Annie Hall: Romance in the 70’s

Annie HallBeekman

The 1970’s were not a good time for romantic comedy, that is, until 1977 when Woody Allen, who had been making films since 1966 (What’s Up, Tiger Lily), released a little film called Annie Hall. Woody had been directing and writing films throughout the decade. They started off episodic and even visually sloppy; however, they all had one thing in common, they were funny. But with each film Woody’s visual style improved, he kept getting better and better. Then in 1977 came a giant leap. Continue reading

The Cinemas of Woody Allen

annie-hall-6BeekmanWoody Allen’s love of New York and movies  is legendary. Many times over Woody has incorporated these two loves into his films. As a consequence, Woody films are not only entertaining works of art, but have becomes historical documents of a time gone by. Woody’s location shooting on the streets of New York is well known and many of the locations; stores, buildings and cinemas are sadly no longer in existence. They are gone, destroyed for many reasons; old age, bankruptcy, outgrown their usefulness or ever worst…progress!

Over the past several decades New York’s classic movie theaters have pretty much been decimated! At one time there were many, many theaters and now the few that are left standing have been turned into churches, bingo halls, furniture stores, flea markets, left vacant or torn down. In their place today we have the cold, bland multi-plexes of modern day movie going.  At one time there were well over thirty movie theaters in the Times Square/Broadway/42nd street area of midtown. Now there are two multiplexes on 42nd Street and not one movie theater on the Broadway/7th Avenue crossroads replaced instead by Corporate America’s candy land of shops from Disney to Hershey’s to Swatch and others symbols of modern day consumerism. Once the center for the arts in America (stage, screen, television, music, nightclubs, etc.), Times Square has been turned into an glittery outdoor mall for tourist.

Fortunately, thanks to Woody Allen, many of the movie theaters that once graced New York can still be seen or at least glimpsed at in his movies. My list here is not comprehensive, but I believe I cover most of the cinemas Woody has shown in his films, from Broadway to the Upper West Side and Upper East Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn. Continue reading

Stardust Memories (1980) Woody Allen

When I saw “Stardust Memories” for the first time back in 1980 (Baronet Theater in Manhattan) I was completely lost as to what Woody Allen was doing. Filled with Fellini like imagery, bizarre inhabitants straight out of Diane Arbus and seemingly resentful, bitter attacks on his fans.  I found the film, to say the least, hard to swallow. I wasn’t and am not one of those folks who keep wishing Woody would trek back to his ‘funny’ early films. I actually relished his celluloid journey, his growth from dubbing a cheesy Japanese spy flick with completely new dialogue turning it into “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?’ through his early visually clumsy, but oh so funny, films like “Take The Money and Run” and ‘Bananas” to his classic “Annie Hall” and on to the Bergman like “Interiors” and the homage to his home town in “Manhattan.” Woody always seemed to be expanding his artistic horizons. At the time of its original release, I chalked up “Stardust Memories” as a failure, hell everyone is entitled to a failure now and then, right?

Now, let me just say here, I watch many of Woody’s film all the time, over and over, true some more than others, I have lost count on how many times I have seen “Manhattan,” “Bananas,” “Sleeper,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Annie Hall, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and so on. His films are like old friends with whom you gladly sit, have a drink, and reminisce about those days gone by. The one film I never went back to was “Stardust Memories.” Frankly, until I watched it for the first time in years, just a few months ago, I remembered little about it except for the feeling of confusion I had and a why bother attitude about taking a second look. One day I found a copy at a local library and for no particular reason decided to give it another shot. All I can say is hallelujah brother! I have been seen the light and have been converted! Continue reading

Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen

“You have to have a little faith in people” – Tracy.

In “Manhattan,” Woody Allen’s New York is a world filled with artists, poets, musicians, writers, intellectuals and psychoanalyst. It’s an oasis of art galleries, museums, books and neurosis. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” fills the air as Gordon Willis’ superb black and white photography paints a majestic world of urban beauty. Filmed in Cinemascope, the black and white images instill a sense of character with every image we see. The city itself is the main character in this film with everyone else in a supporting role.   John Baxter in his excellent biography on Woody states accurately, “While the opening montage recalls the unblinking succession of images with which Antonioni closed L’Eclisse in 1962, Allen’s use of the city as a character exactly parallel’s Fellini’s treatment of Rome in La Dolce Vita.” Baxter also notes other similarities including the ending “in which Marcello Mastroianni tries to talk to the girl on the beach, only to find they can’t communicate.” This easily parallels Isaac’s attempt to mend his relationship with Tracy just as she is leaving for London. Continue reading

