Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude receives its Blu-ray debut from Criterion, presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer.
I guess as usual I shouldn’t be surprised by my reaction but I am just thrilled with what Criterion has given us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film look so lively before. Colours look stunning to say the least, saturated perfectly, bright, vibrant— the blue skies on many of the longer shots looking especially vivid—and completely natural. The transfer is incredibly crisp and the amount of details present in close-ups can be astonishing, though long shots can come off a bit blurred and soft but I suspect this is inherent in the source, a condition of the shoot.
Film grain is nicely rendered, remaining natural. It’s noticeable but never heavy and never looks like noise. As a whole it’s incredibly film-like and easily the best I’ve ever seen the film, a definite and noticeable improvement over the DVD. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Considering the cult status of the film I’m surprised at the rather skimpy selection of supplements. Thankfully Criterion at least includes an audio commentary, which features Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill. The two were recorded separately and then edited together, similar to Criterion’s early commentary tracks. I’m actually, to my surprise because of a feeling of being “commentaried out”, quite fond of this track, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way Criterion has beautifully edited it. Dawson offers a more analytical view of the film, first talking about how he first came across it, examines its style and photography, the use of Cat Steven’s music, its themes, and just the things he loves about it. He also talks about the history of the production and offers up any tidbits he knows, like how not only was Elton John’s music considered for the film but he was apparently also considered for the role of Howard. But then Mulvehill offers a firsthand account of the development and production, going over anecdotes and talking about dealing with Paramount during production, the studio admittedly a little uneasy about the film and its subject matter. Interestingly at times Mulvehill seems to contradict some things Dawson says, like, for example how he doesn’t recall Elton John ever being considered for the role but admits he could have missed a meeting.
Pleasingly there’s very little fluff in here and really covers all angles, from an analytical, scholarly perspective along with firsthand accounts from the set. It moves briskly thanks to the editing and is surprisingly quite entertaining. For fans of the film I think it’s certainly worth listening to.
Following this are “illustrated” audio recordings from two American Film Institute master seminars. The first features director Hal Ashby who was recorded in January of 1972. Here he talks about how he first got into filmmaking (which is actually rather amusing here, though the commentary has a slightly darker edge in its telling) and then moves on to making Harold and Maude and its production. We then get one by Colin Higgins, which was recorded in 1979. With this one Higgins talks about his school years and renting the guest house of movie producer Edward Lewis. He wrote Harold and Maude as a school project but Lewis would eventually help in getting the script sold to Paramount. Higgins also covers his short flirtation with possibly directing the film (which is also covered in the commentary and Ashby’s interview) and his opinions on the casting of Bud Cort. Both recordings are played over stills and clips (hence the “illustrated” portion) and both run about 13-minutes and have obviously been edited down. Though the material here is covered quite a bit in the commentary it’s excellent getting an archival firsthand account from what I would consider the two most important people on the project.
Criterion also took the time to get an interview with songwriter Yusuf/Cat Stevens, whose music is used throughout the film. At first he tells about his early career and his music, and how he always wanted his music to be “seen”, meaning he thought it would work in stage productions and then eventually film. He says he was a bit hesitant on signing on to Harold and Maude, despite loving the script, but eventually did (obviously.) He also talks about his disappointment at what was used in the film: he says that what actually plays for some songs are rough versions, practice runs of sorts, and he had hoped to record better, more professionally done versions. It surprisingly only runs 11-minutes but is an engaging piece and a pleasant surprise.
Incredibly Criterion didn’t get an interview with Cort, who would seem like an obvious candidate. Also not included, despite taking up a good section of the commentary with a rather interesting anecdote, is the film’s theatrical trailer, which was on Paramount’s DVD. Why it’s not here I can’t say.
We do get a rather extensive booklet, though, which features a great, rather lengthy essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, who covers the film’s themes, the time period and ideals it represents, and offers a bit about Ashby’s career. We then get a reprint of a rather fun interview with Ruth Gordon by Leticia Kent, conducted on the set of the film. Finally the booklet concludes with an abridged reprint of a group interview between James Rogers, cinematographer John Alonzo, and actor Bud Cort from 1997, followed by another short interview conducted in 2001 by Rogers with producers Mildred Lewis and Edward Lewis, and their daughter Susan, who all talk about Colin Higgins. Overall an excellent booklet and an incredibly strong aspect to this release.
Again I’m surprised at how little material is actually here but the material is excellent, including the commentary, which is one of the better ones I’ve heard recently. 7/10