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The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 1 (1966-1990)

Features
by The Playlist Staff
May 19, 2011 8:17 AM
20 Comments
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Woody Allen

Making a film once a decade, like the Terrence Malicks of the world, is all well and good, but what's truly impressive is making a film virtually every year for 40 years, and, generally speaking, consistently making pretty good ones. And that's what Woody Allen's managed to rack up since his debut as credited co-director on "What's Up, Tiger Lily?"

The comedian (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg), got started as a comedy writer when he was a mere 19 years old, and spent the next decade as a stand-up, before finding success as a playwright and, eventually, in Hollywood -- as a term, rather than a place: Allen's always avoided the West Coast where possible. Since then, barely a year has gone by without a new project from the director, with some even bringing two, and, while the last decade has seen something of a drop in quality, Allen's still able to attract outstanding casts: you haven't really made it as an actor until Allen's asked you to appear in one of his films.

The director's latest, "Midnight in Paris," was widely received when it premiered in Cannes last week as one the director's best films in years (our review certainly thought so) and to celebrate, we've decided to run down every single one of Allen's directorial efforts. There are so many films that we've had to split it into two parts: today brings 1966-1990, while tomorrow will bring 1990-2011.

We've also asked some famous friends/recent interviewees for their thoughts on Allen, which you'll find interspersed throughout the piece. You may not agree with some of the grades -- indeed, one knock-down drag-out fight erupted in Playlist HQ about the "Interiors" write-up -- but there'll be something in here for even the casual Allen fan. Check them out after the jump (Part two of our retrospective is here).

“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” (1966)
Allen receives credit for being an auteur, a filmmaker with a distinct voice and very specific, abstract political views on the relationships between others. But he began modestly, with the aim to make people lose their composure in a flood of laughs, and in his early years, it’s startling how easy that seemed. Allen didn’t “direct” most of “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” but the film is an early, brilliant precursor to the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” school of film appreciation. Using footage from two films in a Japanese series called “International Secret Police,” Allen recontextualized and redubbed key moments to turn the spy film into a search for the perfect egg salad recipe. It’s a cinematic mixtape, in other words, a fan-edit of sorts with Allen routinely popping in to remind us that he was the questionable choice by the studio to re-edit spy film footage. While more of a stunt than an actual film, the picture remains almost impossibly funny today, a testament to how prescient Allen would be in regards to the evolution of film comedy. [A-]

“Take the Money and Run” (1969)
Somehow obscured by Woody’s more serious and/or outlandish films, this solo directorial debut could, pound for pound, be the funniest film he’s ever made. Told in the format of a fake documentary, a creative decision well before its time, “Take the Money and Run" follows the story of Virgil Starkwell, a criminal who robs banks in lieu of a successful professional life in the, ahem, legal sector. As Virgil stacks up ignominies, we see the first stirrings of Allen’s romantic side, with a genuine relationship that develops amongst the madcap slapstick with Janet Margolin’s Louise. 'Money' manages to have this human center but still emphasizes the gags at the heart of the picture, in some ways establishing a template that would later be credited erroneously to “Airplane!” Allen would go on to make pictures with more weighty ideas and concepts, but bits like the botched stickup attempt (“Does this look like ‘gub’ or ‘gun’?”) and the rainy prison escape with a gun of soap are some of the funniest moments ever committed to the medium. [A]

“Bananas” (1971)
Opening with one of his all-time best set pieces – the assassination of a foreign dictator being covered by a Howard Cosell and edited at a brisk, dare we say experimental clip – "Bananas" is ultimately not the most rewarding of his early, wacky films, although it is still a lot of fun, combining moments of sublime silliness with more observational New York living stuff. The former, which involves Allen becoming the leader of a fictional South American country in order to impress a girl, is less successful than the latter, and seems to be based on a combination of his short story writing and somewhat surrealist stand-up routines. The latter, which makes up much of the movie's first act, is more of a goldmine, and includes a hilarious break-up sequence when Allen and his paramour discuss "giving" and "receiving" endlessly. "Bananas" never reaches the gonzo highs of "Love and Death," and as such, feels a little flat, although with international unrest a perennial favorite, it has aged better than "Sleeper." And, yes, that's Sylvester Stallone in an early scene as a subway mugger. [B]

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20 Comments

  • Kitty C. | December 1, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    In Hannah and Her Sisters, Holly and her catering partner, played by Carrie Fisher, were competing for the attention of Sam Waterston's character, NOT Holly and Lee.

  • Emmett Booth | May 21, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    Imagine what the Woodman who made Sleeper would've done with Anchorman had it been his.

  • goldfarb | May 20, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    like many Allen has a special place in my heart/mind that most other filmamkers never will...and when I see each new film year after year my views are never confined to that film alone (for good or bad)...I always see each film as an additional piece of the larger Woddy Allen World...so they tend to average out, the outright classics bringning up the lesser efforts...