Broadway Danny Rose (1984) Woody Allen

“Broadway Danny Rose” opens at the famed Carnegie Deli located in midtown Manhattan, known for its huge Pastrami and Corned Beef sandwiches and as a well known show business hangout for many of the old time Borscht Belt comedians of yesterday. At one table dishing out old show biz stories are comedians Corbett Monica, Sandy Baron, Jackie Gayle and Will Jordan among others all playing themselves. Also in the group is Jack Rollins, Allen’s long time producer. The tales go around, back and forth, names come and go until Sandy Baron announces he has the best Danny Rose story ever. We flash back to a time not too long in the past.

Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a fourth rate theatrical agent whose client list is filled with some of oddest acts in show business including a one legged dancer, a woman who plays musical glasses, a blind Xylophonist and a stuttering ventriloquist. Danny is a good hearted loser who believes in his clients worth no matter how bad they are. He is willing to go to the extreme to keep his acts happy and get them jobs. It’s this dedication that gets him in trouble when he becomes involved with his top client’s mistress and some unfriendly gangsters who mistake Danny as her lover. Continue reading

The Front (1976) Martin Ritt

We are transported back to 1953 with a series of newsreel clips featuring Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Truman, The Korean War, Bomb Shelters, the Rosenberg’s while on the soundtrack Frank Sinatra sings “Young at Heart.”

Woody Allen stars and Martin Ritt directs this tale of nebbish luncheonette cashier and part-time bookie, Howard Prince. Childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) now a writer of live TV dramas informs him one day that he is no longer employable, blacklisted by the Freedom Information Service, a group working for the TV networks screening employees suspected of being communists. Miller tells Howard he needs another name, a real person and offers to pay Howard ten percent of his income if he is willing to put his name on the cover of the scripts he writes and act as a “Front.” Desperate for money, and a loyal friend, Howard, not fully realizing the potential implications, agrees to the deal. He is soon a successful and in demand writer ‘Fronting’ not only for Alfred but two other blacklisted writers. His success draws praise and admiration from the show’s producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi), and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) who he soon begins dating. Howard also meets Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) a former Vaudeville comedian now on television, and under the watchful eyes of the Freedom Information Service.

Howard’s success leads to fancy clothes and a ritzy apartment. He also comes to believe the praise bestowed upon him by the network brass and he begins to reject some scripts submitted to him by the writers as beneath his standards. Hecky meanwhile, is hounded by the blacklisting group and is “encouraged,” for his own good, to spy on and inform on co-workers, like Howard who the agency has been looking into but cannot find any proof he was ever a party member but, the investigator adds when talking to a TV exec, they cannot prove he was never a party member either. Everyone is guilty until proven otherwise. Continue reading

Play it Again, Sam (1972) Herbert Ross

“Play it Again, Sam” is the Woody Allen film that is not really a Woody Allen film but then again…it really is. Huh? This is just my convoluted way of saying that Woody did not direct the film, but and that is a big but, the script and the play the film is based is pure Mr. Allen.  So why didn’t Woody direct this film? Made in 1972, it was still early in his directing career and “Sam” is more of a character driven script than his previous directorial efforts up to that time (Bananas, Take the Money and Run and What’s Up Tiger Lily). Still unsure of himself, he agreed to have Herbert Ross direct.

I have been a big Woody Allen fan since I first saw him do his stand up act on the Ed Sullivan show back in 1965 and that same year caught him on the big screen in “What’s New Pussycat?” at the old Astor Theater on Broadway. Around the same period I discovered in a record store one of Woody’s comedy LP’s (Woody Allen Vol. 2) and scooped that up. Over the course of his stand up career Woody made three comedy LP’s (two on the Colpix label, “Woody Allen”, Woody Allen Vol. 2″ and his last, “The Third Woody Allen Album”, on Capital) that are now long out of print though they have resurfaced over the years in compilation copies under various names (Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years 1964-1968 and Woody Allen: Standup Comic) and cover art. The oddest cut on one of the original albums was a pantomime routine that lasted about two minutes. Yes, you’re reading this right, pantomime on vinyl! Two minutes of nothing but audience laughter. It was like watching a sit-com  minus the show.  Continue reading

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) Woody Allen

“Manhattan Murder Mystery”  is one of my favorites and maybe is my all time favorite Woody Allen film. Like many, I am a fan of “The Thin Man” movies and other amateur sleuth husband and wife type films that have appeared over the years. Think “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” or “There is Always A Woman” or “Mr. and Mrs. North.” They’re light, entertaining and if you’re lucky there is a good mystery and some laughs.

