Stardust Memories (1980)

“We enjoy your films — particularly the early, funny ones.”

Synopsis:
While attending a retrospective of his films, a beloved movie director (Woody Allen) reflects upon his challenging relationship with a former girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), reconnects with his current partner (Marie-Christine Barrault), and flirts with the pretty young girlfriend (Jessica Harper) of a film professor (John Rothman).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in making Stardust Memories, “Woody Allen takes Fellini’s autobiographical 8 1/2 and applies it, one assumes, to his own life”. He notes that the “picture is [a] daring change of pace for Allen and contains wit and insight into [the] life and thoughts of an Allen-like filmmaker”, but argues (somewhat cryptically) that it’s “not a success”, in part because “we don’t really like” Allen’s character, someone “whom we can believe is much like the real Allen”. He concludes his review by asserting that the film “should certainly be funnier”, and notes that “many” (including Peary himself??) “resent the way ‘Allen’s’ fans are depicted.” Indeed, Stardust Memories is a notoriously contentious film in Allen’s oeuvre, though I’ll admit I remain puzzled by this designation. It’s easier to understand critics’ (and audiences’) “resentment” over Allen’s drastic shift away from comedy with Interiors (1978) — but Stardust Memories is drolly amusing enough to classify as a darkly humorous comedy-of-life, even if it’s not as overtly designed for laughs as his “early, funny” pictures (to quote a character in the film itself).

After writing and helming 8-9 full-length films (including such certified classics as Annie Hall and Manhattan) — and thus revealing himself to be a cinematic auteur of the highest stature — Allen fully “deserved” to make a movie like this, one in which he explores the conflicted nature of his own phenomenal success. One can only imagine the nightmarish existence endured by celebrities of any kind, let alone those (like Allen) who appear to long for a semblance of privacy and normalcy in their everyday lives; in Stardust Memories, Allen is able to show us in satirical detail exactly what it’s like to be confronted on a daily basis by “everyone under the sun who needs a favor”, ranging from a look at one’s fledgling script, to endorsement of worthy causes, to simple yet incessant autograph requests. (And, to Allen’s character’s credit, he handles these requests remarkably graciously, if with an obvious level of underhanded dismissiveness.)

Meanwhile, the bulk of the narrative revolves around the typically tortured romantic existence of Allen’s alter-ego, Sandy Bates, who (much like Michael Caine’s adulterous accountant in Hannah and Her Sister) seems to secretly desire a troubled female companion who “needs” him, rather than a confident and mature mother-figure (the latter embodied here by Barrault, and in HAHS by Mia Farrow). Rampling, Barrault, and Harper are all fine in their respective roles, and Gordon Willis’s b&w cinematography superbly highlights Bates’s stylized existence (it’s difficult to miss the humorously outsized “portraits” of torture decking the apartment walls of this man who’s “obsessed with world suffering”). To that end, Peary rightfully points out the obvious connections between this film and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in its “conclusion that those who have comic gifts… should present comedy to the world… whereas others should tackle serious themes”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
  • Effectively stylized art direction and sets

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s most personal and insightful films.

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Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

“Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds, and in the end none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do.”

Synopsis:
An accountant (Michael Caine) married to an actress (Mia Farrow) falls for his wife’s sister (Barbara Hershey), who’s involved with an older artist (Max von Sydow). Meanwhile, Farrow’s other sister (Dianne Wiest) struggles to find both romantic and personal happiness, and Farrow’s ex-husband (Woody Allen) — a successful television producer — suffers an existential crisis when he learns he may have a brain tumor.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while Hannah and Her Sisters (“Woody Allen’s most acclaimed film”) remains a “sweet” movie in many ways, it’s nonetheless “startling how mean [many of] his characters can be to one another”, given that “they say vicious things” and “betray each other’s trust”, and they “are insensitive, they lie, [and] they are accusatory”. He points out that “every character is deeply wounded at some point, finds himself or herself on shaky ground, and fears the future”. However, given Allen’s structuring of the film to cover three consecutive Thanksgivings in the lives of Hannah and her family, we also see that “within brief periods of time… lives can change to a miraculous degree, people can mature…, [and] sad people can find the happiness that one year before seemed out of reach”. (Note: As in his review for The Purple Rose of Cairo, Peary’s overview of HAHS oddly contains quite a few spoilers, so I’ll refrain from quoting more specifics here about the narrative arc.)

