Two twists of fate colluded in Woody Allen’s accession to the movie-making holy trinity of writer/director/actor, thus joining the rarefied ranks of Charlie Chaplin, John Cassavetes, John Huston and Orson Welles. *Ahem* Ben Affleck was to come later. At first eager to take the reins in the wake of Casino Royale’s opulence-sodden raving lunacy, a last minute crisis of confidence saw him look to Jerry Lewis to jump in as director only to be thwarted by clashing schedules. The first mockumentary with a wide release, Allen considered the dry, fact-based documentary format (narrated by 1940s radio star, Jackson Beck) ripe for parody. It’s a detachment that will be pivotal in developing the signature Woody Allen voice. As with What’s New Pussy Cat?, we begin with how innocence informs experience and the sticky-fingered miscreant Virgil Starkwell is the inevitable product of his environment. In spite of flirtations with a cellist career and enlisting in the army (invoking, as it happens, a rather creative interpretation of the Rorschach inkblots: “Two elephants making love to a men’s glee club”), Virgil’s unalterable lot is the life of the incompetent petty criminal.
On hearing the first appeal from the interior Allen voice to viewer, it’s difficult not to feel party to a privileged sharing of confidences. After meeting the woman who he will marry he quietly confesses:
“I know I was in love, first of all I was very nauseous. I never met such a pretty girl. I guess I’m sensitive; real beauty makes me gag.”
Of course Allen’s aim is always locked squarely on getting the laughs out, yet the subtlety of method is evolving. The leaner and more substantial later outings will thread sentiment and zinger side by side, and see the greater returns for it. For the moment, toe dipped, Allen is content to sit back and let the quips do the work:
“The only girl I’d ever known was a girl in my neighbourhood who was not an attractive girl. I used to make obscene phone calls to her collect, and she used to accept the charges all the time.”
Despite the avowal that “the object of the movie was for every inch of it to be a laugh”1, he doesn’t quite pull it off. The second half loses steam as the slapstick starts to wear a little thin. A notable mention goes to James Anderson’s chilling turn as the chain gang leader, reawakening the sinister Bob Ewell of To Kill A Mocking Bird from the other side of the decade. Additional trivia: the closing sequence features Louise Lasser, Allen’s wife of the time. A coincidence Virgil’s wife is named Louise? Most likely another layer to the muddling of man and movie.
1 Schickel, Richard (2003). Woody Allen:a life in film. Ivan R. Dee. p. 92.