Thoughts on Woody Allen as he completes half a century as filmmaker. And why ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ is his defining film.
It’s hard to believe, today, that What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen’s first film as director, began with a series of James Bondian action scenes (flamethrowers! murderous discs with serrated edges!). Harder to believe still, given this director’s generally all-white casts, is that the film featured Japanese actors, speaking Japanese, and was set in Japan. But soon, we cut to a studio, where an interviewer attempts to make sense of the (apparent) madness. Allen explains that he took a Japanese spy thriller (“a great film, beautiful colour, and there’s raping and looting and killing in it”) and re-dubbed the soundtrack with completely unconnected dialogue that transforms the story into the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe, which has been stolen by a Shepherd Wong. Sample scene: As part of a briefing to an investigator, a man places a blueprint on a table and says, “This is Shepherd Wong’s home.” The investigator asks, “He lives in that piece of paper?” The man replies, “No you idiot, he’s got a regular house.”
What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which turns 50 this year, is filled with these bits. When the croupier at a gambling table tells a player, “You can’t quit now, sir. You’re winning!,” the player replies, “Don’t tell me what I can do, or I’ll have my moustache eat your beard.” More quotable lines: “I want you to bring a million dollars in cash… And no pennies.” “You and your partners will be put into an empty drum, which will then be filled with fat Lithuanian midgets.” “But if all of you in the audience who believe in fairies clap your hands then my gun will be magically filled with bullets.” What’s Up, Tiger Lily? introduced movie audiences to a filmmaker who thought like a comedian on crack. The films that followed – Take the Money and Run, Bananas – were equally high on wacky one-liners. From Bananas: “I once stole a pornographic book that was printed in Braille. I used to rub the dirty parts.”
This was the kind of Woody Allen movie the people in Stardust Memories (1980) were referring to when they said, “We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones.” Because in the interim, the “Woody Allen movie” had turned into either wistfully neurotic (or neurotically wistful) takes on relationships, (Annie Hall, Manhattan), or ultra-serious Bergman homages (Interiors). Over the decades, the films turned darker. In Love and Death (1975), existentialism is simply fodder for a great line. (Boris: “Nothingness… non-existence… black emptiness…” Sonja: “What did you say?” Boris: “Oh, I was just planning my future.”) A decade later, in Hannah and her Sisters, Woody Allen plays a hypochondriac, the film’s funniest character, but between the trademark zingers (his father: “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”), he looks at joggers in Central Park and wonders, “Look at all these people, trying to stave off the inevitable decay of their bodies.”
Is there another filmmaker – an indisputable great – who has lasted this long, remained this relevant (culturally and artistically), and made this many landmark films that are essentially variations on pet themes? My favourite Allen theme is “getting away with it.” In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a super-successful ophthalmologist has his clingy mistress murdered. Match Point is essentially the same movie – only, set in London. It’s a business partner, not a mistress, in Cassandra’s Dream – but again, the man who commissions the murder… gets away with it. These films, to me, feel the most autobiographical, the most confessional, probably because Allen is himself a classic instance of “getting away with it,” not even touched by the enormously icky scandal that erupted when his partner Mia Farrow learnt about his relationship with her adopted daughter. He’s still exceptionally well-regarded. He still gets the best actors, the best craftsmen. His films are still adored by the Oscars. He still gets premieres at Cannes.
Of course, he still gets reminders that people haven’t forgotten. During the recent press conference to promote his new film (Café Society) at Cannes, a female journalist asked him, “There are some romantic motifs that you keep returning to that are also found in this film: the attraction between a younger woman and an older, powerful man, and the lure of another woman when you’re in a marriage. Why do you keep returning to these motifs? Have your thoughts and feelings about them changed during the years?” And when a male journalist asked Allen to expand on a line from the film (“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer”), Allen said, “A husband is cheating on his wife, and he’s making all kinds of appointments to be secretive. You watch this and it’s funny. But it’s also very sad. If you penetrate it more deeply, it becomes very sad, because obviously the wife is being betrayed and the people have empty lives…” Was Allen talking about his art? Or his life?
Allen has been acquitted by the jury that tried the case, so this isn’t about whether he is guilty but rather about whether he felt pricks of conscience about something he was doing, something that was borderline wrong. Just do the math. Crimes and Misdemeanors was released in October 1989. The scandal erupted in January 1992. All of this makes this film the most fascinating, perhaps the most defining one of his career. It helps that even without the extra-textual infringement, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a chilling examination of a Dostoyesvkian dilemma: How does someone who’s not a psychopath live with the knowledge that one has committed a crime? The film opens with a felicitation ceremony, and the protagonist addresses the adoring gathering: “I remember my father telling me, ‘the eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. I mean, what were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence that I made my specialty ophthalmology.” The people in the room laugh at the unexpected punch line, as do we. But once we stop laughing, we also wonder if there is a God when crime isn’t always accompanied by punishment. The talented, successful ophthalmologist’s fate – it isn’t very different from that of a talented, successful director still invited to walk the red carpet at Cannes.
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