Peary points out that “Wiest, Farrow, and von Sydow stand out in the wonderful cast” (I agree); however, he notes that he wishes “all the characters were a bit more developed” — though it’s difficult to see how this might even be possible, given the limitations of such an abundantly cast, intricately overlapping script. Indeed, there are so many narrative threads interwoven across HAHS that one wonders at first how Allen will balance it all — yet everything eventually comes together, with all the characters’ lives intersecting in decidedly “incestuous” ways (perhaps no great surprise). Peary concludes his review by stating that “having Mickey [Allen] convert to Catholicism, although funny, is overdoing it a bit”, but I disagree; several of the script’s laugh-out-loud visual gags come courtesy of this narrative jaunt (which feels entirely realistic, given the character’s literal soul-searching).

Note: It’s interesting to learn how much of HAHS was apparently inspired by Farrow’s own life (the film was shot largely in her NY apartment, included several of her actual children, and cast her real-life mother — Maureen O’Sullivan — as her on-screen mother). Being involved with Woody Allen to any extent seems like a guaranteed ticket to creative “exploitation”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dianne Wiest as Holly
  • Michael Caine as Elliott
  • Barbara Hershey as Lee
  • Mia Farrow as Hannah
  • Max von Sydow as Frederick
  • Carlo di Palma’s cinematography
  • Allen’s Oscar-winning script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s best films.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Take the Money and Run (1969)

“I think if he’d been a successful criminal, he would have felt better.”

Synopsis:
An inept thief (Woody Allen) bungles his way through a series of robberies, while romancing and marrying a beautiful young seamstress (Janet Margolin) and attempting repeated escapes from prison.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Woody Allen’s first film as a writer-director-star is an often hilarious parody of both old-style gangster movies and character documentaries”, complete with “a narrator… who mixes hard-boiled commentary (“He’s wanted for murder…”) with straight-voiced absurdity (“… and for marrying a horse”). He notes that the “picture has less structure than Allen’s later films”, and that Allen “piles on the gags”, though he argues that “the immature humor and the forced humor [are] far outnumbered by comic gems” — such as “[Allen’s] Virgil playing cello in a marching band” and “Virgil being foiled in one bank robbery because the tellers can’t read his note correctly and in another because rival bank robbers turn up at the same time”. (I also love the scene in which Virgil attempts to escape from prison by carving a gun out of soap, only to be foiled by a rainstorm.)

Peary complains that “the worst mistake Allen makes is not keeping Margolin’s character normal”, but I actually disagree; while Margolin is lovely and appropriately naive (only a young woman bordering on dumb would fall for a loser like Virgil!), she’s ultimately too “normal” for her own good. Allen should have persisted in casting his then-wife, Louise Lasser, in the role; her “brief but effective cameo” (“You never met such a nothing; it’s hard to believe there was a mind working in there that knew how to rob banks!”) indicates what a difference this might have made. (And speaking of Virgil’s family life, where in the world does their infant son disappear to? He’s born, then suddenly reappears years later as a young boy.) Putting such quibbles aside, however, TTMAR remains an enjoyably loopy mockumentary, one of the first in what would become a mainstay subgenre made popular by Christopher Guest et al.

Note: Be sure to read TCM’s “Behind the Camera” article for fascinating background information on the film’s production.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many inspired and/or chuckle-worthy moments


Must See?
Yes, as a cult comedy, and for its historical interest as Allen’s first film as an auteur (not counting What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966]).

