Play It Again, Sam, 1972

In today’s Observer interview Woody Allen speaks about how meeting Diane Keaton transformed how he thought about writing women and how that came to affect his filmmaking:

“They were cardboard figures before her, and I made no effort to change it, but after I met Keaton I could write women, and only write women, that was all that interested me.”

They met in 1969 in the auditions for the stage version of Play It Again, Sam and Keaton modestly attributes her winning of the part to the fact that she didn’t exceed Allen’s 5 foot 7 inches stature. The film version of two years later suggests there was a bit more to it. Keaton’s captivating charm is instantly apparent. The first of Allen’s output to consistently engage until the credits roll, is due in large part to the lightness of her touch throughout.

The angular tailoring and 1970s fanged shirt collars of her wardrobe are striking; both Keaton and costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone had preceded the film with The Godfather, also released in 1972.

Image via enfanterribles

Social incompetence is the familiar stomping ground for Allen’s comedy in Play It Again, Sam. In the wake of marital breakdown he is an eager yet severely inept dater and Keaton’s Linda is the wife of his best friend who warms to him in spite of his shortcomings. In fact they bond over their shared neurotic preoccupations, discussing how best to wash down their prescribed medication.

“Have you ever had Librium and tomato juice?”                                                                 –“No, I haven’t personally but another neurotic tells me they’re unbelievable”

The intimately weaved social landscape and overlapping romantic entanglements is a theme to recur many times. Tony Roberts plays the best friend, a role that he will revive in Annie Hall amongst other Allen collaborations.

The film’s premise is that unlucky-in-love Allan (a thin disguise) is visited by a Humphrey Bogart caricature to tutor him in the ways of Bogie-styled romanticism. The absurdity of idealised manliness is centre-stage; at one juncture Allan complains that the lines between violent assault and the generally admired masculinity that dominates are too blurry for him to distinguish. Woody Allen’s screwball inclination is indulged through these exchanges with Bogart, his rebuttals have the feel of a stand-up routine.

The film shoot was moved to San Francisco when Allen’s hand was forced by a film industry strike in New York 1971. Nonetheless we can see an emphasis on the cultural minutiae, the tools with which the central character arms himself against the outside world. Allan self-consciously clutters his apartment with New Yorker magazines and worries over whether to opt for Oscar Petersen or Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 from his record booth as he prepares for a date.

At the film’s opening Allan’s wife introduces him as “one of life’s great watchers”, readying the audience for the postmodern romp before them. This justification for the breakdown of their marriage is in fact celebrated by the final scene as Allan  sacrifices his romance with Linda in preference of loyalty to his friend, a trait, incidentally that is nowhere to be seen in his later films. Borrowings from the film abound in When Harry Met Sally of 1989: Casablanca is of course integral to both films’ understanding of romantic love and their leading man deals with the rejection of divorce. Both even boast references to “days-of-the-week underpants”. The closing sequence emphasises Allen’s ascendence to this next stage in his development as a filmmaker, signalled in this knowing exchange between Bogart and the central character:

Bogart: “That was great. You’ve really developed yourself a little style.”

Allan: “I do have a certain amount of style, don’t I”.

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