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Blu-ray Review: Harold and Maude (1971)

December 13, 2021

By John Corrado

Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude flopped upon its release in theatres on December 20th, 1971, with its unique tone and delicate subject matter being a tough sell for mainstream audiences, before steadily gaining status as a beloved cult classic for these very same reasons.

The film, which brilliantly mixes humour that is as droll and dark as it comes with heartache and piercing emotion, went on to become a countercultural touchstone of its time. It’s one that has inspired many other filmmakers, and continues to touch new generations of viewers who discover it.

The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Paramount Home Entertainment is marking the occasion with a new Blu-ray edition that has been remastered and restored from a 4K scan of the original negative, including colour correction and cleanup.

Directed by Ashby from a screenplay by Colin Higgins, the film is a love story between Harold (Bud Cort), a troubled young man who stages elaborate fake suicides as a cry for help to try and get a response out of his self-involved mother (Vivian Pickles); and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a near-octogenarian whose joie de vivre and rebellious spirit hasn’t yet faded. It’s set to an iconic soundtrack of Cat Stevens songs that always work to compliment the story, and take on new life through the film.

The performances of the two leads couldn’t be better. Cort’s inherent strangeness reveals layers of buried emotion within his troubled character, and Gordon does lovely and finally heartbreaking work as a woman who hides her emotion in a different way. The film is beautifully captured by cinematographer John Alonzo (including that incredible several minute tracking shot set to a diegetic use of “Don’t Be Shy” that opens the movie, hiding Cort’s face until the last possible moment), with some immaculate framing choices.

Ashby masterfully controls the tone of the piece, from the disturbing nature of Harold’s graphic and bloody “suicides,” to the deep sense of poignancy that runs throughout the entire thing. The film also started an incredible run for Ashby, one of the finest American filmmakers of his time, that included The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory and Coming Home, and culminated at the end of the 1970s with Being There.

Like that existentialist masterwork, there is a great deal of wisdom on life to be found in Harold and Maude. This is an example of a film that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but reveals itself to be something quite tender and beautiful as it goes along. It’s a film about two lost souls at different life stages somehow finding solace in each other, and it’s one that still manages to leave quite an impact fifty years later.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

This release follows in the footsteps of the Criterion Collection edition that was put out nearly a decade ago. None of those extras are included, but the Paramount Blu-ray does have a couple of new bonuses, including its own commentary track with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski and writer-director Cameron Crowe, who were both inspired by the film. A code for a digital copy is also listed as being included, though there was notably none in the copy I was sent for review here in Canada.

Commentary by Larry Karaszewski and Cameron Crowe

Yusuf/Cat Stevens on Harold and Maude (5 minutes, 48 seconds): Yusuf/Cat Stevens reflects on his songs being used in the film, including demos of “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out” and his mixed feelings on Gordon’s rendition of the latter, in this short but worthwhile new featurette.

Theatrical Trailer #1 (2 minutes, 49 seconds)

Theatrical Trailer #2 (3 minutes, 3 seconds)

Harold and Maude is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 91 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 7th, 2021

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