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Bananas (1971)

“This trial is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”

Synopsis:
A nebbishy product tester (Woody Allen) infatuated with a political activitist (Louise Lasser) travels to the Central American country of San Marcos, where he unwittingly joins a group of rebels (led by Jacobo Morales) fighting against the regime of the new military dictator (Carlos Montalban).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “early Woody Allen film” is “somewhat dated and contains several scenes so embarrassingly stupid that it’s hard to believe Allen conceived them”; he further complains about “Marvin Hamlisch’s irritating background music for the South American sequence”. However, he concedes that there’s still “much to treasure” about the film, and names a number of its most memorable sequences (including “Allen sneakily buying Orgasm magazine and having the dealer call across the crowded shop to ask its price” and “Allen ordering takeout food for 900 guerrilla fighters”). He notes that “best of all are his meeting and break-up with Louise Lasser”, whose quirky comedic sensibility is given full opportunity to shine here; he points out that “these hilarious and perceptive scenes are quintessential Allen that could easily fit into such later, sophisticated relationship comedies as Annie Hall and Manhattan.” Ultimately, while not as polished as Allen’s later films, Bananas remains an enjoyably gonzo treat for fans interested in seeing the early development of his talents.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Louise Lasser as Nancy
  • A creative premise with many bizarrely conceived scenarios

Must See?
Yes, as additional early evidence of Allen’s comedic genius.

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Purple Rose of Cairo, The (1985)

“What good is perfect if a man’s not real?”

Synopsis:
In Depression-era New Jersey, a meek housewife (Mia Farrow) with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello) seeks solace in the local movie theater, where one of the characters on-screen (Jeff Daniels) falls in love with her and jumps out into the real world to be with her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s entire review of The Purple Rose of Cairo contains spoilers of a sort (as does just about every other review I’ve seen online) — so neophyte viewers should be forewarned. If you’ve never seen this film, and wish for it to remain entirely fresh, stop reading anything about it, go watch it, then return here when you’ve finished — at which point I’ll spoil away, along with Peary.

SPOILER ALERT FINISHED

Peary notes that “perhaps Woody Allen decided not to be in his sourest comedy because as director-writer he plays such dirty tricks on all his characters”, given that “nobody ends up happier than when we first see them”. That’s actually not entirely true, but his point is that TPROC doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (though Allen himself, who refused to change the ending despite studio pressures, insists it is a “happy ending”). Peary laments the fact that Farrow’s “lonely, miserable soul” — with a “rough, cheating, good-for-nothing husband” — is “for the first time [given] a chance to escape her sad existence”, yet ultimately isn’t “allowed” to (by Allen, who apparently decided “that her escape into a fantasy world would be unrealistic“). Peary argues that perhaps Allen is “trying to tell us that those unhappy people who use movies to escape from their problems are only deceiving themselves” — a decidedly “gloomy theme, because someone like Farrow has no other way to soothe her sorrow”.

Peary does concede, however, that “on the other hand, Allen’s film may also be a tribute to the cinema for having the power to help one escape” — and this is certainly the overriding feeling one leaves with by the (admittedly depressing) ending. Peary notes that Allen references “Pirandello and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.” in his decision to have a movie character (“Tom Baxter”) “walk off the screen and strike up a romance with Farrow”, and it’s important for film fanatics to be aware that the basic premise of TPROC didn’t originate with Allen. (Go check out Sherlock, Jr. immediately if you haven’t done so already.) But Allen goes even further than Keaton in his envisioning of how such a fantastical scenario might play out, with the remaining characters on-screen — decidedly put-out by having their familiar narrative interrupted (by a “minor character”, no less) — ultimately simply sitting around impatiently waiting for “Baxter” to return. Meanwhile, the actor playing Baxter (Daniels) worries simply about how “Baxter”‘s actions might affect his nascent career, and studio heads fear legal recriminations.

Though Peary argues that “Allen doesn’t handle the actor-out-of-the-screen premise as inventively as one would hope”, I disagree — I find the entire screenplay cleverly conceived and handled, with seamless special effects (helped by Gordon Willis’s masterful cinematography) allowing us to believe that the b&w characters up on-screen really do possess a life of their own (albeit one realistically limited by the constraints of the script’s trajectory). Meanwhile, fine performances by Farrow and Daniels ground the entire film, making us root for these characters in their unlikely predicament. Allen keeps us in suspense until the very end, wondering how things will ultimately turn out — and while you may or may not agree with his final choice, it at least makes “logical” sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mia Farrow as Cecilia (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jeff Daniels as Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd
  • Fun and creative special effects
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a creative and enchanting (if ultimately depressing) romantic fantasy.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Parent Trap, The (1961)

“The nerve of her, coming here with your face!”

Synopsis:
A pair of estranged identical twins (Hayley Mills) — one (Sharon) living with their mother (Maureen O’Hara) in Boston, the other (Susan) with their father (Brian Keith) in California — meet each other accidentally at summer camp, and concoct a plan to switch identities temporarily. When Sharon discovers that her father is planning to marry a gold-digger (Joanna Barnes), she enlists Susan’s help in bringing O’Hara out to California to try to break up the impending marriage and bring their parents back together.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while Disney’s follow-up to Pollyanna (1960) is “a long way from being Hayley [Mills]’ best film… it’s the film her loyal fans feel the most nostalgia for because it really delighted [young viewers] at the time” it was released — both the “boys who had crushes on her and girls who wanted to be her”. He points out that while it’s an “overlong, predictable comedy” without “much humor”, “O’Hara and Keith make a spirited screen couple”, “there are many fine supporting performances by veteran characters actors”, and “Mills is, of course, a delight”. He argues that Mills’ “vibrant energy, wit, imagination and an optimistic view of the world” — in addition to her “mature talent, pretty features, and striking pre-Beatles British accent” — are “what made her so popular”.

There’s no disputing the cult status of this beloved film, the “second [Hollywood] adaptation of Erich Kastner’s [1949] novel Lisa and Lottie.” The first version, Twice Upon a Time (1953), was directed by none other than Emeric Pressburger, but remains oddly elusive; I’ve never seen it, and have no idea how to go about finding a copy. Meanwhile, two other previous non-Hollywood versions were made as well (one in Germany, and one in Japan), and in addition to later being adapted quite a few more times internationally, it was remade by Hollywood in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan in Mills’ roles. Clearly, the ludicrous storyline — Kastner was purportedly inspired by the similar plot device in Three Smart Girls (1936) — resonates with young viewers, who love to imagine that all their divorced parents need is simply a strong nudge towards reintroduction in order to happily reunite. Meanwhile, Kastner added the universally appealing notion that we may have an identical doppelganger out in the world, someone we know nothing about, but who we may run into by chance, and who will quickly become our closest confidante and companion. What’s not to love about this fantasy scenario?

Adult viewers, however, will likely have a terrible time accepting the notion that O’Hara and Keith split up their twin daughters at an early age and failed to tell either one about the other; it not only strains credibility, but leaves a decidedly sour taste in one’s mouth about their parenting decisions. Regardless, O’Hara and Keith do indeed make for an appealing would-be couple, especially when contrasted with the cartoonishly evil gold-digger played by Barnes (whose frosted hair and matronly hairdo make her appear much older than her actual 27 years of age). And Mills’ performances — helped tremendously by fantastic double-exposure special effects — make the film easy to sit through, even when all its other elements fail to inspire.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan
  • Fine special effects

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite, and for Mills’ performance(s).

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Hombre (1967)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“We all die — just a question of when.”

Synopsis:
A white man (Paul Newman) raised by Apaches rides on a stagecoach hired by a wealthy man (Fredric March) and his wife (Barbara Rush). When the stagecoach is overtaken by bandits (led by Richard Boone), the other passengers — including a boarding-house manager (Diane Cilento), a young man (Peter Lazer), and Lazer’s wife (Margaret Blye) — turn to Newman for help.

