“We enjoy your films. Particularly the early funny ones”. This quote from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), seems to perfectly summarize how some people felt after Woody released that movie, which showed the first clear departure from the chiefly comedic style that had served him so well throughout the 1970’s. But of course, they weren’t all just simple comedies, there was a lot more to them than that, so I thought I’d dive straight into the wonderful world of early Woody Allen films, and exactly what it is that’s in them, and that seems to make them so good.
It is clear from Love and Death (1975), that Woody was influenced a large amount by the films of Ingmar Bergman. Woody himself once called Bergman “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera”. This influence can be seen, perhaps in more dramatic ways, through the exploration of Bergmanesque themes in movies like Interiors (1978), which examines the relationship between sisters, and also how they view art in the world. Another, perhaps more well known example of Bergman’s influence in Allen films is the way he (Allen) parodies the representation of Bergman’s character of Death (who appears in Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal), in his own film, Love and Death.
Woody Allen with Death in the 1975 film, Love and Death
Love and Death also brings the Bergmanesque theme of the silence of God to the front of Allen’s stage, with his character of Boris beginning to doubt his faith saying “if only God would give me a sign”. He also references to the idea of many people simply assuming God is real and is simply testing their faith by saying, “if God is testing us, why doesn’t he give us a written?”.
Bergman is not the only European film maker who has had a clear influence on Allen’s early movies. Throughout them, he makes references in one liners to certain European directors, and his work seems to carry with it that certain sensibility that can be found in European films. Manhattan (1979), makes reference to several different European directors; Allen’s character of Isaac refers to Mary’s (played by Dianne Keaton) friends as “the cast of a Fellini movie”, and the movie also contains references to La Grande Illusion (1937)
One of the key themes in Allen’s work, which can be seen early on, is a theme that is common in the works of directors such of Bergman and Fellini: The theme of women. One of the key motivating factors for many of the male character’s actions (particularly characters played by Allen himself) is in some way related to a woman; from his character’s political activism in Bananas (1971) to breaking up with his 17 year old girlfriend in Manhattan.
One of his other central themes, which comes linked to his thematic focus on and fascination of woman, is the theme of love. All of his early films, have within them, a romantic element, that always involves the male lead (in all of the early films, this lead is played by Allen). He focuses on how many people ‘define’ love, with one of the characters saying in Bananas “well, how do you define love?” and another in Love and Death saying “how do you know what love is?”. Of course Allen never gives a direct answer to these questions, because what love is remains different for each individual person. However, some of his films show a slightly more cynical view of love, particularly Love and Death, wherein a character says “to love is to suffer, and therefore, in order to not suffer, one must not love”.
His films also look at how people desire love, giving different views to this idea in different films. In Bananas, he shows a strong desire for love in his male lead, with his desire for love being the catalyst for his journey as a character. A similar view is taken in Love and Death, where his character’s desire for love is one of his key characteristics, and one of the key things that he pursues throughout the film. However, in Annie Hall and Manhattan, he gives the opposite view, creating male characters that are capable of living without love, with both of them losing their relationships at the end of the film. However, this is not done in a pessimistic way, instead, he shows that people are strong enough to live without love.
Annie Hall and Manhattan both show something that his early films did not, which is an extension into dramatic territory, although comedy is still at the forefront. As his work continued past the 1970’s, he began to focus more on drama, and also did so in Interiors.
Although his early films were filmed mostly, if not entirely in New York, Allen’s idolization of the city is first introduced to us as an audience in Annie Hall, and is shown in its entirety in Manhattan. In his opening narration, he states that his male lead “adored New York city. He idolised it all out of proportion”. This romanticized view can be seen fullest in the image of Woody Allen and Dianne Keaton sitting on a bench in the city, an image that is now in the consciousness of the majority of film buffs, particularly those who saw this film during its original cinematic release.
Woody Allen and Dianne Keaton in the 1979 film, Manhattan.
These themes are the ones that encapsulate that early, and more comedic films in Allen’s impressive body of work. Many find these to be the peak of his career, which can be seen in the film that comes just after this selection, Stardust Memories, which has a line that sums up the way some people feel about his early films, and also how they feel about his later ones, “you wanna help the world? Write better jokes.”