The Number on Maude’s Arm


The 1971 film Harold and Maude chronicles the friendship of a quirky, antisocial young man and an even more idiosyncratic old woman. Harold has been trained to be both morally upright and socially uptight. For fun, and as an act of rebellion against his parents, he attends the funerals of strangers…which is where he meets Maude.

At first, they’re both suspicious of the other. Soon, however, they coordinate their funeral visits, indulge each other’s pranks and even, ultimately, become lovers. Maude teaches Harold how to take life less seriously. Harold gives Maude an infusion of a youth that she seems so jealous of.

Maude herself is a closeted figure. We don’t know much about her life before meeting Harold. In one scene, however, Harold goes to hold Maude’s hand. It’s the first moment of physical intimacy between the two. The camera zooms in and, for a moment, lingers on Maude’s wrist–so slightly that it’s easy to miss the six-digit number tattooed there.

The Holocaust — or, for that matter, anything else about Maude’s past — is never mentioned explicitly, or alluded to again. It’s a subtle, brief bit of story for the viewers who are paying attention.

But it’s that tiny glimpse into Maude’s past that makes her character’s breathless love of life even more breathtaking. And, with that knowledge, the film’s tragic ending affects us that much more profoundly.

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