The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Woody Allen reviews: 1965 – 1976

Posted by therebelprince on November 8, 2013

Woody in "What's New, Pussycat?"

Woody in “What’s New, Pussycat?”

I’ve spent many hours of 2013 watching Woody Allen’s entire output (although not chronologically). Many I had seen before, indeed some have been my favourite movies for years. Others I was only vaguely familiar with (although a few I thought I’d seen turned out to be complete surprises to me!). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be churning out capsule reviews of all of the films, including some where he appears only as an actor and not as the ideas-man. I hope you enjoy.

First, a couple of caveats:

  • My reviews are deliberately capsules, to avoid me from procrastinating half my life with these! I highly recommend the review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, and the wonderful website Every Woody Allen Movie, which truly analyses Allen’s output and is, basically, the reason I’ve decided against doing full reviews, since I could never live up.
  • My ratings for this system vary from half a star to five stars. It’s tough to make a grading system like that: am I rating only within the confines of Allen’s oeuvre, or am I comparing them to all films? For the sake of this project, I’ve attempted to give them ratings that go somewhere in the middle – I’m not really comparing Allen’s output to every other genre, era, and ideology in film history. But given the director’s open relationship with a century of film history, the rating scale encompasses more than just some narrow view just focused on Allen’s works.

01. What’s New Pussycat? (1965)

written by Allen, directed by Clive Donner

Farce takes over a French hotel as a struggling womaniser (Peter O’Toole) and his manic psychoanalyst (Peter Sellars) fight against their base desires – and lose.  

A confused hodgepodge of a movie which is interesting more as a product of its time – and the first script Allen got produced – rather than for its content. O’Toole is out of his depth and, while Sellars is enjoyable, there’s not a lot to recommend. This film probably needed to happen, allowing the up-and-coming comedian/TV skit writer to get a foothold into the film industry, and it’s interesting to see the script that first got Allen into the big-time, a script so very contemporary that it’s hopelessly dated. But short of a drug binge, it’s hard to imagine someone willingly sitting through this. 1.5 stars.

with Allen, Romy Schneider, Ursula Andress, Paula Prentiss, Capucine, Michasl Subor and Edra Gale

Academy Award nomination: Best Song (Burt Bacharach and Hal David)

02. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

Chinese secret agent Phil Moskowitz hunts for the world’s greatest egg salad recipe.

A thoroughly silly experiment that I happen to quite enjoy, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? prefigures MSTK3000 and Hercules Returns – a film taken out of context and dubbed over with deliberately inane content. This could only have come from a youthful comedian given a tiny budget by a film studio. There are some weird quirks where the network took over (including a couple of very strange rock music interludes), and the conceit perhaps doesn’t warrant an entire film, but it’s a fun little curio in Allen’s repertoire. 2.5 stars.

–. Casino Royale (1967)

written by Wolf Mankowitz, directed by various

James Bond (David Niven) is brought out of retirement to investigate the deaths and disappearances of a number of international spies.

A disaster of a film, whose production – hampered by stars who refused to film scenes together and a perplexing script – devastated innumerable directors. There are some funny moments, many of them involving Allen (who – as a young up-and-comer – is a featured cast member, not a creative behind the project) but the film is indulgent, confusing, and just… unfortunate. Half a star.

with Peter Sellars, Orson Welles, Jacqueline Bisset, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Andress, Daliah Levi, Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Bouchet, Ronnie Corbett, William Holden, John Huston and Anna Quayle

Take the Money and Run

Take the Money and Run

03. Take the Money and Run (1969)

Virgil Starkwell (Allen) is a criminal from youth… although not a very good one.

The first true Woody Allen film shows immense promise and a raw, biting humour that would appear too infrequently after the mid-’70s. It’s also the first of his semi-documentaries, and overall works very well. In some ways, it feels like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, which means that the bits which don’t work really don’t work – but they’re few and far between. The early ’70s sees Allen trying out variations on his comic persona, which he had already honed in a live format but was now able to alter and transform, at least for the next few appearances. There’s not all that much beneath the surface of Take the Money and Run, but its off-beat, vaguely anarchic humour still compels. 3.5 stars.

with Janet Margolin, Lonny Chapman, Jacquelyn Hide, Jan Merlin, James Anderson, Ethel Sokolov, Harry Leff and Louise Lasser

04. Bananas (1971)

A bumbling New Yorker (Allen) is dumped by his activist girlfriend (Lasser), leading him to get involved in the rebellion attempt of a tiny Latin American nation.

Another very funny, very raw film from Allen, who was quickly becoming a cinematic favourite. It’s also the first time Allen cast a former lover – Louise Lasser. At the same time, I feel this drags more often than Take the Money and Run, possibly because the film is still made up of comedic “bits” but there seems to be less variation on the concept than there was in the earlier film. One would never think this is the same director who would soon be giving us Annie Hall and Manhattan, but it certainly prefigures the flights of fancy that would characterise movies as diverse as The Purple Rose of Cairo and To Rome With Love. Right now we’re seeing an approach to film making that is part-anarchist, part film buff, and part comedic misanthrope. Good stuff. 3 stars.

with Carlos Montalban, Jacobo Morales, Natividad Abascal, Dorothi Fox and Rene Enriquez

05. Play it Again, Sam (1972)

directed by Herbert Ross

A recently divorced writer (Allen) tries to get back into the dating scene with the help of the spectral figure of Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy).

