Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the few remaining movies that I still enjoy every time I watch it since first seeing it seven or eight years ago. Like all great films, each viewing provides new discoveries and somehow I never realized how many shots are only one take, especially on Judah’s half (Martin Landau). Particularly, the moment when he deliberates and decides to kill Dolores (Angelica Huston), sitting before the warm fire as the storm roars outside. Such a choice demonstrates how little a stylistic choice needs to call attention to itself, aided by the brilliant photography of Sven Nykvist.
It was also the first time I really meditated on why Woody Allen would put these two stories together, which when you really think about, seem so different and yet complement each other so well. From a pragmatic standpoint, I think Allen’s portion excused his exploration of such a heavier other half, at a time in his life when there seemed to have been little comedy, producing one of the greatest balancing acts between comedy and drama ever produced in the history of cinema (and a title that perfectly captures it).
A middle-aged man, Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), who is getting nowhere with his film career, due in large part to a respectable though arrogant attitude about how to accomplish what he wants, believes he’s too good to create superficial or shallow film projects, all while his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) has endless success with his entertainment expertise and creativity - or lack thereof - and is now having a documentary made about his life. Lester knows what the people want.
One of the great discoveries about Lester, picked up with additional viewings, is that while he says some of the most ridiculous, uninspired - and hilarious - things, many of them turn out to be true. The best example being about breaking or bending comedy. If you really take apart the idea it’s one of the most brilliant insights into narrative. It’s the phenomenal Alan Alda that’s able to make it sound so silly to us as viewers, until we start considering the idea long after, realizing its truth and then understanding why Lester became so successful, which produces a completely different subsequent viewing.
Cliff resents Lester, taking up his documentary project for the money, and falls for the film’s producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). She seems to understand him. There’s passion there. Substance. He’s willing to abandon everything for the woman, including his wife. She then leaves on a project, returns a year or so later, now romantically involved with Lester, and the despondent Cliff bumps into Judah who’s back to living his glorious and perfect life, facing no consequences for Dolores' murder.
Just as Allen demonstrates there is no God willing to punish Judah’s deed, he also shows the complete lack of fairness in life. No one pities and cares that Cliff fought to retain his integrity with nothing to show for it. The sad truth is that people admire those who create successful things. Lester knew how to succeed, and Halley respected this. She saw past his slimy persona. We want to laugh at him, yet so many of us would probably listen closely to all he has to say. Cliff lost the girl, his wife, and the opportunity to redirect his aspirations. His integrity in some ways destroyed him, and in others it was simply his faith that integrity could elevate him to the next level. It’s this faith that connects the two narratives. There’s an underlying suspicion and fear of God, but while Judah communicates this with his haunting performance, Cliff's crisis of faith lie within his own capabilities, hoping that, in the end, life works out like the feel good movies from the 1930s that he takes his niece to. None of that matters, though. Slimy executives get the girl, a murdering eye doctor faces no consequences, all while Cliff, who simply wants to make good art, remains even further away from the success he covets. For all the laughs, this is a dark and bleak film.
BELOW: In one of Woody Allen's most beautiful scenes, Lester considers murdering Dolores
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