Woody Allen has been making movies for so long, most may not remember when his career was divided into just two distinct periods; the mature work and the early “funny ones.” This was circa 1980, when during his most extreme naval gazing, (Stardust Memories) he chose to parody this reductive theorem by depicting everyone from cloying fans, to outer-space aliens as ugly sycophants, moronically stating that they like Allen’s films, especially the “early, funny ones.”
Since then, Allen has gone through more phases than a Freudian patient, (pre-Mia, happy Allen (a la Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo) , unhappy Allen (Crimes & Misdemeanors), Soon Yi Allen/post Mia (Hollywood Ending, Anything Else), pre-Match Game, European set films, etc.). Still, after all this time, he has not made pure comedies like he did prior to 1977’s Annie Hall. That film was the game changer (not only for him, but for movie comedy in general) allowing Allen to meld his adult, cynical side with the more familiar, stand-up comic persona held over from his 1960s coffeehouse and talkshow days.
His last pure comedy for comedy’s sake, Love and Death, is in this humble writer’s evaluation, his best. Taking his obsession with Russian literature, foreign films, classic movie comedians, sketch material and his neurotic; fourth-wall breaking style of stand-up, he mashed these things up in a perfect satire that is one part homage and one part complete, unmitigated crazy.
Allen is Boris, the youngest of three brothers in 19th century Russia in love with the alluring (and only attractive woman in their village) Sonja (Diane Keaton, showing off her best underappreciated comic chops). Both elder brothers are rough and tumble, Neanderthal types, while Allen’s Boris is the sensitive philosopher, pacifist (of course he is), deemed an outcast from his family and friends. When Napoleon declares war, the brothers are excited to enlist, but Boris gamely admits he hates violence. His father, a simple old fellow (he proudly shows off his plot of land – the size of a porridge bowl) is humiliated his son is yellow, with a streak down his back. “No, it’s not down, it runs across,” Allen quips. All three go to the front, not before Sonja, jealous of Boris’ eldest brother taking a wife, admits to the crowd that she will marry the fish monger; a ghastly beast who, of course, smells of fish. All the while Boris pines for her, even though she never sees him as a lover.
Boris: If, by some mistake, I’m not killed tomorrow, would you marry me?
Sonja: What do you think the odds are?
As Boris goes off, against his better judgment to fight, Sonja takes on a series of lovers. Again, even with Sonja lifting her skirt for anyone, she won’t let Boris get near her.
During battle, Boris hides in a cannon. The fuse is lit, he’s shot out and barrels through the sky (in one of the funniest sight gags ever –he flies in the background past two disinterested peasants, chatting in the foreground) and lands on a general’s tent, killing the occupants inside.
He is inadvertently hailed as a hero. After several dalliances with a Countess Alexandrovna and a duel for her honor (played opposite the hilarious Harold Gould):
Gould as Inbedkov: Shall we say pistols at dawn?
Boris : Well, we can say it. I don’t know what it means, but we can say it.
…Boris returns as a conquering hero. Sonja, so sure he would die in the duel, promises to marry him if he lives, which he does. She’s in shock and mourning over having to be his wife.
Even so, they live contentedly, even though she won’t sleep with him. He leans over to kiss her in bed. Sonja: “Don’t. Not here.”
Napoleon declares war again, and while Boris wishes to flee, Sonja suggests they assassinate Naploeon, which would keep Russia free. Thus begins the second half of the film, with a brilliantly screwy plan of Boris and Sonja posing as royal aristocracy, a Spanish Count and Countessa, in order to gain Napoleon’s trust and kill him.
Throughout the film, as is always done in Allen’s depictions of himself growing up (Annie Hall, Radio Days, Stardust Memories) he reflects the usual existential crisis, wondering if there is a God. Throughout Love and Death, he’s visited by Death himself – all white sheet and scythe (much like Allen’s hero, Ingmar Bergman’s depiction in The Seventh Seal) who finds him “interesting.” At the end, Boris is executed (no real spoiler here – it’s not the tale but how it’s told) and he returns to Sonja in a vision.
Boris: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m dead.
Sonja: What’s it like?
Boris: What’s it like? You know the chicken at Tresky’s Restaurant? It’s worse.
Twilight Time has recently released Love and Death on Blu-ray and the transfer is nothing short of stunning. It took Allen several movies to hone his skill as a director after mastering writing and acting; and this Blu-ray reveals how great his eye was for not just mimicry, but frame composition, staging and visual timing. With this recent release, it’s clear through the vibrant colors, depth of focus and use of sets and scenery he could paint images with the lens, or at the very least, have meaningful dialogue with his cinematographer to deliver the results he was striving for. (DP Ghislain Cloquet’s impressive resume included work with Arthur Penn, Buñuel, Resnais, and Demy.)
But the most striking element of Love and Death was Allen’s “complete lifting” of Bob Hope’s screen persona. In interviews, Allen had always admitted one of his favorite comedians was Hope. For those who only know the ubiquitous comic from the latter part of his career (his robotic hosting of TV Specials and USO Tours), they’d be surprised to learn he was one of the most gifted movie comedians of the 1940s. His deft timing, physical skill, “takes” to camera; and of course, design of the cowardly character, the nebbish, the guy who never gets the girl, was so well defined that it informed a generation of comics. Allen, always the classic film fanatic, took that persona and fashioned it expertly with his own modern sensibilities.
A great companion piece to Love and Death would be Bob Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire. Sending up swashbuckling Alexander Dumas stories as well as Booth Tarkington with healthy doses of intrigue and romance, Hope plays an 18th Century barber posing as a swordsman and lover of ladies. Anachronisms abound as he behaves like a “swell” from modern times while everyone around him is strictly living the period. This may seem commonplace, but it was a novel idea for the 40s and Allen exploited this style to maximum benefit. For example:
-When meeting a dignitary, he bows and his sword sheath goes up a woman’s dress. “Oops, I goosed that lady.”
-After a romp in the sack, Countess Alexandrovna sighs, “You’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had, “ to which Allen quips, “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”
-“Oh God is testing us,” a soldier despairs. “If He’s gonna test us, why doesn’t He give us a written?” Allen asks.
As he did in Bananas, Sleeper and Take the Money and Run, Allen addresses the camera, breaking the fourth wall. And where this has become one of his standard trademarks, he initially did it as an homage to Groucho Marx. Still, Allen subtly delivers his lines with the same cadence, and timing as Hope. The pauses between set-up and punch, the exhalation of air as he sputters for the correct words to cover his cowardice, is classic Hope, with just a sprinkling of Groucho for good measure.
And while an endlessly fascinating game is to source all the filmmakers and comedians that inspired Allen, it’s also germane to discuss the filmmakers and writers that Allen himself inspired. Several bits in Love and Death were without question the catalyst for the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker style of comedy, with mundane conversation happening in the foreground while the real joke is taking place behind it all. Allen flying like a cannonball is one incident. In another, Napoleon’s advisors bring in a lookalike due to several attempts on the dictator’s life. While the advisors talk about it in the foreground, in the background, the two identical Napoleons are practicing their walking and gestures. Soon, the two little men are wrestling angrily in the background, flopping on the floor and rolling around, all the while the advisors are oblivious. This is classic Airplane and Naked Gun.
If you’re an Allen completest, you can attest to all the profuse love I have for this film. If you’re not, but even slightly curious to see what the fuss was all about over his “early, funny ones,” make sure you get Twilight Times release of Love and Death – it may not be his very earliest, but it’s definitely his funniest.
Watch the trailer: