The shot of Maude’s forearm lasts about two seconds—if that, if you’re counting really fast. This, more than anything else, more than the free love and the anti-authoritarianism and the black humor, is what marks Harold and Maude as a product of its time. Because if this movie were made today (and the idea of Paramount or any other major studio bankrolling a romantic comedy pairing an twenty-something man and a 79-year-old woman is a farfetched one indeed), that shot of her forearm would be a long, lingering close-up, and Harold would react, and then Maude would deliver a long and detailed monologue about what we see there. It is, it could be argued, the key to her entire character, but director Hal Ashby merely glances at it—he cuts to it, mid-zoom, and cuts away immediately, the camera still closing in on it. He sees it, and then looks away, as you would if you were sitting there with her yourself. Ashby doesn’t want to dwell, and he doesn’t want to pry. He acknowledges it, and moves on.
The implications of that brief close-up, though, shift the gears of the picture, and serve as the only real indication that a turn to the serious is on the way. Until then, the film is proudly and defiantly not serious about anything—it is, after all, a comedy about a young man whose primary preoccupation is staging grisly mock-suicides. Harold (Bud Cort) is introduced in a magnificent opening shot, as he walks into the study of his family’s giant mansion and, with great precision and definitiveness, hangs himself. The sequence puts the audience into a state of uncertainty—wait, who is this man hanging himself? Is that Harold? How can the movie be about Harold if he’s dead already? And then his mother (the marvelous Vivian Pickles) enters, picks up the phone, looks at him, and doesn’t even give him the courtesy of a double-take.
The joke of the mother’s non-plussed, unflappable reactions to his suicide attempts (seven of them, if you’re keeping track) is perhaps trotted out too frequently, but damned if it doesn’t get the laugh every time. Harold uses these “amateur theatrics” to get a rise out of her, but she’s not giving; she cheerily carries on as if they’re a minor flaw in her otherwise very normal boy, and conducts her mostly one-sided conversation with him as though he’s not, well, a little troubled. (Harold: the original emo kid.) She arranges a series of disastrous dates for her son, but the woman he’s falling for is certainly not what mother had in mind.
Maude (Ruth Gordon), who will turn 80 in a few days, and Harold keeps seeing her at the funerals for strangers he attends in his spare time. “Want some licorice?” she asks, by way of introducing herself. If dour Harold is there to indulge his sense of gloom and doom, cheery Maude’s motives seem quite the opposite; zestful and cheery, she treats them as a life-affirming event, and also one where it’s easy to steal a car. (The image of bouncy Maude leading a line of mourners from a gravesite, a spring in her step and a yellow umbrella in her hand, is one of the picture’s most cherished.)
The contrast between the two of them is perhaps too clean, but it’s so vibrantly drawn, you don’t much mind. Cort makes Harold’s open face and big round eyes a blank slate in the early passages, but the calming and charming influence of Maude brings him to life (check out that odd little glance into the camera after he scares off his date). And Gordon couldn’t be better—she’s funny, wry, and wonderful, and there’s something just perfect about that little glimmer in her eye when she asks him coyly, “Do you disapprove? Do you think it’s wrong?”
This was only Ashby’s second film as a director (after years spent making his name as one of Hollywood’s best editors), but he already had a distinctive and inimitable style in place—his carefully prepared, symmetrical compositions highlight his visual gags (see the perfectly-framed smirking portrait of Nixon in Harold’s uncle’s office), and his deadpan humor keeps the film from drowning in its darker undertones.
Harold and Maude handles its dirty joke premise with surprising sensitivity—most films would snicker and elbow, but Ashby tells their story straight, and makes everyone around them ridiculous. The picture doesn’t take the world seriously, but it takes Harold and Maude seriously, which is why its final scenes work as beautifully as they do. Colin Higgins’s exquisite script mixes whimsy and melancholy from page one (and that mixture is why the Cat Stevens songs are such a masterstroke), so the move into pathos doesn’t feel forced, as those kinds of things so often do. It sneaks up on you, this movie.
"Harold and Maude" is out this week on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.