Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Don't Drink The Water (1969)

Then For some reason, despite the pedigree, I haven’t been desperate to chase down the 1969 version of Don’t Drink The Water. Unavailable in the UK and deleted in the Region One,well, region, it's almost as though film didn't want me to see it, a tin-hatted bit of paranoia backed up when, at some point in earlier in this decade I did purchase what I thought was a VHS copy from ebay but turned out to be Woody’s own 1994 remake which was the first time I discovered that film’s existence. Having finally grasped a poorly transferred dvd copy for the purposes of this project, I finally watched it tonight.

Now The script seems to be very good. Written during Woody’s own imposed exile during the six month filming schedule of Casino Royale, the original play (1966) is about a family who find themselves branded spies after stepping off a hijacked plane in the fictional Soviet country of Vulgaria and subsequently trapped in the US embassy, the countries army amassed at the gates, the local ambassador attempting to gain their escape through diplomatic channels but repeatedly making their situation worse.

A broad satire which looks ahead to Bananas, Don’t Drink The Water confronts amongst other things the devaluing of political unrest. At one point, the head of the army gathers some of the local people to fake a protest outside of the embassy as a cover for him flinging a bomb through the window, meticulously he outlines the predictable mundanity of these types of protests, perhaps suggesting this kind of civil action is so futile it might as well be constructed and planned if not executed by the state since that probably means less people will get hurt. It'll make the country look free as free as can be from the outside.

The problem is, no matter how well crafted Woody’s words are, every other element of this subsequent film’s production, from the directing to editing to performance are at odds with what he's apparently achieving. Stephen Spignesi covers most of the bases in The Woody Allen Companion: “Harold Morris’s direction is very cartoonish in this film.* He uses many exaggerated close-ups, and directs the cast to play very broadly. The film deteriorates into a typical, lame, wacky sixties comedy/chase/costume movie for the last fifteen minutes.” Actually, that wrong, it’s not just the last fifteen minutes. The whole thing is like that.

Most of Woody’s lines are stepped on, especially by Jackie Gleason who, as the father, can’t seem to tell which of them is supposed to be a punch line and spends most of the film pulling funny faces. Estelle Parsons, his wife (who was so good in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) isn’t much better, generally resorting to the kind of boggle eyed enforced zaniness which infects the rest of the cast. Joan Delaney is admittedly quite sweet as their daughter but only Michael Constantine as the army commander rises above and gives the material some respect (particularly during the aforementioned protest scene) but even he’s underminded by a sitcom zinger soundtrack that also constantly works against the comic timing.

In other words, it’s a trial from start to finish and I’m pleased to get it over with, which is quite surprising considering it was produced by Jack Grossberg who was with Woody until Sleeper, and Charles H Joffe and Jack Rollins who would go on to put together the whole of Woody’s subsequent career (and nothing else) for the rest of their lives (Joffe died in 2008 but Rollins is a co-exec on Allen’s latest). When asked about the negative notices the film received on its original release, Woody said “As long as they pay, it doesn’t bother me for a second.” Though I wonder if the subsequent remake demonstrates that he still had an itch to produce his own definitive version.

In the absence of a clip from the film, here's the trailer for an amateur German stage production. For some reason, what looks like an attempted rape scene doesn't appear in the 1969 movie. I'm not sure this music is tonally in-synch either:

* An ironic choice of words given that Morris would go on to have a lengthy career as a voice actor in a range of kids tv shows, from Hannah Barbara to Disney.

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