an original script, written by Higgins as his senior thesis at UCLA. He would later demonstrate cleverness by fusing comedy to the Hitchcock thriller with Silver Streak, Foul Play and Nine To Five. All of those films were star studded comedies and though perhaps minor classics, pandered directly to the expectations of the audience instead of against them.

Harold and Maude doesn’t try to be conventional by any means. That makes it a classic. It was also one of the better anti-war films to be released during the Vietnam era. As with M*A*S*H, the word “Vietnam” is never mentioned, but the film’s anti-establishment message is as clear as a bell. The final four minutes are a masterwork of editing, music, performance and direction.

Tags: Black comedy

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