Woody Allen, the Films of the 1970s: A Critical Look-Back

The first in a series of articles taking a look at the films of Woody Allen the reigning king of the anxiety "dramedy" (dramatic comedy).

The noteworthy aspects of all Woody Allen films (his witticisms, eccentric characters, punch lines, romances) find their origin in this decade, albeit less refined than his later works. From his first picture,* Bananas (1971), to arguably his most critically acclaimed work, Annie Hall (1977), the 1970s represented the budding stages of Woody Allen’s film career and provide a glimpse of what, in popular culture, is now called Woody Allen-esque. The films he made in the 1970s share one common theme; all belong to the genre of comedy (except for Interiors). Yet, midway through the decade, there is a distinct shift in the nature and style of his comedy, a move from surreal and slap-stick to a more refined and romantic comedy. This shift had implications on the subject matter, style, and tone of his films and serves as the primary concern of this decade.

Of the seven films he made in the 70s, four films can be classified as slapstick comedies. These films, Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975), all share qualities of the traditional American slapstick genre, dating back to the works of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Like his predecessors, Woody Allen took impossible situations and absurd encounters, using excess and theatrical exaggeration as means to create a humorous story. Take for instance his role in Bananas. Woody Allen plays a consumer product-tester who joins a rebellion in San Marcos, a small Latin American country, to win back his political activist girlfriend. Or his assassination plot in Love and Death. He crafted each of these films with the joke or gag in mind, playing on visual and verbal puns, absurd situations, comic timing, making only feeble attempts to portray dynamic characters or a bona-fide plot. The obvious example is Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, a sequence of vignettes loosely connected by the overarching theme of sex. Other than subject matter, there is no unifying theme or piece. The set design, the costumes, the characters, the situations, the dialogue, all of it was to get the joke across, to get the laugh. This style and structure seem to be commonplace in all four of the films. The joke is supreme in each of these films, or put more pointedly, the plot, characterization and mise-en-scene all function to support the jokes, gags and punch lines of the films.

The idea of the joke being king in these films is further supported by the cinematic techniques used in shooting them. The camera is situated to frame the joke and nothing more. The shots are simple, the framing of the scene is easy to digest and there is no attempt to do anything “cinematic.” One could argue the sweeping vista shots in Love and Death have cinematic value, and they do, but that is merely a moment in one film. For the greater part, these films use long-shots and only necessary cutting for continuity. Moreover, the camera angle is almost always perpendicular to the set floor. He never attempted to do anything cinematic to ensure the effect of the joke was not lost on the audience. The opening sequence of Bananas illustrates this point. Fielding Mellish (a.k.a Woody Allen), is a consumer product-tester for a company that is trying to market “The Execu-ciser,” a desk designed to help busy business executives get their daily exercise. As Mr. Mellish displays the desk’s features, which include a stationary bicycle seat, weighted desk drawers and a basketball hoop, he slowly loses control of the desk’s multiple functions and is thrown about. While this is happening the company’s potential clients look on, unmoved and agree the product should be on the market within two years. Now, apart from the product concept being hilarious, this scene delivers its comedic effects with simple camera movements and angles. There is no excessive play of the focus or concern for artsy takes; the camera captures the important features of the scene and lets the joke do the rest.

The last quality these four films share is they’re bent on surreal, absurd, fantastical elements. The giant boob scene in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask, the enormous genetically modified fruits and vegetables in Sleeper, the “what would Socrates do?” moment in Love and Death, all of these films forego any sense of real drama and, instead, wholly embrace the unrealistic worlds they inhabit. This is central to the slapstick genre and it is here that Woody Allen departed in the second half of the 1970s to explore a different form of comedy, more poignant and refined.

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The three films Woody Allen made in the second half of the 1970s represent a shift in the nature of his comedy. The tone of these films became grounded in the plausible, natural dramas of everyday life, moving away from the fantasy filled worlds of Sleeper and Love and Death. The films Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) can be seen as a more refined, sophisticated comedy compared to his earlier works. These films fall under the classification of romantic-drama comedies.  The films in this category deal with finer issues like relationships and love, desire and anxiety.  And not just in a comedic sense, but in a dramatic sense. The gag or joke is no longer the primary driving force, nor is humor the only effect. In these three films, Woody Allen combines his witty asides and philosophical ramblings within the framework of the everyday. Annie Hall, Manhattan and Interiors all take place in New York. Moreover, each deal with genuine relationships. The focus, then, is not merely on the joke like it is in Bananas, but on the tensions and frustrations that arise in relationships. In short, Woody Allen combined his comedy with elements of drama to make a more complex and complete film. Alvy Singer in Annie Hall is far more dimensional than Fielding Mellish in Bananas. The family drama that unwinds in Interiors is far grimmer than the battlefields of Love and Death. There is consequence and anxiety in his later films. Issac’s realization that he made a grave mistake in letting Tracy go at the end of Manhattan has real implications for him. There is genuine affection near the resolution of Annie Hall at the chance meeting between Alvy and Annie in the diner. All of these moments have an emotional pull that is lacking in Woody Allen’s earlier films.

Alongside this, the cinematography of his films in the latter part of the 1970s embraces a more cinematic vision. The opening monologue in Annie Hall in which Alvy Singer directly addresses the audience captures this desire to do something different with the camera. Instead of giving the backstory of his relationship to Annie in a dialogue with another character, Woody Allen decided to address the audience in a very intimate way, having Alvy express his worries in the most direct manner: to the audience themselves. One will also note a rhythm to these films. Manhattan opens with a montage and in Interiors, the framing of the scenes only adds a heightened sense of drama. The long take is also utilized effectively in these films, allowing the action of the scene to unwind naturally and not be disrupted by short cuts.

Moreover, the excess and theatrical exaggerations of films like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask, are not present in the romantic-drama comedies. Instead, these films are concerned with the natural boundaries of human affairs. The comedy that arises is one mixed up in anxiety and fidelity, for instance the love affair in Manhattan, and Issac’s morally-charged accusations against Yale. These moments have flashes of humor, but never take precedent over the drama that enfolds it. In short, films like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Interiors provide a more complete portrait of the human condition and in doing so, hold far more value and esteem than the works earlier in the decade.

For Woody Allen, the films he made in the 1970s progressively became more dynamic and complex. The main reason for this is the fusion of dramatic elements into his particular brand of comedy, beginning with Annie Hall. It’s clear Woody Allen used comedy as a stepping stone into drama and, from the latter part of the 1970s on, continued to pursue this style. Collectively, the decade is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed, earning a number of Oscar nominations, including two wins, best director and best screenplay written directly for the screen, for Annie Hall. Moreover, these films earned an average of a 7.47 rating on IMDB. All in all, this decade leaves little to desire. It was a decade full of big belly laughs and, set the standard for his future works.