Play It Again, Sam

Daniel Hirshleifer

Woody Allen made his mark on cinema in the 1970s. From Bananas to Manhattan, Allen's 1970s films are legendary for their combination of sophisticated wit, low-brow physical comedy, complex characters, and a sense of innovation. Lesser known among Allen's 1970s films is Play It Again, Sam. This is probably because Woody Allen didn't actually direct it; Herbert Ross did. But Allen wrote the play on which the film was based, as well as the screenplay, and stars in it (why he didn't direct it is anyone's guess), making it, in essence, a Woody Allen film. Play It Again, Sam also marks Allen's first collaboration with Diane Keaton, a partnership that resulted in one of the most creatively productive acting duos of all time.

Allen plays Allan Felix (spelled as "Allen" on the back of the case), who is, basically, Woody Allen. Allan loves Humphrey Bogart films (especially Casablanca), so much so that Bogart (Jerry Lacy) actually appears to him and gives him advice. As the picture opens, Allan's wife, Nancy (Susan Anspach), leaves him. Heartbroken, he turns to his friends, Dick and Linda Christie (Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton) to set him up with potential future wives. Dick is a workaholic, and neglects Linda. Linda is a neurotic who, while she loves Dick, becomes more attached to Allan, because he spends time with her, giving her the attention she needs. Allan can't impress a girl, because he becomes so nervous around potential dates that he can't do anything right, but with Linda he can be himself. Soon they realize they're right for each other, but they don't know what to do about Dick.

Looking back on it now, Play It Again, Sam reads like a composite of Woody Allen's other films. It has the slapstick of his early work, the romantic stories that make up the bulk of his work, and some of the most quotable dialogue of a career filled with quotable dialogue. Not only that, it has some of his zaniness that rarely showed up after Annie Hall. The scene in which he considers Dick's reactions to his affair with Linda reads like something right out of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* * (But Were Afraid To Ask), except in a much tighter and funnier fashion. If you weren't told, you'd never know that Allen didn't direct the picture himself (and considering how little clout Herbert Ross has, I assume that Allen did direct quite a lot of it without being credited).

The amazing thing about Play It Again, Sam is that we can see that Diane Keaton and Woody Allen's acting rapport was fully formed on their first project. Play It Again, Sam is almost a dry run for Annie Hall. While Keaton wouldn't be Allen's comedic equal until Love And Death, she was still good enough to more than carry her weight in this picture. Thanks to her performance, Linda's relationship with Allan makes perfect sense. And Allen's performance is sheer perfection. It's a real shame that he gave up on the physical comedy, because I think his capacity to use his body for humor was always underrated. Again, I point to the scene in his apartment where he tries to impress his date, or the scene at the bar where he tries to fight the bikers. And his verbal delivery is like humor in a bottle. I honestly don't know how one man could write so much hilarious dialogue, and then deliver it straight-faced. But that's why Allen is the master.

A forgotten Woody Allen gem, Play It Again, Sam is thoroughly enjoyable. While Allen's other 1970s films get more coverage, Play It Again, Sam is only bested in humor by Love And Death (that's not to say his other films of the decade aren't incredible, I love them all). And since Play It Again, Sam is the first film to feature Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, it's not only hilarious, but also an important cinematic—and cultural—moment. So get this DVD, because if you don't, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life. (That's from Casablanca; I've been waiting my whole life to say it.)

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