Hal Ashby is the master of the slow-burning gem. His films aren't always the most visually remarkable, or the easiest to get into, but the longer you spend in the company of his characters, the more one's enjoyment turns into acknowledgement of greatness. While Harold and Maude is not quite as strong as his later efforts, such as Coming Home and Being There, it contains all the ingredients for a really heartfelt comedy, combining dark humour and joyful optimism to great effect.
One of Ashby's great strengths has always been persuading us to care about characters, and by extension actors, with whom we normally wouldn't dream of associating ourselves. He is, after all, the man who turned Peter Sellers from a self-parodying has-been into the toast of the Academy, getting the performance which in many ways defines Sellers as an actor and comedian. In this case he manages to make us care for two characters who would normally be repulsive or obnoxious: one a mopey teenager with a suicide fixation, the other an overly quirky septuagenarian with a penchant for stealing cars.
The reason we end up caring for these people lies in Ashby's make-up as a director. Although he was considerably older than his New Hollywood counterparts - the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and William Friedkin - he empathised greatly with the ideas and free spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. While Scorsese and Friedkin made their name in gritty dramas, exposing the dark underbelly of American society after a decade of mainstream froth, Ashby is more whimsical and forgiving. He is a deeply humanist director, concentrating on human reason and emotion over any kind of spiritual or religious allegory (at least at this stage).
This might help to explain why it takes a while to get a handle on Harold and Maude. Most black comedies work on the basis of dark, pessimistic humour set against an equally dark, pessimistic worldview. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, it is the cruelty of Dennis Price set against the persistent injustice of the British class system. In Dr. Strangelove, it is the absurdity of Jack D. Ripper's conspiracy theories set against the greater absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction. Harold and Maude has darkness in the mind of its male protagonist, but its goal is to demonstrate how joyous life can be. While it doesn't resolve everything oh-so-neatly, it doesn't entirely play by the rules either.
Because Ashby treats his characters with such affection and respect, the opening act - if not the opening hour - can feel like two different films trying to mesh together. The civilised, refined and decidedly dull home of Harold's parents sets us up for some kind of comedy of manners, only to be punctuated by Harold self-immolating, covering the bathroom in fake blood or hanging himself during the opening credits. And that's before we even get to Maude, whose kookiness makes Diane Keaton's "La-di-dah!"-ing in Annie Hall look positively ordinary.
The opening sections of Harold and Maude are repetitive and arguably episodic, insofar as you could watch Harold's death scenes in any order without them compromising the dramatic tension. The same could be said for Harold's scenes with his psychiatrist, or his introductions to his computer-selected dates. But even as we get the feeling of going in circles, we decide to stick around, somehow knowing that something special is around the corner. Repetition is, after all, a form of comedy, and the individual set-pieces or big gags involving Harold are in and of themselves quite funny.
The film only truly takes flight once Harold has been invited back to Maude's eccentric home - a converted railway carriage or static caravan filled with all manner of unusual artworks, musical instruments and cultural paraphernalia. What emerges from these scenes is a personality which exists beyond artistic flights of fantasy or eccentric behaviour on the road; this is a window on the soul of a woman who genuinely loves life and lives for it every day. Maude has a great deal more depth and heart than other 'Manic Pixie Dream Girls', such as Zooey Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summer.
After this scene Harold and Maude blossoms from a slightly awkward but enjoyable collection of stories into a focussed film about two people deeply and blissfully in love with each other. We might still shrink at the age gap, or the implication later in the film that they have slept together, but that's not important. What's important is that their relationship opens Harold's eyes to the possibility that life is not all bad, and more importantly that he does not have to be at the mercy of other forces to live life in this fashion.
Ashby's film is as much a sweet romance as an existential and social commentary on two generations of America. On the one hand we have Maude, whose survival of WWII has given her perspective on the wider and higher purposes of life, and keeps up her energy so she can confidently live how she pleases. On the other hand we have Harold, who has no experience or existential crisis to fall back on: he lives in the shadow of both a meaningless war and his pushy parents who want him to live life their way. Harold's encounter with Maude is on one level an existential crisis, where hope clashes with despair, what he doesn't understand meets what he does and he is drastically changed as a result.
Don't think for a minute, however, that Harold and Maude is a film that forsakes realism or weight for the sake of some uplifting life lessons. Just when we are getting comfortable, embracing the central characters and accepting them for who they are, the film deals us a total curveball as Maude decides to slip away. As Harold screams at her and we cut to inside the ambulance, we remember the couple of clues left for us earlier on and share in Harold's anger and grief. Like Being There, the film gives us the reality of death and the negative emotions that come with it, refusing to entirely sugar-coat the bitterest of life's pills.
As well as an instruction to live life to the full every day, Harold and Maude is a warning not to belittle or underestimate the older generation. We are often told the elderly have greater enthusiasm and lust for life than teenagers do, with physical infirmity not always being an accurate representation of the energy that exists inside. Maude may not be entirely representative of her generation, but she is not meant to be. She is a heightened example of an overall approach, designed to surprise, confound and eventually reshape our expectations.
Even if you don't choose to read into the subtext of Harold and Maude, it's still very enjoyable as a darkly uplifting comedy. The physical comedy is generally very well-executed, with Maude's repeated incidents of grand theft auto playing havoc with the local police. Harold's suicide attempts are funny, even if they are not mounted quite as skilfully as the deaths in later black comedies like Heathers or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The interplay between Harold and his uncle is enjoyable, especially the running gags about his severed arm. And the final scene is emotionally close to the ending of Quadrophenia, delivering a good balance of anguish, uncertainty and fulfilment, all conveyed through the music of Cat Stevens.
Harold and Maude is not Hal Ashby's finest work. Even by his slow-burning standards it takes a while to take hold, with a lot of the first half lurching around in terms of tone and focus. But once it gets into its stride it is a little triumph, making the very best of its leading man and woman, and cementing Ashby's status as one of the key directors of the 1970s. Most of the ingredients he would refine in Being There are present here in some form, and even after 41 years it hasn't lost the ability to lift your spirits.