Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With a reader response from "B" at the bottom of the page.
From standup comic to television writer, to playwright to movie star and director, Woody Allen's
career had a solid trajectory through the 1960s. His play Don't Drink the Water was turned
into a pretty forgettable movie with Jackie Gleason in 1969, but this second film adaptation
was every bit as successful as the movies Woody directed himself. The part really was made for
Woody, and it brought him together for the first time with the first of his two major romantic
co-stars, Diane Keaton.
Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is a basic Woody Allen type, in this case a verbally
witty but manically insecure San Francisco film critic, whose wife Nancy (Susan Anspach) has
just left him because he's a complete bore. His best friends Dick and Linda Christie (Diane
Keaton & Tony Roberts) try to fix Allan up with blind dates, but he sabotages himself with
outrageous awkwardness and foolishness. A devout Humphrey Bogart fan, Allan carries on a hearty
fantasy life with the gravelly-voiced movie star (Jerry Lacy), who appears with hardboiled
advice on his love life. Spending a great deal of time with the neglected Linda, an attraction
starts to form that threatens to break up their friendship and her marriage, and Allan has to
decide whether to follow Bogart's advice or his own conscience.
Play it Again, Sam restates the basic Woody Allen comic character as if nobody had ever
seen him before, and as such may seem a bit dated to 2002 movie fans. At the time Woody had two of
his own scrappy but joke-driven films under his belt, and was moving on to the more promising
ground of more developed comedies like Sleeper, and more complicated movie parody features like
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Play it Again, Sam seems slow at the
beginning because it's almost too generic, with Allen clowning around minus anything particularly
cinematic or innovative to keep up the interest.
Basically a series of horror date tales, with Woody striking out in ever more humiliating ways, the
show hits its stride when Woody interacts with the spirit of Humphrey Bogart, imitated fairly
accurately by Jerry Lacy. Bogart's exhortations for Allan to grab and kiss women, to show them
who's boss, of course backfire miserably. Totally pathetic when using his own persona, Allen as Allan
resorts to a constant flow of slapstick and pratfalls to keep the level of comedy up. Some of
these are hilarious, like the way Allan mangages to toss record albums across the room and stumble
over his own furnture.
An interesting selection of actresses play the other women in Allan's life. Susan Anspach as his
estranged wife is practically supportive in her utter rejection, and going back is never an option.
Jennifer Salt (Sisters) can't believe her date isn't a total nutcase. Warhol actress Viva
plays a nymphomaniac, and Joy Bang a thrillseeking girl who gets carried off by bikers in mid-date.
When Woody's relationship with Diane Keaton's character finally develops, the humor becomes more
interesting. Unlike the anything-for-a-joke schlemiels of Bananas and Take the Money and
Run, Allen's character here has a conscience and a concern for others, and points the way to
the more developed middle-career Woody that would appear in Annie Hall. In this first
film together, there isn't so much a romantic chemistry between Allen and Keaton as there is a
visibly obvious joy in working together. In one angle on Keaton on a couch reacting to Allen
(while Roberts maintains a great deadpan), Keaton's so broken up, she looks like she's going
to pee her pants.
The funniest scene is the romantic showdown where Bogart is encouraging Allan to come on to Linda
in his apartment. The three way banter between the pair and the ghost only Allan can see and hear,
is almost excruciatingly funny, with Allen getting more comedy mileage from his reactions than his
verbal delivery. Director Herbert Ross finds good camera positions for most of the gags and pretty
much keeps out of the way; he's less fussy but also less accurate than Woody is when directing
his best pictures.
The most dated aspect of Play it Again, Sam is the finale that apes the end of
Casablanca. It still works well, but after 30 years of hommages and parodies and restagings
of famous movies, it's too easy to forget that the idea was fairly fresh in 1972. Like one of
Allen's nicely-turned New Yorker stories, the parody, the romance, and Allan's foolish
reliance on the Bogart persona are all resolved at once, and the film ends on a high note.
Paramount's DVD of Play it Again, Sam has an okay 16:9 transfer that is adequate but not all
that attractive. Owen Roizman's photography looks a bit dull and muddy, and it's not clear whether
that's a purposeful choice or if this is just not a peppy transfer. There's a French track in addition
to the English, and that's about it - not even a trailer for an extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Play it Again, Sam rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 29, 2001
Reader Response from 'B', January 2, 2002:
Dear Glenn: Muddy. PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM has been muddy ever since Par briefly reissued the
film -- with a terrible trailer and cartoonish key-art -- before its
network tv airing. Original prints were almost certainly in IB
Technicolor; at any rate, the 1972 release prints featured a mostly
subtle use of beiges, tans, roses and browns -- there were a few grainy
scenes, but the movie looked good. Intentionally soft, not brackish.
Better looking than Woody's movies to that time, anyway. It's almost
blasphemous to say this these days, but
I think he learned a lot from Herbert Ross -- the four principals knew
the work very well, but Ross sort of restaged or, better, choreographed
the thing for the screen. Not in a formal way -- the road trip and SF
location stuff are fun and softball diversion -- but when the principals
are together, everything is covered, timed and enacted in a sort of
deeply satisfying way. Players in position. Trapeze artists ready. Cue
Well made show. I remember telling a film Prof. in May of '72 -- "It's
Allen's NIGHT AT THE OPERA!"
He was disappointed. He thought it too sentimental and romantic; he
missed the farce and inspired silliness and satire of BANANAS.
I think BANANAS is tops -- there's no moment in movies to compare, say,
with J. Edgar Hoover's appearance at Mellish's trial. But I was moved by
SAM. Already I'd seen far, far too many movies. And your observation
about the rapport between Allen and Keaton is absolutely correct. [I'll
spell it out, okay? The movie-loving nebbish gets the girl. All right?]
Interestingly, though SAM was an effort by Par, Arthur P. Jacobs and
Allen & his people to make a comparatively mainstream movie to
capitalize on his growing fame and popularity, its initial response was
disappointing. It previewed very well, and Par opened it pretty wide in
big theatres in May 1972; it even played Radio City Music Hall. But the
picture did slow business.
Par and Jacobs refused to give up on the film, though. After a few
weeks, the movie was rebooked into exclusive first-run houses and
specialty houses -- NY's Cinema 1, Detroit's Studio 8 and similar
theatres around the country -- biz was solid, and the movie has had a
solid, if visually muddy, life ever since. Best, Always. -- B
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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