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Editor's Note: I would strongly recommend for you to read this article with this playing in the background. When the music stops, just restart it from the beginning.
Boris: I have no fear of the gallows.
Boris: No. Why should I? They're going to shoot me.
Woody Allen’s films have always been relatively easy to categorize. You have your screwball romcoms (Annie Hall, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Dream, The Purple Rose of Cairo), your more subdued dramedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose), and even starkly serious dramas inspired by his idol Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman). And yet throughout all of these films, the persona of Woody Allen dominates. Even in films where he doesn’t act, you can feel him nervously twitching and wringing his hands somewhere closely off-screen. To see his films is to share in his neuroses, his thoughts, his anxieties, and his fears. Some of his films don’t feel like entertainments, but cries for help. But things were not always that way. There was a time when Allen didn’t bring his problems to the front of his work. There was actually a time when his only goal was to entertain and make the audience laugh.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Allen wrote and directed a number of comedic spoofs that represented the purest concentration of his comedic talents and acerbic wit. Inspired by the works of the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope, they were free-form comedies that didn’t so much have a plot, but merely a sparse storyline that allowed Allen to progress from joke to gag. The first, Take the Money and Run (1969), was a mockumentary of the life of a notorious, and yet painfully incompetent, petty criminal. The plot was straightforward enough and the humor seemed to come naturally (if not a tad surreally) from the subject matter. Then you had such notorious films as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) and Sleeper (1973) which resembled what might have happened if Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali ever did comedy. Overall, they were funny, but uneven, casually cluttered messes of one-liners and gags. The movies were entertaining, all right, but they felt like movies made by a comedian, not a comedic filmmaker. The movies worked as long as Allen’s gags held up. Perhaps that is why in hindsight they may not have aged quite as well as his later work.
Then came 1975 and Allen’s film Love and Death. Easily his best early work, it also is easily the funniest of his entire career. A calculated balance of gags, character and plot development, and emotional whimsy made Love and Death his first genuine masterpiece. It would later be forgotten when Allen released his next, and arguably his greatest, film Annie Hall (1977) which won him critical acclaim, Oscars, box office success, and an adoring fan base. But to those in the know, Love and Death was where Allen’s true career as a filmmaker started. It was the film that saw him embrace his role as not just a comedian, but also as a director.
Looking back over the film, I estimate that only about a paragraph is needed to explain the plot.
It follows as such: Allen plays Boris Grushenko, a cowardly Russian peasant who is forced to enlist in the army along with his brothers after Napoleon invades their country. Through a series of mishaps, he becomes a decorated war hero, marries his childhood sweetheart and cousin, the lovely Sonja (Diane Keaton), and settles down. But it isn’t long before he becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. He is captured, tried, and executed. The end.
Do you feel like I spoiled the movie? Trust me, I didn’t. What matters are the jokes, puns, setups, and payoffs. As long as I don’t give them all away, your experience watching the film will not be diminished.
Those familiar with Allen’s oeuvre know that he is an avid fan of philosophy. This predilection shines brightly in this movie. The plot itself is a conglomeration of various philosophical Russian epic novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Allen indulges in several tongue-and-cheek conversations with Keaton where they spout off meaningless philosophical techno-babble like college professors on caffeine. Take the following exchange:
Sonja: Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.
Boris: [Deadpan] Yes, I've said that many times.
We aren’t meant to follow it, but simply to marvel. And what else can you do in such a film? Allen keeps the one liners coming as fast as he can think them up. Even Groucho would have trouble keeping up with Allen in this film. Take the following examples:
Countess Alexandrovna: You are the greatest lover I've ever had.
Boris: Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone.
Boris: Isn't all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o'clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o'clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.
Sonja: There are many different kinds of love, Boris. There's love between a man and a woman; between a mother and son...
Boris: Two women. Let's not forget my favorite.
Anton Inbedkov: Shall we say pistols at dawn?
Boris Grushenko: Well, we can say it. I don't know what it means, but we can say it.
Sonja: Oh don't, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.
Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best.
Sonja: What are you suggesting, passive resistance?
Boris: No, I'm suggesting active fleeing.
Sonja: Boris is trying to commit suicide - last week he contemplated inhaling next to an Armenian.
But Love and Death does not merely rely on fancy wordplay. Five years before Airplane! (1980), Allen was inventing and perfecting the art of the spoof with witty one-liners, blatant historical anachronisms, and unrestrained absurdity. Whether he is ordering red hots from a vendor in the middle of a battle or watching a public service announcement skit on venereal diseases, Allen breezes through more comedic setups in fifteen minutes than most films do within their entire duration.
But remember, I said that this was more than just a comedic smorgasbord. It was the dawning of a new age of Woody Allen. Suddenly, he wasn’t just about the jokes anymore. Philosophy and insights on the human condition (some of which are startlingly beautiful) creep into the film. For perhaps the first time we see glimpses of Ingmar Bergman’s influence creeping into Allen’s work. Take an early scene where a child version of Boris is walking in the woods and has a holy vision of Death. Cloaked in a white robe and carrying a vicious scythe, the figure is an obvious tribute to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). But pay attention, dear readers. There are many other sly references scattered through-out. A duel scene between Boris and a rival play out like a similar scene from Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). And in one scene Sonja converses with a woman servant and suddenly positions her face perpendicular to the other, creating an unmistakable reference to Persona (1966).
But Allen did more than just homage Bergman’s work. For the first time, his characters began to suffer conflicts that arose from internal dilemmas. For example, it is well established that Boris is a coward and doesn’t want to go off to war. But notice that he spends his precious leave time going to the opera. Could it be that Boris does not fear death as much as he fears missing out on life and all its beauty? It’s not that he is afraid of dying (although he most certainly is). He is afraid of not living. When Boris wins a duel for Sonja’s hand in marriage, she is originally opposed to it. This provides many funny gags representing their early home life. But eventually Sonja develops love for Boris. In another comedy by another director, Sonja would hate Boris up until the credits. But not here. Although the situations they become involved in are absurd, although they represent comedic extremes, the characters here are Characters with a capital C. They are people, not just crash test dummies designed for bouncing joke after joke on.
At heart, Love and Death is a comedy of the highest pedigree. It represents Allen at the height of his comedic genius. His films would get more serious in the following years, and it is generally agreed that he became a better filmmaker for it. But Love and Death gives us a glimpse at a young director coming to terms with his own creative forces.
Let me leave you with one last thought. The last scene of the film has Boris returning as a ghost (he was executed, remember?) to Sonja. He is accompanied once again by the spectre of Death. Of course, Allen manages to pull some laughs from the scene:
Sonja: You were my one great love.
Boris: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm dead.
Sonja: What's it like?
Boris: What's it like? You know the chicken at Tresky's Restaurant? It's worse.
That exchange alone is funny enough, but notice that Allen doesn’t end the film there. He ends it with this soliloquy:
Boris: The question is have I learned anything about life. Only that human being are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun. The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter... if it turns out that there IS a God, I don't think that He's evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. After all, there are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about. The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It's the quality. On the other hand if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into. Well, that's about it for me folks. Goodbye.
I think that quote speaks for itself. It contains an unbelievable balance of humor, introspection, and insight. Not content to leave us like that, Allen then dances down a lane surrounded by flowering trees to the triumphant tune of Prokofiev’s Troika. Truly, this was a man who had not yet been consumed by the neuroses that would trouble him for the rest of his life. He knew that his whole career was ahead of him and that he could afford to be optimistic. Never again would Woody Allen be so charming, so delightful, so funny, and so hopeful for the future.