The Odd Couple
From the very first scene it is clear that “Harold and Maude” is a special film. It’s a film that relishes in a very dark sense of humor and is playfully intent at doing the unpredictable. And the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do with such charm and heart that it makes it a unique and rather irresistible comedy. I’d even go as far to say that it’s one of the best American comedies of the 70’s.
The film follows Harold (Bud Cort), a very troubled young man that is obsessed with death. This obsession manifests itself in a rather interesting way however, as he routinely stages his own death in front of his controlling mother (Vivian Pickles). But she is rather unmoved by this display and very oblivious to the obvious causes of such behavior. However Harold’s life takes an interesting turn when he meets the 79 year old Maude (Ruth Gordon) who, if anything, seems to be his polar opposite - but the two get along quite splendidly from the get go.
Anyway, together with the outrageous humor, this unlikely relationship is what makes “Harold and Maude” so fascinating because Harold and Maude’s eccentricities complement each other. But they are also believably portrayed characters and seem very grounded in their background and psychology. So, no gag is done just for the sake of it, in fact it all has a purpose and nothing is done just to merely provoke a laugh or outrage like it’s so frequently done in modern comedies. Nevertheless this does not mean that the film is not funny or outrageous because it absolutely is; it just means that this is a comedy that also withstands dramatic scrutiny.
The obvious thing to compliment here is the script of the film and the actors, especially the two leads. However less obvious is the fantastic direction of the film by Hal Ashby, primarily because it’s so invisible. But I have to at least compliment the man’s shot selection and the way these shots are cut together- here he displays a very good eye for composition of drama but also for comedy. If you want an example then just watch that first scene of the film. It’s a darkly comedic scene but staged and shot completely in a dramatic tone, and once the punch-line arrives the built up drama cracks and with that amplifies the blunt absurdity of the situation, which results in sublime hilarity. It’s comedy that comes from the manipulation of cinematic tone, and it’s brilliant and repeated again and again in the film.
Over the years I’ve come to think that cinema does not do comedies all too well, but here’s another film that proves how wrong that assessment was. Comedy can be cinematic, but I believe it’s also the most difficult form of cinema that very few filmmakers can wrangle in to submission. And with “Harold and Maude” and “Being There” Hal Ashby has proven himself in my eyes to be just that kind of filmmaker. This is a great film by a great director.
Bud Cort - Harold
Ruth Gordon - Maude
Vivian Pickles - Mrs. Chasen
Charles Tyner - Uncle Victor
Harold and Maude on IMDb