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HomeTechTell Review: Harold and Maude–The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

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The first time I saw Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” I was stunned. The second time I saw it I was even more blown away. And every time since I have found this film to be a powerful and deeply moving, yet darkly comic, inspiration. It’s a little hard to summarize the film, so I’ll just quote from the Wiki for the sake of brevity:

It incorporates elements of dark humor and existentialist drama, with a plot that revolves around the exploits of a young man named Harold (played by Bud Cort) intrigued with death. Harold drifts away from the life that his detached mother (Vivian Pickles) prescribes for him, and develops a relationship with a 79-year-old woman named Maude (played by Ruth Gordon).

The film is ranked number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Movies of all Time, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1997 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Al Hirschfield's drawing of actress Ruth Gordon

Al Hirschfield's drawing of actress Ruth Gordon

That said, I will share with you a fun tidbit I learned before my umpteenth viewing of Harold and Maude, clued-in by a couple of film maker friends — beyond being a beautiful, poignant, and funny film, it also was groundbreaking in its scripting approach, which placed literal visual gags following key lines in almost every scene cut in the film.  It was a fun and engaging film before knowing that, but now when I watch it, it’s kind of like looking for the hidden “Nina” in Al Hirschfield‘s drawings

So now when I watch the film, I catch new details every time. It is that rich an experience.

The new Criterion reissue of Harold and Maude is long overdue and essential for your collection.  I have never seen the film look this good — clean and crisp visuals with all the feel of the original film, yet with all dirt and scratches I’ve endured in theatrical prints removed. It was created at 2K resolution from a 35 mm interpositive (there is a detailed page about the transfer process in the accompanying booklet).

Equally — or arguably, most — importantly, the soundtrack has been restored and is now a much more enjoyable experience, enabling you to more effortlessly catch more of the subtle jokes and off hand comments from stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Also from the booklet the producers report that the original mono soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit  resolution form the 35mm film’s magnetic soundtrack.  The new optional stereo mix was created by engineer Ted Hall  using the 35mm film magnetic track and the original stereo soundtrack.  “…Clicks, thumps, hiss and  hum were manually removed using ProTools HD and crackle attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”

I watched Harold and Maude late last night in the new optional uncompressed stereo mode and found it very appealing, with a nice sense of staging that adds depth to the film, as well as allowing Cat Stevens’ classic soundtrack — songs from his two early ’70s hit albums Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, plus two new songs written just for the film — to shine brightly.

The soundtrack is so pristine that even at the lower listening levels it sounds punchy and clear — I live in an apartment so I can’t crank up the system after a certain hour. I am very happy about this, since the last time I saw the film at San Francisco’s Castro Theater (where it is shown annually, usually capped by an appearance by Bud Cort for Q&A), I found the sound to be noticeably muddy and desperate for a restoration.

All in all this Criterion package has again been produced with love and care warranting the $32 price tag.

Other details on the package (from Criterion’s website) include

  • New audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill
  • Illustrated audio excerpts from seminars by Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins
  • New interview with songwriter Yusuf/Cat Steven
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz; a 1971 New York Times profile of star Ruth Gordon; and two excerpted interviews, one from 1997 with star Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo and one from 2001 with executive producer Mildred Lewis

You can find Harold and Maude at your favorite high quality entertainment store (I got mine at Streetlight Records in San Francisco) or online at all the usual haunts like Amazon.

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