Today: February 26, 2024

In a recent poll of British comedians’ favourite comics, Woody Allen came third, behind Peter Cook and John Cleese, but ahead of Eric Morecambe and Groucho Marx.

In a recent poll of British comedians’
favourite comics, Woody Allen came third, behind Peter Cook and John Cleese,
but ahead of Eric Morecambe and Groucho Marx. Movie-wise, he’s unique in this company,
of course – he’s the only one to stand behind the camera as well as in front of
it, and the only one with claims to being one of the intellectual masters of
film, as opposed to someone who just happened to be a funny man in front of a
camera. As the BFI celebrate the comedies of Allen with a month-long tribute
entitled Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen, Jack Watkins ponders Allen’s
distinctive career and what makes his comedies worthy of a second renaissance.

Allen is seventy-six now, but despite critics
queuing, pens sharpened, to write him off as a spent force, there has been
notable re-flowering in recent years. The signs were there with Match Point (2005),
apparently one of Allen’s personal favourites, and the – far superior – Vicky Cristina
Barcelona (2008). Now his latest film Midnight in Paris (main photo) has become his biggest
box office hit to date, taking over three times as many dollars as Hannah and Her
Sisters (1986), Manhattan (1979) and Annie all (1978), previously his bthree biggest commercial hits.Hall
(1977), previously his three biggest money spinners.

In so many ways, Allen eludes easy categorisation.
His stories, peopled by academics, writers and artists, have never had the mass
audience appeal of the roughly contemporary Mel Brooks (The Producers, Blazing
Saddles) or Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Out of Towners) – though he has outlasted both of
them. The laugher count can be surprisingly low given his capacity for real
absurdist hilarity in the Groucho Marx tradition
in some of his best scenes, and the laugh-a-minute funniness of his original New
York stand-up performances. His films reference Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini as his great
directorial inspirations, yet he has never quite shown the steady, unrelenting
seriousness of purpose of Bergman, nor the extravagance and visual audacity of Fellini.

Neurotic Humour

Yet the image of Allen as the intense,
skinny guy in horn-rimmed specs, mad about sex, desperate for love, yet baulking
at commitment, has become one of the most famous of movie personas. His obsessions
and neuroticism, the rapid, seemingly extemporised exchanges of dialogue, the
arty preoccupations, the familiar army of pet hates – from Beverly Hills to environment-polluting
cars – can be seen to inhabit a place recognisable as “Allen-land.”

David Thomson memorably writes of Allen as
“a Chaplin hero for the chattering classes.” His work, if too talkative and
pretentious for some, seems now to stand for a vanishing strand of American
film-making. It is of a kind once common in the 1970s, but which has now
largely succumbed to the assault of the blockbusters and post-production special
effects boys. Allen’s renaissance is to be celebrated, not just because of the
quality of the films he is still clearly capable of making, but because he
offers us an alternative vision of how movies can be made.

In recent times, Allen has ceased to appear
in his films. But here are some of his best from the 1970s which feature his
comic persona…

Bananas
(1971)

Allen’s second film as a director is an
uneven vehicle. But it has some characteristic Allen-esque exchanges with Louise
Lasser
, his wife at the time, such as a classic
scene in a newsagent during which he surreptitiously attempts to inspect and
buy a pornographic magazine, and a fabulously funny court room scene. Allen’s
speech as a Fidel Castro manqué is another highlight. Look out for a short appearance
in an early sequence on the underground by a young Sylvester Stallone.

Sleeper
(1973)

Allen goes sci-fi as the quipping coward
who wakes up two hundred years in the future in a police state. There are some desperately
cheap “futuristic” props, but Allen makes for a very graceful, clown-like robot
– his deadpan expression perhaps a nod to Buster Keaton – and the film has the considerable plus of Diane Keaton as his kooky, bickering foil.

Keaton: “What does it feel like to be dead
for 200 years?”

Allen: “Like spending a week in Beverly Hills.”

Love and Death (1975)

Allen pastiches the Russian period epics
and once again spars with Keaton. “Sex without love is an empty experience,”
she says. “Yes,” retorts Allen, “but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the
best.” In this film, the Allen comic persona seems to reach its fullest
expression – the geeky specs, the sad Keatonesque eyes, the choking
nervousness, the false swagger, the morale cowardice. Some goodish sight gags,
but these essentially confirm that Allen is a verbal rather than a physical
comedian.

Annie Hall
(1977)

Just about every film Allen made in the
early 1970s was an advance on the previous one. By 1977, however, he was really nearing his
peak as a filmmaker, able to integrate humour and bittersweet observations on
life and death, sex, Jewishness and money, and New York v Los Angeles, within a
narrative that actually made you care about the characters. And the marvellous
chemistry between Allen and Keaton was irresistible now, even if the laughs
were fewer than in Love and Death.

Manhattan
(1979)

Moonlight in New York was seldom lovelier
than as photographed in this partial love poem to the city. Once again the
movie represented a huge advancement in terms of character depiction and storyline,
and featured a touching performance from a young Mariel Hemingway as Allen’s seventeen year-old girlfriend. Allen at his most provocative,
with much pseudo-intellectual balloon pricking.

Many of these films can be viewed at
BFI’s Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen season running from 30 December
– 8 February . See here.

END

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