A touching and witty film, adapted from Allen’s play. While there’s no doubt of its theatrical origins, Play it Again, Sam ironically feels like the first time an Allen screenplay is tailored for its running time, and not until the skit ends. It also prefigures Allen’s ’80s and ’90s output, bringing us to characters with more than a passing relationship with literature, and who constantly flirt outside the bounds of their own marriage. This is another very Allen-centric work, reminding us of how important his comedic persona was to his early success. Still, he found two of his key contributors in Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts who – along with the writer – create a marvelously naturalistic trio. Lacy is pitch-perfect as Bogey, but it’s Allen who steals the screen, and his script – while predictable in places – ultimately sidesteps the expected twists often enough to remain engaging. Lovely.  4 stars.

with Jennifer Salt and Susan Anspach

Everything You Always Wanted to Know...

Everything You Always Wanted to Know…

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

In 7 instalments, sex throughout the ages is examined.

By its very nature as an episodic film, EYAWTKAS lives and dies on the strength of its installments. Thankfully, they’re all quite amusing. #4. Are Transvestites Homosexuals? and #5. What Are Sex Perverts? are thoroughly one-joke and, despite amusing concepts, don’t merit rewatching. #1. Do Aphrodisiacs Work? is utter silliness, but in a good way, as Allen’s court jester fights against the chastity regime of his Queen (Lynn Redgrave). #3 – Allen’s homage to Italian films – is more laudable than life-changing, but does give the first real indication of that part of Allen’s psyche that worships Fellini and Bergman, and would go to increasing lengths to emulate them. Things pick up somewhat in two of the naughtier segments, #6, in which Allen and John Carradine fight against a giant breast in a parody of ’50s sci-fi films, and #2, a consistently funny piece in which Gene Wilder begins an affair with a sheep. The highlight, #7. What Happens During Ejaculation?, remains a pinnacle of Allen’s output, as he plays a neurotic sperm preparing for orgasm. If you’re not laughing at this, you’re probably not going to enjoy any Allen film with more laughs than InteriorsGreat, naughty fun. 3.5 stars.

with Lasser, Jack Barry, Lou Jacobi, Ref Sanchez, Heather MacRae, Erin Fleming, Burt Reynolds, Regis Philbin and Tony Randall

07. Sleeper (1973)

A health food store owner (Allen) wakes up after 200 years in cryogenesis, to find himself in an ineptly-run police state.

Another imaginative world deliberately deflated by Allen’s investigation of the mundane, and this one is great fun. Diane Keaton – who already made an impression in Play it Again, Sam – has a ball as a futuristic socialite, and the pace keeps up for at least the majority of the film’s running time. (Remarkably, for such an auteur, Allen’s films rarely go longer than 90 minutes.) Some of the jokes are a little dated, and Allen’s camera is more detached than it usually was during the 1970s, which makes the jokes even drier than usual. Thoroughly enjoyable. If there’s anything that knocks a point off Sleeper, it’s that you begin to feel the sense of Allen caged in to this style of film. He’s ready for something new. 3.5 stars.

with Susan Miller, John Beck, Marya Small, Mary Gregory and Don Keefer

08. Love and Death (1975)

An Austrian pacifist (Allen) inadvertently becomes a war hero during the Napoleonic Wars, while attempting to win the heart of his cousin twice removed (Keaton).

Love and Death

Love and Death

One of my absolute favourites among the canon, this is either the end of an era for Allen, or the start of something new. It’s the last of his “Allen’s comic persona enters a different time period” output, but does so with panache, replete with seemingly endless literary and cultural references. Whereas the earlier films skewered real-life concerns, Love and Death allows Allen to run riot through both history and literature, giving him several layers to the gags, without ever losing sight of how much fun he and Keaton can have just riffing off of one another. Many of the film’s jokes might not work unless you’re well-read, and the reliance on slapstick may surprise people of my generation, for whom an Allen film is Blue Jasmine, but this one is a real classic. 4.5 stars.

with Harold Gould, Jessica Harper, Olga Georges-Picot, James Tolkan, Brian Coburn, Zvee Scooler, Tony Jay, Feodor Atkine and Yves Barsacq

–. The Front (1976)

written by Walter Bernstein, directed by Martin Ritt

In the 1950s, a small-time bookie (Allen) begins claiming credit for TV scripts to help out a blacklisted friend, only for his entire life to change.

In a rare career move, Allen takes the lead role in someone else’s film. There’s much to respect, as the film explores the various impacts of the McCarthy era, particularly in the heartfelt performance of Zero Mostel as an ageing comedian brought down by both the change of public taste and the actions of the right-wingers. The scene in which he is gradually torn down by the management of a Catskills resort is unbearably painful (and apparently drawn from real life). At the same time, the film has the feel of a TV movie-of-the-week, never quite making a political statement with any power, and spending an odd amount of time on the unbelievable adventures of the protagonist, who somehow becomes a renowned screenwriter with very little questioning from anyone else. The plot builds to a sadly limp climax, and never quite breaks away from seeming like a TV movie.  An odd beast. 2.5 stars.

with Michael Murphy, Herschel Bernardi and Andrea Marcovicci

Next week: Allen becomes genuine box office gold, as we explore the A to Z of his work, from Annie Hall to Zelig.

Keaton and Allen in "Love and Death"

Keaton and Allen in “Love and Death”

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