The Woody Allen Retrospective: Part 1

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.20.12 AM

With the upcoming release of Blue Jasmine, we here at Movie Mezzanine decided dive back into the past to examine the voluminous and brilliant filmmaking career of Woody Allen. Since the peerless auteur has helmed over 40 feature films, we’ve divided the retrospective into two parts.

Today we’ll discuss each movie, year by year, in Allen’s filmography — beginning with 1966’s What’s New Pussycat? and concluding with 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Tomorrow we’ll pick up right where we left off and embark into the ’90s and beyond.

Although this editor-in-chief would be more than happy to sing the praises of the neurotic and poignant, Brooklyn born witticist, we thought it would be best to present a variety of opinions from Mezzanine writers. Also worth noting is that while Allen has had more than a modicum of success as a playwright and actor (and as a standup comedian, a film editor, an author, a columnist, a jazz musician, etc), we’re narrowing our focus to his work as a director. Anyway, without further ado, we hope you enjoy!

‘What’s Up Tiger Lilly?’ (1966)
Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 7.43.38 PM

Grade: C+

Woody’s first directorial credit is for orchestrating a new voice track for an obscure Japanese action spy thriller International Secret Police: Key of Keys. The re-dubbing lends the bizarre original a new plot centered around the recapturing of a secret egg salad recipe. Intermittently amusing, nuttily unhinged and more than a little racist, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is purely for die-hard Woody completists. The jokes come fast and are forgotten faster in what is ostensibly a dumping ground for half-baked weirdo one-liners and sight gags. There’s a giddy energy to it, though, that ultimately peters out before the closing credits which roll over one of the most awkwardly unsexy stripteases ever captured on film. – Jesse Knight

‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969)
Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 9.26.46 PM

Grade: B

The jokes in Woody’s early slapstick comedies are strongest when the object of parody is ripest. In Take the Money and Run, it’s stuffy non-fiction filmmaking that gets the send-up in what very well could be the first ever “mockumentary”. In it, talking heads and faux-historical footage recount the exploits of hapless criminal Virgil Starkwell (Allen) as his many bungled robbery attempts find him in and out of prison. Technically Woody’s first genuine directorial job, there is no visual stamp yet to speak of. It moves along scrappily at best, though Woody’s dexterous Chaplin-esque physical comedy chops are as evident as they would be in the coming years.

Woody’s introduction here is especially indelible and perfectly indicative of his absurdist sensibilities, as he is seen marching with a band mid-parade while attempting to sit down in a chair long enough to play the cello. Even though Take the Money and Run stakes its claim in silliness, its gravitational pull is the enduring romance between Virgil and Louise (Janet Margolin, yum), citing the first instance of the romantic underdog who would become a staple in Woody’s repertoire of alter-egos. – Knight

‘Bananas’ (1971)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.12.41 AM

Grade: B+

Woody Allen’s third film was a screwball comedy in the vein of The Marx Brothers that’s as kooky as it is intelligent. Not all of the gags work, but they come so quickly that every failed joke is usually followed by two or three that succeed. It’s a film that tries to have something for everyone, from broad physical comedy to more intellectual jabs at American imperialism (plus the usual assortment of Allen humor about religion, sex and psychoanalysis).

There’s even a gag referencing the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, proof that behind the jokes about breasts and fake beards there was a mind that understood cinema history and craft. None of the tragic romantic entanglements that would come to define his later work are present here; instead, Bananas is reminder that before he was a famous film director, he was one of the smartest and most versatile comedians of his time. – Andrew Johnson

‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask’ (1972)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.00.19 AM

Grade: A

It wasn’t Anthony Wiener who first proved that the relationship between erection and politics is close – it was Woody Allen. Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask is absurd, hysterically funny, charmingly ridiculous and taboo-crushing naughty play with repressed mainstream understanding of sexual rules and schemes. As could be expected of a guy who admits to favor self-lovemaking over human-to-human interactions, this auteur adaptation of David Reuben’s book often refers to various Freudian theories (and, as usual, plays with Allen’s Jewish background). This grotesque feast put in seven (not sensual, yet sexual) acts and is a strong competitor against Monthy Python and the Holy Grail as the best example of the genre. Only those, for whom having sex with bread or an underage sheep is the staff of life will not be amused. – Anna Tatarska

‘Sleeper’ (1973)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.17.35 AM

Grade: B-

For his fifth feature outing as a director, Allen turned to science fiction. Sleeper finds him directing himself as an ordinary health store owner who wakes up 200 years in the future after being cryogenically frozen. It’s little more than a loosely connected, hit-and-miss series of sketches, but the futuristic setting does allow for some scathing bits of satire, from a machine that provides users with an instant orgasm to a robotic dog that offers no meaningful companionship.

The most intriguing thing about Sleeper is how Allen combines his passion for jazz with his love of silent comedy. Several scenes allow him to showcase his talent for physical slapstick, homages to Chaplin and Keaton set to an energetic score. And his last exchange with Diane Keaton—who delivers a hilarious, often improvised performance—is arguably one of the defining moments of his filmography, in which he acknowledges that that if there’s anything he believes in, it’s sex and death. Freud would be proud. – Johnson

‘Love and Death’ (1975)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.35.58 AM

Grade: B

“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”

Allen is adept at mingling brows both high and low. And this is exemplified in this parody of Russian literature, in which a character will one moment be waxing philosophic, and the next plainly, dejectedly state that he “got screwed.” Allen casts his sardonic observations on war, peace, crime, punishment, and more, in between supremely silly slapstick.

Love and Death’s breeziness belies its headier concerns. In many respects, the philosophical conversations between characters seems like a warm-up for Annie Hall, and this film is often considered a bridge between Allen’s early career and the style that’s more recognizably his own. – Dan Schindel

‘Annie Hall’ (1977)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.26.07 AM

Grade: A

“What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

This is it. The big one. It smashed the box office, won four Oscars, shows up on all the best-of lists, even influenced fashion. Pretty much every romantic comedy that’s been made since owes something to Annie Hall.

Originally meant to be a murder mystery with a minor romantic subplot called Anhedonia, Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum reworked the film into the meditation on relationships and life that we all know and love. There’s more stylistic bravery packed into any given five minutes of Annie Hall than most movies have in their whole being. A breathlessly inventive sense of postmodernism picks apart the way people think, the way they act with one another, and the way they remember the past.

Allen’s films had previously juggled more serious ideas in with the lightheartedness, but this was the first where he struck the unique balance between the two that he’s known for. It’s hilarious, but ultimately, it’s also deeply melancholic. That’s crucial, because it both drives home the pain of heartbreak and reminds of why we risk it in the first place. We all need the eggs. – Schindel

‘Interiors’ (1978)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.48.50 AM

Grade: A

In a way it’s unfair to evaluate Allen’s Bergmanesque chamber piece Interiors as a film that’s part of the director’s oeuvre. It feels nothing like any other selection in his catalogue, and yet it’s this impressive singularity that makes it one of the director’s finest achievements. All the anachronistic elements, the dour tone and palette, lack of comedic flourishes, thematic solemnity, create something that almost seems outside of Allen’s wheelhouse. But this isn’t just Allen aping Bergman or Bresson; instead, he’s turning his signature demographic on its head to show the darker underbelly of the literate, cultured white population he professes to know so well.

Occasionally dismissed as a one-dimensional film about white people’s problems, Interiors makes good on its potential caricatures through Allen’s ability to never treat them as such; he respects these people and never condescends to them, evidenced by the closing scene’s ultimate hopefulness. Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton, particularly, earned much deserved Oscar nods for their performances as two women at opposite ends of the gratification spectrum. The characters’ carefully controlled interiors, or interiority, become something heartbreaking and universal. Though it’s unlikely that Allen will tread down this cinematic path again, it would be interesting to see how age and experience would manifest itself in a similar effort. – John Oursler

Manhattan — (1979)

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 7.31.31 PM

Grade: A+

Perhaps I’m idolizing it all out of proportion, but Woody Allen’s sensational black and white love letter to New York City may very well be his magnum opus. A melodic and melancholy meditation on fleeting values, infidelity, and relationships, Manhattanset to the pulsating tune of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” – is at once relentlessly cynical and outwardly optimistic about the conceit of falling in love. In true renaissance form Allen writes, directs, and then stars in the film as a successful comedy writer who quits his prodigiously paying job to pursue more satisfying and creative intellectual avenues (i.e. penning a fictional book).

