Reviews

The Woody Allen 20 Film Collection

4

Thirty-five years of gags, angst and neurosis…

Here is how we suggest you watch this 20-film survey of the Woodman’s remarkable career.

First, work your way gradually through the initial 19, savouring their director’s  burgeoning maturity as he progresses from playful nebbish to thoughtful moralist and intellectual.

Relish how he himself evolves from the goofy, bumbling prankster of his youth into a more melancholy, introspective figure crippled by anxiety and indecision.

Enjoy the freedom he offers his rotating ensemble of players and how well he uses his different muses (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Manhattan’s Mariel Hemingway). Then squirrel the set away in a cupboard, dig it out after about eight months and sit down to finish it.

Frankly, that is the only way to deal with the bewildering 13-year hiatus that separates Shadows And Fog and Melinda And Melinda, the penultimate and climactic entries in this otherwise (chrono)logical compilation.

It is not for us to query why the likes of Husbands And Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry and Sweet And Lowdown are not incorporated here. (Something to do with rights, we suspect – no doubt linked to the messy legal dispute between Allen and his erstwhile producer Jean Doumanian.)

But there is no question their omission means a crucial period in Allen’s later development is skipped over, just as the absence of movies made after Melinda (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris et al) leaves his more recent late flowering out of the picture as well.

So while you get a lot of Allen for your money, you certainly don’t get the complete Woody. But then, would you really want to?

Even with so many films taken out of the equation there’s an element of deadwood, most notably in the inclusion of all three of his sombre, Bergman-echoing chamber dramas (Interiors, September and Another Woman) when one would probably suffice.

You could argue, too, there is a touch too much black and white, the bold monochrome of Manhattan and Stardust Memories looking distinctly old hat by the time Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and Shadows roll around.

And then you have the director’s penchant for fantastical characters (Love And Death’s Grim Reaper, Tom Baxter in The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Alec Baldwin’s restless ghost in Alice), a recurring device suggesting he only has so many surprises in his fabled bottom drawer.

Then again, part of the appeal of Allen’s movies is that they are all variations on a theme, unified by the same auteurist tics (sourced scores, stark titles, extended static takes) and wry worldview even as they ping-pong between eras (the absurdist 2173 of Sleeper, Radio Days’ glorious 1940s, the bucolic turn of the century in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy) and locales (Latin America in Bananas, Russia in Love And Death, Stardust’s Felliniesque dreamscape).

New York, of course, is never far away, its highbrow culture, dynamic architecture and distinctive sensibility playing as much a part in Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah And Her Sisters as the fumbled romantic interactions in the foreground.

That said, a lot of the fun lies in the way Woody brings the Big Apple with him wherever he goes. Check out all those Catskills one-liners he spouts as a medieval court jester in Every Thing You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask), or the way Alvy Singer’s West Coast driving in Annie Hall apes the Coney Island dodgems of his childhood.

Allen stars in 13 of the 20 titles here and gives pretty much the same performance in all of them. (Indeed, if there’s one advantage to Bullets and Celebrity’s no-shows it is that purchasers can avoid having to watch John Cusack and Kenneth Branagh’s variable imitations of his self-deprecating persona.)

Yet while Allen’s thesping has rarely been singled out for praise (his Best Actor nod for Annie Hall notwithstanding), there are few filmmakers with a better track record when it comes to performing accolades.

Contained within this box-set are three Oscar-winning performances and another five deemed worthy of contention. Not only that, but there are several that were criminally overlooked by the Academy, Farrow’s brassy turn as Broadway’s Tina Vitale being the most underappreciated.

Farrow, incidentally, is an almost constant presence here, the collection only omitting two of the films (Husbands and the Oedipus Wrecks segment of 1989’s New York Stories) she made with Allen prior to their acrimonious break-up in 1992.

It’s opportune, then, to recognise what she brought to his work during their decade of collaboration – a quietly compassionate stoicism perhaps, albeit one conveyed too often in a whiny, nagging bleat. Hannah’s Oscars may have gone to Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, but Farrow is every bit as good as the title character, a sensible sibling and cuckolded spouse.

And she’s wonderful in Cairo, blossoming like its titular flower under Jeff Daniels’ adoring gaze before meekly resuming her miserable existence as Danny Aiello’s ill-treated hausfrau. Extras weren’t available at the time of writing but we don’t expect there to be (m)any.

So if you do crave some background information, your best bet is to seek out Robert B. Weide’s excellent Woody Allen: A Documentary, out on DVD on 24 September, priced at £15.99.

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