6. Amarcord (1972) by Federico Fellini
“I loved The White Sheik and I Vitelloni and La Strada, and of course 8 ½. But Amarcord is one, for me, that I could see every year. He so clearly recreates his childhood in Rimini, and you’re there in that world, with his mother and his father, with his relatives, with local people, with the local stores, the local rituals of marching around the town square and things that everybody’s done: looking at strangers and seeing that they look like movie stars, and hanging out at the cinema, and ogling particular women who are the heartthrobs of the neighborhood.
You are in a world that he recreated, and he recreated it not in a literal, photographic way — he did it in an exaggerated, cartoon-like way — and still, you’re there. You understand all those memories and experiences.”
Woody Allen made his own Amarcord, called Radio Days, about growing up in a working-class Jewish tenement in Brooklyn when the radio was the king of mass media and mass entertainment. The narration, by Woody himself, is self-conscious of it’s own nostalgia. Where Fellini signals his awareness of memory’s imperfect perfection by exaggeration, Woody tells it like it is.
“Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past. It wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this, but I remember it that way because that was it, at its most beautiful.”
Nostalgia inflects many a Woody Allen film, like the continuous golden hour light of Southern France in Magic in the Moonlight, or the jazz soundtracks in many of his contemporary and period depictions of New York City, or the eccentric charm of the old Greenwich Village in Bullets over Broadway. And like Fellini, he has the temperament to blend fantasy with reality such that the difference become moot.
Amarcord has a massive likeness of Il Duce presenting a boy with his desired girl as a bride, a motor race turns into a fantasy of winning the girl, and a snowball fight ceases upon the display of a peacock’s feathers amid the snowfall. All of which is in service of the lustrous imagination and memory of Fellini. Compare this to the affectionate scene in Deconstructing Harry, where all of the writer’s characters pay him respect and he expresses his love for them in kind.
Of course, Woody Allen is not always so warm, so accepting of the loving comfort of fantasy. “People are faced in life with choosing between reality and fantasy,” he says, “and it’s very pleasant to choose fantasy but that way lies madness, and you’re forced finally to choose reality and reality always disappoints.” So in films like Manhattan, the object of love’s redemption disappoints; or, in Play It Again, Sam the Bogart-inspired act of altruism still leaves Woody’s character lonely.
7. The Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio de Sica
In one of his many attempts at self-examination, Woody Allen said “My conflict is between what I really am and what I really would like myself to be. I’m forever struggling to deepen myself and to take a more profound path, but what comes easiest to me is light entertainment.” This urge to deepen is well represented by his admiration for Bicycle Thieves, the hallmark of Italy’s neorealist film movement.
Allen has said of it, “This, to me, was the supreme Italian film and one of the greatest films in the world…When you see it, it seems so simple and effortless.” Even though filming in post-war Rome was likely to have been extremely difficult for technical reasons, Allen is referring here to the film’s story, which focuses on a man whose bicycle is stolen just as he gets a job for which it is needed. He goes in search of the bicycle and its thief with his son. Along the way we see the desperate circumstances of Roman society, it’s inequality and corruption.
That, at least, is the political side of the movie, an essential feature of neorealist stories. But for Woody Allen, the real power is in the personal dynamics of father and son. “The boy’s relationship with his father was part anger, part desperate affection. It couldn’t help but make an impression on the most primitive level. You didn’t have to think about anything, you just watched the characters and their predicament. It’s flawless; every part of it works perfectly.”
8. The Thin Man (1934) by W. S. Van Dyke
The first entry in a popular series of films featuring one of the wittiest duos to solve a mystery. William Powell and Myrna Loy play Nick and Nora. Nick is a retired detective who keeps getting roped into solving murders by his rich wife Nora, who loves the thrill of it all, while they keep up a steady stream of martinis and ripostes. Their relationship is supposedly modeled on Dashiell Hammett (the author of the book from which the film is adapted) and Lillian Hellman.
The first film is the best because it is imbued with spontaneity. Shot is 14 days, The Thin Man cemented the on-screen chemistry of its two leads, who would co-star in 14 movies together.
Woody Allen uses the witty marriage bit in many of his films, even To Rome With Love has Woody and Judy Davis scoring points off of each other in a manner less companionable than Nick and Nora but still gimlet-eyed regarding one another’s faults. Scoop has the mystery element (sometimes it is the flops that reveal more about a director’s influences than the successful films, which will have come from a different place than mere cinematic literacy) as does Manhattan Murder Mystery.
In Manhattan Murder Mystery, Diane Keaton’s Carol is in revolt against the quiet domesticity of her empty nest. Many of Woody Allen’s characters revolt against domesticity in their particular ways, and this is the essential fun in Nick and Nora’s marriage. They’re married but they party and flirt like they are dating. It’s all part of the escapism that is a well-received quality in Allen’s philosophy of film and his oeuvre. It is as if the true mystery is the marriage at the center of the story.
