In her review of‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), critic Pauline Kael wrote: “it seems scaled to [Mia Farrow’s] cheekbones.” This is Kael at her charmingly brief, astute best, inspired by what may be Allen at his best. Allen jumps from the diving board of B ‘s Sherlock Jr., Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and his own Play It Again, Sam (1972). In turn, The Purple Rose Of Cairo influenced film such as Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief(1989), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). When released, The Purple Rose Of Cairo received almost universal critical acclaim, but its downbeat ending and flights of fancy put off American audiences.
In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly).is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a Dostoyevsky diving board for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).
Judah Rosenthal () is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital affair with flight attendant Dolores ( ). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).
Zelig (1983) finds Woody Allen in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.
Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of Buster Keaton in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.