With Woody Allen’s new movie Blue Jasmine hitting screens this weekend, several outlets have taken the opportunity to rank Allen’s extensive filmography. Your film editor was planning to do the same (and I’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids) — particularly since I’m revisiting the entire Allen oeuvre for my new book on his films, due next year from Voyageur Press. But instead of taking on that job (which, lets face it, usually ends up with some cluster of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors at the top anyway), let’s take a look at some of Allen’s less-recognized works.
Because he’s directed so damn many films (46 and counting), you can chunk them out fairly easily: the recognized classics (see above), the ones that were received with hostility or indifference at the time but have come to be recognized as classics (Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry leap to mind), the “early, funny ones” (Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, Bananas, etc.), and, sorry, the bad ones (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, September). Our interest here is the ones that fall in between: not necessarily his best stuff, but better than their reputations, worthy of consideration and viewing, particularly if you’re ready to move past the obvious choices. Some suggestions:
Shadows and Fog
This 1992 film marked the end of his fruitful relationship with Orion Pictures, which filed for bankruptcy right around the time of its release, and was thus unable to do much for it in the way of promotion. The timing was unfortunate: the $14 million production was one of Woody’s most elaborate, including the construction of a giant set (the largest ever built in New York, he said) at the Astoria studios in Queens. The picture, based on his early one-act play Death, is a bit uneven. But it’s one of his most stylish and beautiful films, the gorgeous black-and-white photography and German Expressionist-inspired composition combining to make it one of his most unique efforts.
In several interviews since its release, Allen — a notoriously self-critical sort who claimed he was so unhappy with Manhattan that he offered to make another movie for free if United Artists would bury it — has expressed his surprise and frustration that this 2002 celluloid satire failed to find an audience, or much support among critics. It’s not quite as good as he thinks, but it’s also a much better film than its 47% Tomatometer rating would indicate; the premise is juicy, Allen’s timing is as sharp as ever, and Tea Leoni (in the female lead) has the comic chops of a great Allen leading lady.
“The Jason Biggs one,” Quentin Tarantino said, just to be certain we weren’t all misunderstanding his choice of this mostly forgotten 2003 Allen rom-com as one of his favorite films of the past 20 years. Tarantino can be a bit of a movie hipster when it comes to stuff like this, but his love for Anything Else is genuine, and understandable: Biggs and Christina Ricci, as a young comedy writer and the more-than-a-little-crazy girl he’s in love with, create a convincing Annie Hall Jr. dynamic, while Allen himself — moving, thankfully, into the crusty old guy roles that he waited a bit too long to take on — uses the freedom of taking on a supporting role to take his persona into some uncharted territory.
Don’t Drink the Water
Allen’s first Broadway play, Don’t Drink the Water, was first made into a movie back in 1969, with Jackie Gleason in the leading role. Allen, who was working on Take the Money and Run, (correctly) deemed the results “abysmal.” So when he had the chance to do a made-for-TV movie in 1994, he realized he had aged into the role of the cantankerous father — so he dusted it off, cast himself, Julie Kavner, Michael J. Fox, and Mayim Bialik in the leading roles, and went to work. Appearing on TV screens shortly after the triumphant theatrical release of Bullets Over Broadway, Water gets pretty short shrift these days (mostly due to its TV pedigree). But it’s a wonderful slice of early Woody redux, and Michael J. Fox is an excellent Allen surrogate.
By the time this one came out in 1988, much of the moviegoing public had about had it with Woody’s attempts to do straight-faced drama. He’d lost some of them when he followed up Annie Hall with the somber Interiors (though the conventional wisdom has come around on that one in the years since), and nobody was wild about the bone-dry September, which he’d put out only a year before. As a result, Another Woman was mostly dismissed, and it still remains one of his most under-seen films — a shame, since it sees Allen finally finding a workable fusion of his own style and the foreign cinema that he’s so enamored of. With the welcome acceptance of recent straight-faced efforts like Match Point and Blue Jasmine, this one’s due for a serious reappraisal.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Woody’s first film after Stardust Memories seemed almost a conscious attempt to make something that wouldn’t rock the boat — an instinct you can’t blame him for, since that stylized picture’s portrait of a frustrated filmmaker whose self-loathing is only matched by his contempt for his fans was widely interpreted as autobiographical. Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is minor Allen, in a muted key. But that’s deliberate, and its lyrical charm and country setting make it something of an anomaly in his filmography. Plus, it’s the first film in his decade-long collaboration with Mia Farrow, and that’s gotta count for something.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
Allen has often made clear his displeasure with this 1972 “adaptation” of the bestselling sex manual, and to be sure, its blackout-sketch structure makes for a wildly uneven and intermittently funny viewing experience. But when it hits, it really hits: Gene Wilder’s segment, about a doctor who has an affair with a sheep, has a wonderfully solemn quality that (along with his pitch-perfect performance) makes the gag work, while a segment satirizing mod Italian filmmaking allowed Allen one of his first opportunities to go beyond merely looking down the barrel of a joke. And its most famous segment remains a hoot: a sci-fi-style peek at the “control room” of a young guy looking to score on a first date, complete with mission control, an erection-creating boiler room, and paratrooper sperm. (Mission control: “I don’t know if we’re gonna make it or not, doesn’t look too good.” The Girl: “I’m a graduate of New York University.” Mission control: “We’re gonna make it!”)
What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
If Everything is lightweight, Allen’s first movie, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, is basically an evaporation. The premise is simple: Woody was handed a ridiculous Japanese Bond rip-off, and he and his comedy pals (including Bananas co-writer Mickey Rose and his then-wife Louise Lasser) redubbed it with a ridiculous new dialogue track centered on the theft of the world’s greatest egg salad recipe. It’s as silly as it sounds, and runs out of gas about an hour in (Allen’s cut, when coincidentally ran about that long, was expanded by the producer without his blessing). But holy hell is it funny — as well as an obvious forerunner for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the whole movie-riffing movement.
Melinda and Melinda
Most critics dismissed this 2004 comedy/drama as a failed attempt to recapture the brilliance of Crimes and Misdemeanors, and they’re superficially similar: two stories told simultaneously, one comic and one dramatic. Sure, it’s not as successful, but it works in a different way: contrary to Crimes, the comic story is the more compelling one here, with Will Ferrell engaging and adept in the “Woody surrogate” role, nicely mixing his own goofy mannerisms with the specific, studied timing necessary to pull off Allen’s punch lines.
Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story
Not so much an underrated movie as an unrated one — this 26-minute made-for-television short is the only Woody Allen film that is basically unavailable to the general public. The mock documentary was produced for PBS back in 1971, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign; Allen wrote, directed, and starred as the Kissinger-eseque Harvey Wallinger, the most important adviser in the Nixon administration. Its ingenious editing and clever intercutting of fictional and archival footage foreshadows the style and genius of Zelig — and it’s a scathing political satire (which Allen’s done very little of) as well. That last point was why you probably haven’t seen it; worried about the Nixon administration’s threats to funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (how quaint!), the network asked Allen to cut a couple of the touchier jokes. When he refused, they pulled the program from their schedule, and it never aired. For years after, it was thought lost, until it turned up at New York public television station WNET in 1997. But Allen refused to let it air, or allow a video/digital release; the only way you can see it is to visit the archives at the Paley Center for Media in New York or Los Angeles. But if you live there, trust me: it’s worth the trip.