Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Play It Again, Sam (1972)

Then One of the small cluster of films that I saw in the mid-nineties when I was an undergraduate, Play It Again, Sam made me realise that there was a distinct possibility that some of my life’s great romances would last for about two hours, consist of me sitting in the dark watching someone else in action followed by some music and a list of people leading far more exciting existences than mine. Leeds Metropolitan University library had a massive range of sell-thru and off-air recordings of films on VHS and it’s there, when I wasn’t going out because I couldn’t afford to, and didn’t drink, that I began to understand that vast range of film history which stretched on before I was born.

Play It Again, Sam was one of those I watched it in the hall common room where the video player was, presumably with the same look of absorption as Allen has with Casablanca over the opening credits. It talks about how films, as well as offering an escape can inform our lives and by the next year I did indeed meet a nice woman who I fell madly in love with but who I eventually had to let go, mostly because I knew she didn’t feel the same way. Then it happened again. And again. And again. Sadly for me, on none of these occasions was I visited by an imaginary figure from Play It Again Sam to give me some advice presumably because Diane Keaton was too busy making Manhattan Murder Mystery, Nancy Myers comedies and The Family Stone.

Now The first bona-fide classic on my adventure, Play It Again, Sam is also the start of one of great screen romances as Diane Keaton joins. They met playing the same characters during the original stage run of the story, fell in love and lived together until the show ended. So they weren’t a couple during the production of the films though you wouldn’t know it, the chemistry is electric and the clearly still enjoyed each other’s company, which is especially evident in the scenes when Woody seems to have gone off script, for example, during the aftermath of the “fight” scene. Though Sleeper and Love and Death are to come, it’s this film with feels like the pre-history of the Annie Hall relationship as the grand fictional soap opera of Allen’s character begins to coalesce.

Keaton is adorable, her expressive round face enhanced by labrador eyes that somehow manage to become the focus of most of the scenes she’s in, well, that or the range of floppy hats she’s been given to wear. In this period, in film terms at least, Keaton only worked on Allen’s films and first two Godfathers and the contrast between the two sets must have been quite striking as are the differences between the performances – here she’s called upon to tutor Allan/Allen in the ways of women whereas Kay Corleone, though independent rapidly finds her life being ruled by the family and her husband’s responsibilities and convincing manages both. She’s an actress of some range and I don’t think that’s ever really been exploited.

Like Don’t Drink The Water it’s also a film which questions Allen’s auteur status. Often assumed to have also been directed by Woody, it is in fact the work of Herbert Ross a rather more invisible administrator who would later offer up the likes of Funny Girl, Footloose and Steel Magnolias, none of which look like they came from the same eyes and hands. Allen wasn’t originally interested in having the play turned into a film, but as he says his agent “sold it to the movies” but it took a few years before he was famous enough to appear along with the whole original cast.

At this stage, Allen was essentially producing visual cartoons, so it’s quite startling to see him in something which looks more like a “proper film”, of the kind he might have created ten years later; the visual styles are very similar as is the use of music though none of the crew who worked on this film would work with Allen again and like Ross went on to have generally unheralded careers. But in places Owen Roizman’s cinematography is just as beautiful as Gordon Willis’s and indeed the shot of the tramcar shifting into the distance is exactly the kind of shot you'd expect from Willis.

It’s also worth noting how seamlessly the Bogart character, uncannily portrayed by Dark Season-ite Jerry Lacy is worked into the story. Shot just thirty years before, Bogie's films would still have been very present for the younger audiences this was aimed at, still in rotation on television as well as repertory cinema. Woody would return to this kind of device later, and only now and then do we question the fact that Allan is receiving coaching on picking up women from his imaginary friend without them asking why he’s turning his back on them, talking to himself, falling over. It’s an antecedent to the kinds of games Charlie Kauffman plays, though should be more properly viewed as a first suggestion of Allen’s admiration for Ingmar Bergman whose films also featured similar imaginary figures (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal).

The running gag of Tony Roberts phoning work to give them the telephone number of wherever he goes so that they’ll always be able to reach him, which I presume, if it was in the stage play must have been the clever way of setting the location at the top of a scene. It’s very funny in context and still was when I first saw the film in the 1990s, but then, of course, mobile phones were still luxury enough to seem ostentatious if you were a student with one. Now it’s obliterated by mobile communication and I’ve been trying to work out how it could be updated. Perhaps it would be an incessant search for a signal or free Wifi connection or constant tapping away into a blackberry that alienate him from his wife. But then the character stops being present in the action. Damn the electronic revolution.

My favourite scene: The art gallery of course, not least because I suspect I’ve been the museum girl on more occasions that Allan:

On reflection, I'm not entirely sure what that means ...

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