'Harold and Maude' Has a Thin Conceit, Not Very Funny
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December 23, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 51
Creatures nosing for crumbs
By Richard McGuinness
The best black comedies communicate pangs of conscience about the hopeless lives they create -- George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck" was perhaps the most outstandingly soft-hearted one. "HAROLD AND MAUDE," though fabricated from too thin a conceit -- the generation gap is bridged through love of death -- and though filled with usual humorless Establishment caricatures, nevertheless is quiet at its core and catches its characters at their loneliest moments of need.
Harold (Bud Cort) spends his days courting the fears of his mother with daily suicide imitations. When his mother brings him computer dates, he scares them out of the mansion with such things as self-immolation, seen small and blurred by the date though the glass garden door. Harold enjoys being dead.
His solitary fun of going to funerals is interrupted one day by Maude (Ruth Gordon), an old lady whose appreciation of everything's potential for death helps her enjoy life. They fall in love and life is sweet until Gordon decides to put and and to her own.
"Harold and Maude" began as a 20-minute student film by the present co-producer, Colin Higgins, and the movie shows signs of over-inflation -- the last half is merely a visualization of what from the beginning one anticipates will be the path of their relationship. Almost all of the film's fine moments occur at the affair's beginning when possibility is strongest. There the script broaches the most poignant gimmicks, and Hal Ashby's ("The Landlord") direction shows the comic lovers musing and discovering peace together.
Maude has a little olfactory machine. It's at the bottom of the frame, with bulbs, spindles, and cranks working busily, all connected to a gas mask. Harold sniffs a work she has named "Snowfall on 42nd Street" (the film takes place on the West Coast), and his distinguishing between snow, smoke, and gasoline becomes a rich experience, mainly because Ashby has gotten a new informal sincerity from Cort. (His expressions transcend his limited facial vocabulary in "Brewster McCloud," and his surprises and sudden attachments to life seem a true response to Ruth Gordon's warm, weird concentration camp survivor.)
Ashby's camera, also prone to opening up experience to us, watches the death-obsessed lovers affectionately, as if it were not merely following but also being informed by the furtive, spontaneous movements of creatures nosing for crumbs under a threat of death -- here, the crumbs are perhaps five instants of dignity, peace, and understanding.
Even the caricatured humans, though mostly over-projected and boring, often move with good-humored poise in the face of vile provocations, as when Vivian Pickles, with leisurely pace, enters the pool in which the body of her son floats. And a cop Maude outwits on a high road doesn't react in the normal hard-comedy manner -- like an enraged demon or fool. He's merely a discouraged human being for whom self-display isn't necessary.
The fact that "Harold and Maude" isn't very funny and, like its 80-year-old heroic, long outlives its necessary life, is less important than the fact that the characters frequently react gently or like credible human beings to the script's impossible notions.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]