Somewhere in between opining about his affection for the city that never sleeps and the moral decay of a desensitized culture, he becomes romantically entangled with a precocious, 17-year-old breathless beauty played by Mariel Hemingway, and a cerebral journalist played by Diane Keaton, who proudly proclaims her distaste for overrated hacks like Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

If Annie Hall and Interiors didn’t already signify the change to come in Allen’s oeuvre, Manhattan dutifully does. Over time this masterpiece has been heralded as Allen’s finest hour in cinema. Ironically, when it came time to release the film in 1979, Allen begged United Artists not to – insisting that the movie was awful and that he’d be willing to make another picture, free of charge. Thankfully for us Manhattan exists, and has since evolved into a film that, in many ways, makes live worth living. – Sam Fragoso

‘Stardust Memories’ (1980)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.28.31 AM

Grade: B+

Upon its release in 1980, Stardust Memories was reviled by just about everyone. Critics immediately deemed the film a vapid magic-act that was merely mimicking Federico Fellini’s superior 8 1/2, while audiences felt it was a personal attack on them as fans of Allen’s earlier, funnier work. Thankfully, after re-watching the film 33 years after its release, Allen’s stylistically driven “magic trick” is equally insightful and hilarious. Casting himself as a filmmaker who attends a retrospective of his own work, Allen tactfully comments on the maddening process of being an artist, and the pressures of creating an intellectually satisfying piece of work that doesn’t alienate the viewer. Stardust Memories nearly becomes the latter — but its clever and artful enough not to. – Fragoso

‘A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy ‘ (1982)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.54.44 AM

Grade: C

There are films sprinkled throughout Woody’s career that clearly stemmed from one of those bits of paper clustered inside the drawer of ideas featured in Robert B. Weide’s invaluable 2012 documentary about the filmmaker. Those films are usually noncommittal and prone to slips of the memory. The carnal turn-of-the-century farce A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, about three couples in the country combating lustful urges for one another, isn’t quite menial, but it’s no surprise it’s one of the director’s biggest flops. Even Woody’s most inconsequential outings, however, can hardly be considered wastes of time. In fact, what hinders A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is too much polish.

Gordon Willis, the legendary cinematographer who aided Woody in cultivating his expressionistic visual style that began with Annie Hall, shoots this frivolous countryside jaunt with considerable gravitas that clashes with the flimsy material. It’s almost as if Willis devised such sophisticated, at times entrancing, shot setups to keep himself from getting bored. Not that Midsummer is entirely deprived of pleasures. The scenes between Woody and Mia Farrow as unrequited lovers are sweet, and Jose Ferrer as Farrow’s pompous, older fiancé is a wealth of uproarious asides (about Paris he declares, “I like large cities!”). While there are hints of Woody’s early-career zaniness in this riff on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the stiff rhythm picks up far too late, and the game cast – which also includes Tony Roberts, Julie Hagerty and Mary Steenburgen – get slighted more substantial teeth-sinking. – Knight

‘Zelig’ (1983)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.26.59 AM

Grade: A-

Fourteen years after Take The Money And Run, Allen once again tried his hand at a mockumentary. The result was one of the funniest and well-made examples of the genre ever produced. He utilizes all the traditional tropes, from after-the-fact interviews to fake archival footage, to tell the story of Leonard Zelig, a “human chameleon” who transforms into the people around him. It feels like a creative exercise in the vein of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, an attempt to explore how existing footage can be modified to create something entirely new. The conventions of documentary automatically prevent Allen from approaching things with his usual slapstick sketches and sharp one-liners. Most of the comedy arises organically out of the mockumentary approach, and beneath the simplistic premise lies an intelligent exploration of social mores, immigrant alienation and cultural assimilation. Its only fault is that even at 80 minutes it occasionally feels too long for its conceit, but even so Zelig remains one of the most innovative entries in Allen’s filmography. – Johnson

