July 12, 2018
Play It Again, Sam – 1972, US
Watching Herbert Ross’s Play It Again, Sam, written by and starring Woody Allen, with the knowledge of all of the films and headlines that ensued is a curious thing. If you buy the notion that the characters Woody Allen writes for himself and the circumstances they finds themselves in are all semi-autobiographical, then what we see in Play It Again, Sam is incredibly telling. Here is a film in which he plays a man at odds with himself. Like many young men, he is drawn to the wrong women, i.e. those appealing to the eye, yet lacking in almost every other way, something Allen has referred to in interviews. We also get a glimmer of some of the issues Allen would return to later in his masterpiece Husbands and Wives, ironically a film that was made just before things began to unravel publicly. In particular, we get our first glimpse of the effects that one person’s break up can have on those in that person’s immediate circle of friends, and, equally interesting, both films end with Allen’s character alone. At least he gets to go out a romantic hero in this one.
Having said all this, I have a feeling I’m making this film out to be something it’s not, so let me abruptly change course and say that Play It Again, Sam is quite funny and immensely entertaining. In it, Allen plays Allan Felix, a writer whose idea of a good time is likely an evening spent at the movies watching nothing but classics, foreign films, and documentaries. It begins with an ending, Casablanca’s to be exact, interspersed with images of Allan’s emotionally cold face. It says something that this character cannot even be cheered up by this movie. Allan seems depressed that he cannot be like Bogart – suave, clever with words, cool under pressure. Soon Allan even begins conversing with him (Jerry Lacy), that is to the Bogart that walked around in Casablanca in a hat and trench coat, a cigarette often dangling from his lips. Just follow my lead, he seems to be telling him. At the same time, Allan’s ex-girlfriend, or should I say his projection of her, keeps appearing to throw cold water on all of his attempts to play the part of the stoic hero who doesn’t have a care in the world.
As he is wrestling with these two competing versions of himself, the kind of man he wants to be and the kind of man he fears he is, he makes a few feeble, humorous attempts to move on. In this, he is aided by two of his close friends, Dick (Tony Roberts) and his wife Linda (Diane Keaton in the first of many films with Allen). It’s always amazing to me how effortless Keaton makes acting look, and it is remarkable how natural her scenes with Allen are. An early one in which they discuss cures for a headache clearly establishes their bond, and even hints at there being more just under the surface. Roberts adds to this by playing Dick as if he places his work above everything else, and one peculiar and humorous habit which he repeats ad nauseam only adds to this impression. It makes sense then that Linda is the one to react to Allan’s plight by reflecting on the strength of her own relationship.
The film is filled with clever exchanges and enough humiliation humor to fill three movies. Most of these involve Allan’s awkward attempts to move on and the unhelpful advice he keeps receiving from Bogart. After all, there was only one Bogart, and much of what Allan remembers about him are words put in his mouth by some extremely talented authors. These scenes are interspersed with calmer, more personal ones in which Allan lets go of the act and just relates to Linda. These scenes are simply amazing. Also worth noting are the film’s frequent, well-placed references to other films, not all of which, I must confess, I got.
There are, of course, moments that will undoubtedly clash with present-day sensibilities. Some of Bogart’s behavior is dated, but as a co-worker of mine once noted, it isn’t uncommon for old movies to have a scene in which a woman becomes hysterical and is then slapped back to her senses by her husband, who all too often begins his next line with, “I didn’t want to do it, but…” As for the film’s use of a rape charge as humor, it helps to remember that it is Allan’s anxieties speaking, and it is not hard to imagine someone as prone to missteps and verbal faux pas as he is having this concern.
I fear I’m still making this film out to be more serious and dramatic than it really is and not doing it justice. So, here’s what I laughed at: Allan’s running monologue with himself, his exchanges with Bogart, the slapstick that accompanies Allan’s many attempts to move on, and his verbally witty reflections on his recently ended relationship. Case in point: In one scene, it is remarked that Allan is the only married person not to be able to find a date on New Year’s Eve. Here’s what I was moved by: the wonderful dialogue between Allan and Linda, as well as Allan’s subtle realization that his eyes are doing his heart a disservice. And it must be said that the final scene in an airport is a treasure, not just because it harkens us back to a time before the fear of terrorism denied people the ability to properly see their loved ones off, but also because it gives Allan a chance to go out with his head held high. So many of Woody Allen’s later films deny him this, and that in itself is all too telling. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars