last night i watched "harold and maude," a black comedy tied with "the rocky horror picture show" as my all-time favorite cult film. i've seen this movie at least a half dozen times and it's as fresh now, as it was the first time. like all great cult films, it should open with mixed to negative reviews, find it's way to the midnight movie circuit, and slowly get re-discovered by all the critics who panned or dismissed it the first time around. when "harold and maude" opened in late 1971 it was critical and box-office flop. yet now, almost 40 years later, it's a classic!
on it's most basic level it's a seriously bizarre love story between a morbid 19 year old boy and a 79 year old woman. bud cort, who plays harold, spends a good deal of the movie committing suicide (primarily for the benefit of his mother). he does this mainly to witness his mother's increasingly exasperated reactions (freudians should have field day with this motif). harold "killed himself" 8 different ways during the 90+ minute film. with all that preoccupation over planning his own demise, it's a wonder he actually met maude at all!
that magic moment occurs at, appropriately enough, a funeral - which harold attended in his newly purchased (from a used car lot) and refurbished hearse! when he isn't trying to kill himself, harold passes the time attending the funerals of complete strangers. so too, it seems, does maude. ruth gordon plays the free spirited 79 year old maude like a free spirit outlaw. she it the total opposite of the withdrawn harold. in that vein, it's almost impossible to believe she belongs at anyones funeral - much less those of strangers. but, here it worked.
any scene with maude behind the wheel of a car is side-splitting hilarious. my favorite part is when maude drives (with harold in the passenger seat) a pick-up truck with a tree in need of planting on board. it's stolen, the tree is stolen, the shovel is borrowed. maude breaks every speed and traffic law at hand. the motorcycle cop that corrals them (played by an uncredited tom skerrit) his equally hilarious as the straight man to maude's answers. first she drives away, then she leads him on an unlikely chase, and finally - leaving the audience incredulous - maude "escapes" on his motorcycle, with harold on back holding on to the shovel (which they intend to return)!
my favorite of harold's suicide scenes (most of which are hilarious) is with his third blind date, sunshine. his mother had arranged a series of three dates via a computer dating service (the first two also witnessed harold's suicide efforts). this date was especially fun since (as an actress herself) she though harold was "acting" when he committed harakiri. she in turn recites juliet's farewell and (thinking the knife was a prop), stabs herself. as a result of the malfunctioning prop knife, we're led to believe she actually died. the scene is remarkable, if only, for harold's astonished expression at having the tables turned on him.
there are many dark laughs in this film. but the bittersweet ending - when harold wants to marry ruth and discovers she had taken poison that would kill her at the end of her 80th birthday party (80 is long enough to live, she tells him) - seemed perfectly fitting. his reaction to her death, with his 8th suicide, is likewise fitting. we're left (with echoes of the finale of "quadrophenia," no less), with harold playing ruth's banjo at the edge of the cliff. has harold finally learned, and decided, to live life after all?
rent this film - it's a must see.