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Savant Short Review:

Play it Again, Sam

Play it Again, Sam
Paramount Home Video
1972 / Color / 1:77 anamorphic 16:9 / 85m. /
Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Susan Anspach, Jennifer Salt
Cinematography Owen Roizman
Production Designer Ed Wittstein
Film Editor Marion Rothman
Original Music Billy Goldenberg
Writing credits Woody Allen from his play.
Produced by Charles H. Joffe, Arthur P. Jacobs
Directed by Herbert Ross

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
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
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 the orchestra.

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

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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