‘Broadway Danny Rose’ (1984)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.53.05 AM

Grade: B+

At his nebbish best, Woody Allen’s leading man persona is the sort of guy you’d hope to meet by chance at a local coffee shop and, if you have some extra time, talk with over a Danish. By the time of 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose, it seems that Allen was in-on-the-joke of his cinematic alter-ego, as he constructed a vehicle for himself that is told through flashbacks of men sitting around a table at a diner.

Playing ineffectual New York talent agent Danny Rose, Allen leads a film that has a little bit of everything: a wronged man, car chase, lounge singers, mobsters, adultery, and Mia Farrow playing against type as a smoking, brash “other woman.” Sandwiched between Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s hard not to see this mid 80s period as a particular peak in Allen’s artistic career. The jokes here are classic Woody Allen, and the fact that he chose to shoot the film in black-and-white shows a particular confidence. – Oursler

‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ (1985)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.51.20 AM

Grade: A

When critics categorically praised the magical realism of Allen’s Midnight in Paris as a welcome return to form, many were undoubtedly alluding to 1985’s underrated The Purple Rose of Cairo, a film whose easy nostalgia feels like the blueprint for Paris. In one of her best performances, Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, an unhappy Depression-era housewife who often finds comfort and reprieve at the local cinema. During one of her regular outings to see the film “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Tom (a dashingly young Jeff Daniels), one of the film’s leads, breaks through the celluloid fourth wall to enter Cecilia’s life. “I want to learn about the real world with you,” he innocently says. Together, they begin an impromptu relationship that questions the boundaries of perceived and lived realities. Allen’s free-spiritedness is in grand form, as he uses his film as both a lighthearted discourse on the nature of stardom and the important space cinema holds in the American consciousness. – Oursler

‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ (1986)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 1.43.35 AM

Grade: A

Nearly a decade after winning two Academy Awards for Annie Hall, Allen won his third Oscar for the screenplay of this romantic drama. Though he once again directs himself in front of the camera, this is an ensemble film more than one focused on a specific character—the web of relationships itself seems to be the protagonist. Mia Farrow stars as Hannah, an aspiring actress whose husband (Michael Caine) cheats on her with one of her sisters (Barbara Hershey). Allen plays her ex-husband, who finds himself attracted to another of her siblings (Dianne Weist). In a move inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, the film cuts back-and-forth between multiple storylines over the course of two years.

The most remarkable thing aside from the fantastic performances (Caine and Weist both won Oscars) is how Allen seamlessly transitions from tragedy to comedy. Amidst the adultery and heartbreak there’s a subplot about Allen’s character going through an existential crisis that allows him to insert his familiar neurotic wit. Sex and death remain his primary concerns, and he finds beauty in the various experiences of both. – Johnson

‘Radio Days’ (1987)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.49.25 AM

Grade: C+

For those keeping track of Woody’s cinematic counterparts, Radio Days is a loose appropriation of Federico Fellini’s nostalgia-drenched Amarcord. This breezy medley of memories, enthusiastically narrated by Woody himself, is a fade-to-fade throwback. Joe (played on screen by pint-size Seth Green) recounts stories of amusing irony, coincidence and grief, that extend from his colorful Jewish family to his adolescence to the voices constantly filtering through the radio speakers.

It’s Woody’s most wholly nostalgic exercise and one of his most aesthetically impressive, but rarely feels like more than extended sequences from his other films that flash back to bickering parents and kooky relatives, which are amusing in spurts, but in long form wear out their welcome. No matter how impeccably realized these stories and anecdotes are, or how compelling they may be – or even how movingly they all come together in the end – they’re the kind better suited to a few paragraphs on the page, or imparted during a long drive. With the fluid voiceover guiding us, the people being resurrected – played by familiar faces Julie Kavner, Dianne Wiest, Tony Roberts and a rarely so funny Mia Farrow – can never exist outside the narrator’s memory, which siphons out of them a certain desired depth. – Knight

‘September’ (1987)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.47.07 AM

Grade: A-

A quaint Vermont summer home is the purgatorial stage set in Woody’s finest dramatic effort in which familial tensions boil until inevitably scalding one another. While recuperating after a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow), along with her brassy, socialite mother (Elaine Stritch), agreeable stepfather (Jack Warden), best friend (Dianne Wiest), a discouraged writer (Sam Waterston) and aging lovelorn neighbor (Denholm Elliot) all converge on the suffocating summer cottage where over the course of a season, they all have a chance to expose their cracks and chasms.

By this point in his career, arrant drama isn’t a departure for Woody, though September is noteworthy for its one-location curtailment, essentially rendering it a filmed play. Not only do we never leave the house, we never even get a glimpse outside. Reliable mid-period Woody cinematographer Carlo Di Palma envelops every room with a golden glint, as the summer sun strives to penetrate every drawn curtain. Often unfairly dismissed as too dreary, Woody’s chamber drama is immaculately performed and one gorgeous piece of writing, rich with incisive and ornate exchanges, particularly Warden’s delectable monologue about how his physicist vocation grants him informed perspective on the destruction of the universe, and Stritch’s lament to her own ripened reflection in a vanity mirror about how her tenacious inner vitality is inhibited by age. It’s a stark drama that nimbly sidesteps morose or dour traps, as everyone seems to be hanging on by a thread, awaiting the season’s end. If summer is purgatory here, then September is afterlife. – Knight

‘Another Woman’ (1988)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.45.48 AM

Grade: B+

Allen’s under-the-radar drama Another Woman is potentially even more heavily influenced by Bergman than Interiors. In his first collaboration with Bergman’s legendary cinematography stalwart Sven Nykvist, Allen once again explores the highly internalized troubles of the highbrowed middle-class. Gena Rowlands headlines the film as Dr. Marion Post, a philosophy professor who retreats to a posh New York apartment to do research for and write a new book. Holed up with nothing to think about but her own history, Marion overhears the sessions between her therapist neighbor and Hope (Mia Farrow), the titular female in question. Hope’s troubles spark deep introspection in Marion, who befriends the younger woman in an attempt learn more about herself.

This film has Wild Strawberries written all over it, but it’s not merely a modern pastiche; Rowlands embodies a nuanced quietness that presents a nice counterpoint to the titanic dynamism of her performances in John Cassavetes’s films. It’s fascinating to see an actor of Rowlands’s immense talent in a role that reveals even deeper layers, which is what her lone performance in one of Allen’s films achieves. As a whole, Another Woman is an astutely drawn, if somewhat slight entry into Allen’s vast catalogue. – Oursler

‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989)

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 2.43.37 AM

Grade: A-

To cap off arguably the best decade of Woody’s famed career is Crimes and Misdemeanors – a strikingly profound confluence of dark, grisly drama and witty, self-deprecating comedy. Two stories coexist within Allen’s ingenious gem – an ophthalmologist (played by a restless Martin Landau) who must deal with a mistress (Angelica Huston) ready to ruin his philanthropist reputation, and a shoestring documentarian (played by Allen) who’s forced to chronicle the life and times of a Hollywood hack (played by Alan Alda). The two narratives harmoniously play off each other (Allen’s comedic portion provides some much-needed levity to Landau’s morality tale) until dovetailing in the final scene of the picture. Questions of our morality and mortality always seem to be on Woody’s mind — but here he goes deeper, examining religion and the doubt that inevitably comes along with having faith in a religion. Aside from the theological matters, Crimes and Misdemeanors is laced with heavy metaphors (i.e. an ophthalmologist blinded by his own nihilism) and ripe with pathos that ultimately manage to strike an emotional chord — especially a narrated monologue that ends the movie on a perfect note. – Fragoso

We hope you enjoyed part 1 of our Woody Allen retrospective. We’ll resume tomorrow with the ’90s. For now, share your thoughts on Allen as a filmmaker below.