It’s difficult to imagine a cinematic world existing without the characters Woody Allen has both created and played during the past forty years, many of which are variations on his early stand-up persona. If you haven’t seen it before, it’ll probably come as little or no surprise at all that in Play It Again, Sam, Allen plays a nebbish, a fretful, mumbling, neurotic type who lives in a hyper-cultural city centre apartment filled with books, classic movie posters, jazz records and lots of objets d’quirk. This archetypal Woody Allen character – in this case going by the name of Allan Felix – is usually fleshed out with a few background details: he has an intellectually-superior job or artistic pursuit that he is currently struggling with (here he’s a film critic – arf) and usually has a couple of middle class, verbose friends. Add a sprinkling of Diane Keaton, a few complaints about analysts and doctors, and serve.
Allen has written and/or portrayed this kind of character time and time again, and has been very successful in doing so. Though Play It Again, Sam was first released in 1972 – after beginning life as a Broadway play in 1969 – there are few major differences between Allan Felix and the character Boris Yellnikoff, played by Larry David in Allen’s film Whatever Works, which was released 37 years later in 2009. The bumbling, socially-awkward, complaining urbanite has been a feature of Allen’s work for five decades, and perhaps as a result these characters have subsequently lost much of the intended impact. We greet these characters today with knowing groans and eyes raised to the heavens, and they have been subject to one parody after another. Even Allen’s hardiest defenders presumably feel a small sense of déjà vu at the very least as the output of this prolific writer, actor and director continues to hit and miss.
But – if you weren’t born then – you can imagine how fresh and original the archetypal Woody Allen character felt to cinema audiences back in 1972, when they experienced it for the first time. Some may have already been familiar with his stand-up comedy or 1960s TV appearances; some may have seen earlier Allen comedies like Bananas, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? or Take The Money and Run; but a large number of people got their first taste of Woody’s shtick with Play It Again, Sam. Today, Allan Felix feels like the template for some of his most memorable characters that appeared subsequently, such as Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer or Manhattan’s Isaac Davis. It’s one of cinema’s most enduring character types, albeit one that has been re-written and modified so many times it’s occasionally difficult for casual Allen fans to remember exactly which one fits with which film.
We meet San Franciscan Allan Felix at the start of Play It Again, Sam as he watches the closing scenes of his favourite film, Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman appear as reflections on Felix’s glasses as he gazes at the cinema screen in front of him, mesmerized by Rick Blaine’s coolness and smoothness. Very quickly we learn that Felix has none of those traits himself; he has been through a messy divorce, and his confidence with the opposite sex is at a low ebb.
Cajoled by his two best friends, Linda Christie (Diane Keaton, on a hot streak following The Godfather) and her husband Dick (Tony Roberts), Allan goes on a string of blind dates, all of which end up as excruciating experiences due to his neurotic behaviour coupled with the general unsuitability of the ladies he pursues. He approaches women in restaurants and galleries but always fumbles his way through stilted conversation, irritated by the indignity of having to make an effort. My favourite scene in the film sees Felix trying to chat up a young woman in a gallery:
Allan: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
Museum Girl: Yes, it is.
Allan: What does it say to you?
Museum Girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?
Museum Girl: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night?
Yet there is a flicker of hope amid all the crushing disappointments; in addition to the encouragement received from his friends he also gets pep talks from the ghost of his hero Bogart (Jerry Lacy), who regularly appears wandering through Allan’s San Francisco apartment, dispensing suspect dating advice like “I never schaw a dame yet that didn’t underschtand a good schlap in da mouth or a schlug from a .45”. As Allan spends more and more time with Linda, he begins to fall in love with his best friend’s wife.
Inspired by Woody’s real-life divorce from second wife Louse Lasser, Play It Again, Sam was the first of the successful Allen / Keaton film collaborations, an easy, playful double act that would get better and better as the 70s went on. Both were reprising roles from the original play (as were Roberts and Lacy), and although Allen didn’t direct (Herbert Ross was in the chair on this occasion) it shares much in common with the New York-set films he went on to make. A lot of the action takes place in Allan’s apartment, for example, which is decorated in order to reveal almost as much about the character as Allen’s rat-a-tat dialogue; similar sets appear in both Manhattan and Annie Hall.
There are jokes aplenty and Play It Again, Sam is arguably one of Allen’s funniest films, with wry lines coming thick and fast. Allen gets most of them, naturally, but both Roberts and Keaton have their moments. The trio work well in their scenes together, which is unsurprising given that the play ran for over 450 performances. Similarly Allen’s scenes with Lacy’s Bogart are oddly believable, despite their fantastical nature, and the quality of their repartee was also honed on the New York stage.
The film strikes a perfect balance between dry, witty lines, simple gags and Allen’s brilliant slapstick moments (he is one of the best performers of slapstick comedy since Charlie Chaplin, yet he is still underrated as a physical comedian today). With this film, though, Allen began his move away from earlier, goofy roles to a more measured, cerebral comedy; ‘serious comedy’, if you will. Play It Again, Sam is perhaps the film that acts as the bridge between the two styles.
Still, there are some darker moments punctuating the laughs. There’s an uncomfortable scene where Linda and Allan discuss rape which hasn’t aged well at all, for example, and a scene where Allan is beaten up on a date by a couple of hoods is actually pretty menacing (although in the very next scene, when Allan tells Linda and Dick about the fight he says “Yeah, I’m fine. I snapped my chin down onto some guy’s fist and hit another one in the knee with my nose”).
San Francisco is an unlikely setting, and originally shooting was planned for Long Island and Manhattan, but New York film workers went on strike in 1971 and so production was shifted to the west coast instead. It makes a refreshing change, the hills and cable cars used well without the film turning into a tourist commercial. Director of photography Owen Roizman was nominated for five Shiny Gongs in his lifetime for The French Connection, Network, Tootsie, The Exorcist and Wyatt Earp, but sadly never won one. His work here is good, if unspectacular, and the exterior locations help the viewer forget about the film’s stage origins.
The three-act structure is a little predictable, and Ross and Allen tie things up nicely at the end, mirroring the final scenes of Casablanca, but with a twist. It doesn’t quite feel like a celebration of cinema or of Bogart or even of Casablanca itself, but Allen’s (screen)play uses all three inventively and affectionately, even making the title into a misquote joke (as most people will tell you, the famous line in Casablanca is actually ‘Play it, Sam’). Given the patchy quality of some of Woody Allen’s films, in particular in recent years due to the frequency with which they have been appearing, it’s always enjoyable to go back and view some of the better, earlier movies. This is one of the highlights of Woody Allen’s early career, and despite the fact the neurotic character has become so synonymous with Allen since, it’s well worth re-visiting to see the early stages of its development. The support is good, and for the most part the jokes hit home.
Directed by: Herbert Ross
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Jerry Lacy
Running Time: 85 Minutes