The 1971 movie Harold and Maude revolves around a privileged but distant young man who plays at death due to an inability to truly experience life. All of this changes when he meets Maude, a 79 year old firecracker who is so lively that it seems to have only vaguely occurred to her that death is even an option, much less an inevitability. They have a whirlwind romance that is intense but necessarily brief, leaving us in the final scene with the impression that Harold’s bleak outlook is forever changed by the intersection of their lives.
Although the events of The Old Man and the Gun state that this is explicitly not the case, I cannot help but feel it to be a spiritual sequel to Harold and Maude. In this capper to Robert Redford’s long and varied career, we get a glimpse of a man who has lived a life dedicated to the Maude philosophy that one must live until they die. Early in the movie, he tells co-star Sissy Spacek that he has never ridden a horse and she replies that he should probably do that sooner rather than later. “Why?” he asks, with that devilish Robert Redford grin. “What have you heard?”
Much as Maude enjoyed thoughtlessly stealing cars, Redford’s character Forrest Tucker is an unrepentant robber of banks (hence the old man and the gun). It becomes clear very early on that although he keeps the money from his escapades that it’s a genuine love for what he does that motivates him. He just can’t get enough of robbing banks, unlike his compatriots Tom Waits and Danny Glover, who celebrates his 27th consecutive portrayal of a man who is getting too old for this s**t. Most bank employees describe Tucker as a gentleman and a happy fella. You get the sense that they feel lucky to have been robbed by such a dashing fellow and you can’t help but be charmed by him yourself (whether you admit that or not, you jaded monsters).
The cat and mouse between Redford vehicle Forrest Tucker and Casey Affleck’s disaffected cop Detective John Hunt (get it? Cos he’s a hunter. He does manhunts. His name is John) provides a lovely story on the surface and sufficiently fuels the narrative of a well crafted plot. It also doubles as an allegory to explore Redford’s career as an actor and the joy and bravado he has brought to his most celebrated roles. Every relentless car chase fills you with a sense of inevitability of the conclusion, but at the same time has the abandon of a tragic Greek hero outrunning his own mortality. Even the final scene of the movie gives us a sense of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where we know that inevitably the credits will roll and the curtain must fall but our final glimpse of the heroes is of two men alive and defiant and guns a-blazing against insurmountable odds.
In that partnership is what I think of as the sub-subtext of this movie, embodied by Detective Hunt. As a cop, he was clearly burnt out and bored before Forrest Tucker entered his life and even though they always remain on opposite sides of the law, there emerges a reluctant affection and camaraderie between them and we see Hunt undergo the kind of energetic transformation of a man who is rediscovering the joy of his youth, which brings me back full circle to Harold and Maude. In one brief moment, with a characteristic touch to the side of the nose that every fan of The Sting will recognize, we see a passing of the torch to the next generation. Just as Maude taught Harold to live, Tucker has taught Hunt and he remains free to amble joyfully into the sunset.
As a retirement piece, Redford couldn’t have picked a more apt piece for his own peculiar oeuvre. Although it makes me feel maudlin and more than a little old to think of the end of an era that has been in place my whole life, it’s a feeling more sweet than bitter and I thank Mr. Redford with all my heart for a lifetime of education and entertainment. And also that devilish grin.