  • Catherine Scott | May 20, 2011 1:47 AMReply

    About Jeff Daniels what we meant was not that he is no longer a good actor, but that, as you've pointed out, his good roles today are few and far between (even though he often does a good job in his films).

    What we probably should have said was that he was worthy as a leading man on top of being a good actor, since we don't see him taking many lead roles today; it's easy to forget that he was once leading man material.

  • In Defense of Jeff Daniels | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    "and it’s easy to forget that Daniels was quite a good actor back in his day."

    This statement truly offended me. Jeff Daniels has made many bad movies over the years, but is still a great actor. In the last decade he's had some really strong performances -"The Squid and the Whale" "The Lookout" "Goodnight and Good luck" come to mind, and show that he is still at the top of his game in the last 10 years, how dare you insinuate he was only good "back in his day."

    Not to mention he owned the 90's with his performances in "Dumb and Dumber" and "Gettysburg."

    Carry on.

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    The urge to grade them in relation is understandable and frankly, it's how we *generally* do them, but in this case we didn't for whatever reason.

    But it's kinda the way one should review films. Like if "Sucker Punch" gets a C-, but like "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" gets an F, one might say, "how do you give POTC4 an F* and Sucker Punch a C-???" and then answer is well 1) like all reviews, it's subjective and 2) we're not grading them in relation to the film, we're grading them on the film itself and how good, bad, successful or failing they are.

    *i made those grades up, i cannot recall what they were graded other than they're both ass. :)

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    That's a good point, I wasn't thinking about how different critics were reviewing different movies. And someone who reviews Take the Money and Run shouldn't check with the person who reviews Manhattan to make sure their grades match up.

  • Christopher Bell | May 19, 2011 9:42 AMReply

    I'll have to agree with the grade for "Another Woman." Interesting premise but painfully dull and quite a slog. I like "September" better, but I really do feel like those straight up dramas (which includes "Interiors") feel rather hollow at times.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    Reducing Annie Hall's grade for any whiff of "misogyny" seen in 2011?

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    The grades are worth fighting over, yes, but remember, they're subjective. Yes, there's no way those early Woodies are A's over the aforementioned classics, but that's MY opinion. Also the person who graded say, Take the Money and run, didn't grade say, Annie Hall and if they were being done in relation to each other (as they sometimes/usually are) it would have been different.

  • Billyboy | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    Both Zelig and Another Woman are completely underrated.

    Zelig is not only one of the greatest parodies of all time, but a groundbreaking film in FX development and brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis. People talk about the "brilliant FX work" in Forrest Gump when Hanks meets Kennedy. Guess what? Allen did that almost 15 years earlier and much more brilliantly than Forrest Dud.

    Another Woman might be his greatest straight drama. Gena Rowlands gives a superb performance completely ignored back then. Allen describes this film as one of his most personal.

    Except those two, good restrospective ,guys.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    I recall missing the earlier pictures, started in '77 with Annie Hall. After that I was so hooked on Allen I went to Interiors like my GF made me buy an artsy lamp, meanwhile holding out hope for the next year's Woody, looking forward to a comedy. It turned out to be Manhattan. To me Manhattan was in the same league as that year's Apocalypse Now. As a devout worshipper of the Woodman, in 1980 I sped to his next, Stardust Memories, expecting it to be Manhattan 2, instead hit it like going face-first into a brick wall at 80 mph. That movie was where the '70s ended.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 19, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Correction: That Manhattan write-up is an English rose.

  • Erik | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    You know, it's funny - I'm one of the most devoted Woody fans out there, but I wouldn't rate anything he did before Love and Death higher than a C, and I think Interiors and especially Another Woman are great flicks. I would even put Another Woman in my top five of all Woody movies.

    Guess I'm the opposite of the fans depicted in Stardust Memories!

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    sorry, that Manhattan write up was really weak.

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    Great work, but that write up was really weak.

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:04 AMReply

    There's no way Love and Death and Take the Money and Run are As if Manhattan and Annie Hall are A-. Annie Hall maybe, but Manhattan?! Crazy.

  • Hayden Maxwell | May 19, 2011 8:53 AMReply

    And let me champion Alice a little. The Alec Baldwin scene is beautiful.

  • Edward Davis | May 19, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    Whoa, generous grades, guys. Count me in for the "Interiors" dust-up. That's A-grade all the way.

  • Yer | May 19, 2011 8:42 AMReply

    Allen may make a film every year, but in many of those years the output has been mediocre. I'd rather have Malick's once a decade, but high quality output then Allen shoot until it sticks approach. That being said I saw "Midnight in Paris" two nights ago and it is fantastic, his best in years.

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