The film is a throwback to some extent of Allen’s earlier work, which make sense since the script written by Allen and his former partner Marshall Brickman years ago and tossed in a draw only to be excavated after the trials, tribulations and accusations of his former lover Mia Farrow. Mia was originally supposed to play the part of Carol but due to all the personal animosity, Allen wisely sought out former lover and screen co-star Diane Keaton.  And let me say, Keaton is a marvel here, the driving force of the entire story. They look as comfortable working together as a pair of well-worn shoes.

    One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that Allen and Keaton are just playing older versions of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. While there may be some validity to this, I don’t see it as detrimental. After all, didn’t Chaplin mainly play the same tramp character in each of his films as did Laurel and Hardy and Bob Hope.

Larry (Allen) and Carol (Keaton) Lipton are a empty nest couple living on the Upper East Side of New York. Their son Nick (Zach Braff) has recently gone off to college and they spend their time having dinner with friends, going to hockey games, movies and concerts. After walking out of Lincoln Center one night in the middle of a concert Larry quips, “I’m sorry, but every time I hear Wagner, I get the urge to conquer Poland.”

  One Saturday evening after a hockey game at Madison Square Garden, Larry and Carol meet their neighbors Paul and Lillian House.  The older couple invites the Lipton’s in for a cup of coffee. While Lillian shows Carol her new exercise machine, Paul bores Larry with his stamp collection. “My favorite thing in life is to look at cancelled postage,” say Larry, who is more interested in watching an old Bob Hope movie that was going to be on TV.

Soon after, Lillian House dies and Carol becomes suspicious and obsesses about the woman’s death because Mr. House does not seem remorseful enough about his wife’s passing.   At first, Larry is reluctant to go along with Carol’s theories but is soon caught up in “her murder case” as she insistently calls it at one point. Also getting involved in the case is their friend, recently divorced playwright Ted (Alan Alda), who is not too subtle about his crush on Carol, continually encouraging her to open up a restaurant that he would help her run. “Ted sees himself as Rick in “Casablanca, I see him more as Peter Lorre”, Larry retorts.

Larry tries to hook Ted up with Marcia Fox (Angelica Huston), a novelist and sexy client of Larry’s, who is a book editor for Harper’s Publishing. Marcia’s creative mind conjures up a plan to expose Mr. House as the killer. Her theories on the murder, which turn out to be fairly correct, along with her sexy presence clearly intimidate Carol and turn on both Ted and Larry.  Carol in fact believes Larry is a little too fascinated with the tantalizing Marcia.

The Lipton’s get more and more involved until the climatic ending that screenwriters Allen and Brickman set up in a repertory movie theater in Queens, owned by Mr. House, and an ending that mirrors Orson Welles “The Lady from Shanghai.”

Allen, as he does in many of his films, references classic movies. At the beginning of the film, Larry wants to get home quickly after the hockey game to catch a late night Bob Hope movie (Hope was an Allen favorite and clearly a large influence on the Woody persona.) Early in the film they also meet two friends at a flea market on Canal Street (Ron Rifkin and Joy Behar), and together attend a showing of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Finally, at the end of the film is the shoot out that  pays homage to Welles “The Lady from Shanghai.”

Along with Keaton’s fine performance, and the natural camaraderie and charm between her and Allen, Angelica Huston’s portrayal of the sexy long-legged confident Marcia Fox is a joy to watch.

My only problem with the film is the shaky hand-held camera work of cinematographer Carlo DiPalma, which I found intermittently annoying. His seemingly useless movement of the camera, in a restaurant scene where Allen and five other principals are discussing the murder, constantly blocking the character who is speaking by placing the camera behind the head of another. At times like this, it was downright frustrating.

At the time it opened “Manhattan Murder Mystery” was met with generally good reviews but was accused of being a lightweight Allen comedy and it is. This is no “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Husband and Wives.” As a mystery, do not expect Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.   What we get is a neurotic Nick and Nora Charles fumbling their way through a murder “investigation.”  At one point, Larry ever reluctant to get involved tells Carol to “save the craziness for menopause.”

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