Genres:

  • Fredric March Films
  • Native Americans
  • Outlaws
  • Paul Newman Films
  • Race Relations
  • Westerns

Review:
As a solid western featuring a stalwart leading performance by Newman, Martin Ritt’s Hombre — listed in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die — remains an odd omission from Peary’s book. Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, it tells a simple yet powerful tale of race relations under pressure, with Newman’s Apache-like white man retaining the essence of the culture he’s chosen to adopt and maintain, even once he cuts his hair and returns to “civilization”. We first see evidence of his deep convictions when he meets with the woman (Cilento) running the boarding house he’s inherited; he displays absolutely no interest in listening to her proposed compromise to keep the house going. The screenplay shifts slightly at this point to Cilento’s dilemma: as a working woman in the Old West, she knows that her options are limited, and when her proposal to marry her long-time lover — the town’s sheriff (John Cameron) — is likewise turned down, she recognizes that she must move on.

From there, we learn that a wealthy, arrogant couple (Rush and March) are willing to pay any price necessary to hire a stagecoach to get them out of town, and soon find out exactly why they’re in such a hurry. Two characters we’ve met so far turn out to have alter egos and/or hidden agendas (I won’t spoil anything here), and the remaining characters quickly find their lives in peril, as they face a shoot-off between themselves and the bandits, with water supplies dwindling rapidly. The screenplay retains tension until the very end through the question of whether Newman’s character will abandon his “selfish”, loyalty-free stance and continue to help his fellow passengers survive, or leave them to their own devices. In addition to Newman’s memorable performance, the entire supporting cast is in fine form — particularly Cilento (as a refreshingly no-nonsense female presence), Boone (a truly menacing baddie), and Rush (whose haughty composure gradually melts in the face of adversity).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Newman as Hombre/John Russell
  • Diane Cilento as Jessie
  • Richard Boone as Cicero Grimes
  • Barbara Rush as Audra Favor
  • Fine location shooting (in Death Valley) by James Wong Howe

Must See?
Yes, as a solid western featuring a host of fine performances.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The (1958)

“You feel where you belong, as if you’re told; for me, it’s China.”

Synopsis:
A young housemaid (Ingrid Bergman) determined to become a missionary in China saves up enough money to travel there from Britain, and finds work helping an older missionary (Athene Seyler) run an inn. Soon she finds herself a respected member of a local community led by an aging mandarin (Robert Donat), and falls in love with a half-Chinese captain (Curd Jurgens), who warns Donat and Bergman of an impending invasion by Japan.

Genres:

Review:
Based upon the real-life adventures of missionary Gladys Aylward, this lushly photographed biopic (directed by Mark Robson) notoriously took some liberties with Aylward’s life, to the point where Aylward herself renounced the film. She was most upset about the inclusion of a romantic subplot, given that she claims never to have even kissed a man; see Wikipedia’s article for more specific complaints. Regardless, Inn… remains an entertaining film about a fascinating personality, played to perfection by Bergman (who looks nothing like Aylward; naturally, Aylward complained about this, too). Bergman/Aylward’s utter conviction that she belongs in China rather than England gives one renewed faith in the notion that we all may have a specific path to follow, if we’re willing to listen to our hearts and follow our passions. Aylward never questions the challenges she faces, instead simply accepting them as part of the life journey she’s meant to undertake; for instance, she adopts numerous orphans throughout the course of the film, never doubting whether she has the ability or the resources to care for them — they simply become a part of her ever-expanding household.

The culminating sequence — chronicling Aylward’s harrowing cross-country journey to bring 100+ orphans to safety in the midst of a Japanese invasion — is likely what most viewers will remember years after viewing this film; it remains a gripping adventure, especially knowing that it really occurred. Much less involving is Bergman’s romance with Jurgens, which comes across as strictly Hollywood, and should likely have been cut altogether (the film runs too long as it is); Aylward’s complaint was accurate in this case. However, Bergman’s relationship with Donat’s aging mandarin remains of interest, as we view his growing respect for the vital qualities she brings to his village — most specifically her ability to convince villagers to finally give up the barbaric practice of foot-binding. Her final scene with Donat (who died during the film’s screening) is genuinely touching, and will surely bring a lump to any ff’s throat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine cinematography by Freddie Young
  • The harrowing final escape sequence

Must See?
No, though it’s definitely worth a one-time look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Urban Cowboy (1980)

“Sometimes even a cowboy’s gotta swallow his pride and hold on to somebody he loves.”

Synopsis:
A callow cowboy (John Travolta) transplanted to Houston marries a feisty young woman (Debra Winger) he meets in a bar, but their marriage is quickly beset by jealousy and infidelity.

Genres:

Review:
After achieving phenomenal fame in both Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) — and then enduring ridicule for his role as Lily Tomlin’s lover, “Strip”, in Moment by Moment (1978) — John Travolta starred in this film about a headstrong young country boy whose adventures in the Big City (Houston) include both a tempestuously whirlwind marriage and a nascent obsession with riding mechanical bulls. Indeed, the newly popular sport of mechanical bull-riding — shown on-screen here so many times you’ll likely be yawning by the end — becomes a central element of the storyline, overtly representing Travolta’s quest to prove his manhood to his new wife, especially when faced with stiff competition in the form of ex-convict (and master rider) Scott Glenn.

Unfortunately, the screenplay (co-written by director James Bridges and Aaron Latham, based on Latham’s own story) disappoints in its presentation of marital challenges and machismo run amok. Travolta and Winger’s marriage, while perhaps sadly realistic, is based on nothing more than chemistry and a desire to play at housekeeping, with little real understanding of what such a commitment will entail. It’s not at all surprising, then, when their romance quickly falls apart, especially given Travolta’s intermittently abusive treatment of Winger. Glenn’s villainous bull-rider is menacing but one-note, and Travolta’s new lover — a beautiful, slumming heiress (Madolyn Smith) with a “thing” for cowboys — simply strikes one as a caricature. It’s Winger — nurtured by her mentor, Bridges — who gives the film’s most nuanced and noteworthy performance, and remains the primary reason to give this film a one-time look.

Note: For a much better variation on some of the same themes touched upon here, see Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Debra Winger as Sissy

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for Winger’s performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Love and Death (1975)

“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed?”

Synopsis:
A cowardly Russian nebbish (Woody Allen) in love with his distant cousin (Diane Keaton) becomes unexpectedly embroiled in a plot to assassinate Napoleon.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “lightweight Woody Allen film” — a “spoof of Tolstoy, as well as Ingmar Bergman” — “has its share of clever sight gags … and sharp verbal wit … but suffers because the main characters are too foolish and erratically drawn, changing each time Allen wishes to shift comic gears”; to that end, he points out specifically that “Allen’s character switches from typical Allen to Bob Hope to Groucho Marx” — apparently not recognizing that such homages were likely highly intentional on Allen’s part. He further points out that one “has to question if 19th-century Russia is [the] proper context for Allen’s patented, decidedly modern-day, anxiety-filled philosophy” — though this strategically jarring juxtaposition strikes me once again as precisely Allen’s comedic intent. Finally, he complains that “Keaton and others in [the] fine cast aren’t really allowed to be funny in themselves”, given that “their humor comes almost exclusively from saying Allen’s funny lines”.

Interestingly, critical opinions appear to be divided on this early-ish Allen comedy, made after a string of early slapstick favorites — including Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), and Sleeper (1973) — and just before Annie Hall (1977). Most agree with Peary that it’s not among his best work, though Jack Purdy of the Baltimore City Paper believes it’s under-rated, and refers to it as Allen’s “most pitch-perfect broad comedy”. While Sleeper (1973) is my personal favorite of Allen’s early work, Love and Death remains a unique delight in its pointed satire of not only Great Russian Literature but the deep philosophical themes of Bergman’s oeuvre (which is explicitly referenced), as well as Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (watch for an iconically shattered eyepiece in one battle sequence). Allen’s screenplay moves at such a fast clip that you’re sure to remain engaged throughout; there are so many cleverly conceived scenarios, characters, interactions, and one-liners that even if a few fall short, the rest easily carry the day.

My favorite visual sequence: Allen’s “Boris” flirts openly with a gorgeous countess at an opera house.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by Keaton, Allen, and others

  • A consistently clever, fast-paced screenplay
  • Good use of Sergei Prokofiev’s orchestral music as a score

Must See?
Yes, as one of Allen’s most enjoyable early comedies.

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