9. La Grande Illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir
The story of French POWs escaping from a World War I German camp was Jean Renoir’s first hit. Much of it came directly from his experiences as a reconnaissance flyer in the war. The castle used in the filming was Haut-Koeningsbourg, where Renoir had been shot down. Jean Gabin even wore Renoir’s old uniform.
It is a WWI movie without trenches and little animosity. War and patriotism are treated as if these fatal tendencies were a game. We find much to admire in the gentlemanly conduct of the aristocratic officers, as they play the game so well, and yet we see that they are bounded to each other across national lines that makes it more difficult for them to relate to the men under their command. Still, a feeling of general regard is in evidence for all the characters. The differences between them are not negated, but they are made permeable by the war and by their shared humanity.
This movie cuts across many borders of language, religion, class. It was the first non-English language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Of all the illusions that could be named in the film, which is the grand illusion? Class? War? The title is from a book by Noble prize winner Norman Angell who argued that wars are a pursuit of wealth that is ultimately counterproductive. That seems to suggest that war is the grand illusion, pursued at ultimate cost.
Stylistically, it is a film that demonstrates the fluidity that can be suggested without camera change. With minimal editing Renoir used extended single-takes, where the stage blocking allowed a scene in its entirety to go unedited.
It is a stylism that Woody Allen shares, though he attributes it to less admirable motives. “I don’t have a technical attention deficit disorder, but I have an honorary one. I don’t have the patience or the concentration to shoot hours of us talking in a two-shot, and then your single and my single and from over your shoulder and over my shoulder. I like to do as many pages as I can in one take.”
Whatever the motive, Grande Illusion is a standard of merit against which Woody Allen compares his work, and many of his films show a tension between the desire for illusion and the acceptance of reality.
10. The Road to Morocco (1942) by David Butler
“If I wanted a weekend of pure pleasure, it would be to have a half dozen Bob Hope films and watch them. He is a great, great talent, a guy who has been able to combine a thin story with great jokes.”
The third Road To… movie co-starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, was the formative film experience that made little Allan Stewart Konigsberg want to be in the movies. Long before he was producing jokes as Woody Allen, Allan Konigsberg was just another fan of Bob Hope. He would never abandon his fandom, even when Bob Hope’s USO tours were passé and his traditionalist persona was unpopular with the Baby Boomers.
Woody Allen has called himself a Bob Hope plagiarist, having used Hope’s comedic persona as a departure point for his own comedic persona. “It’s shameless how I can steal, you know, from him. I don’t mean steal the content of jokes. But I do him. I lean on him. Why people don’t see it is that I’m not as good, is that he’s the genuine article. He’s Bob Hope.”
It is the cadence of his delivery—but with different material—that reveals Bob Hope’s influence. Because of their differing tones of voice and looks, Allen can do Bob Hope without looking like the plagiarist that he claims to be.
Allen’s tribute film to Bob Hope “My Favorite Comedian” characterizes the ‘Bob Hope character’ as a vain, womanizing, coward, but always brilliant. And the way the Road to Morocco uses surreal in-jokes, a freewheeling story structure with friend-foe banter between Hope and Crosby while they compete for the love interest’s affections and struggle to extricate themselves from perilous circumstances in an exotic locations, gives clear precedent to the Woody Allen comedies of the same variety, like Love and Death, or the Bob Hope homage in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
It was in the Road to… movies that Woody Allen really learned how telling jokes could be a conversational endeavor. “The competitive double-crossing nature of the combo and their fantastic ad-lib style with verbal interplay reached a level of graceful spontaneity rarely seen in film.” A lot of this was based around Hope’s character considering himself a ladies man, and failing to get the girl.
Like Woody Allen who has had hit films, plays on Broadway, stories in The New Yorker, a jazz gig at Preservation Hall, Bob Hope was a big success in every medium of his career: movies, television, and before all of that radio. If there is one key difference between them that Woody Allen does not seem to lend sufficient weight, it is that Bob Hope shamelessly outsourced his comic material to a staff of writers and Woody Allen has a hand in the writing of everything he has ever done.
All of what makes Woody Allen the star filmmaker we know is in some way the product of his unconscious and his obsessions. “I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.”
And that’s the auteur aspect to the films of Woody Allen. Until recently, his film world could be limited to a few neighborhoods of New York. Some of his fans might love his work, but for him it’s only a job. “I never see a frame of anything I’ve done after I’ve done it. I don’t even remember what’s in the films. And if I’m on the treadmill and I’m surfing the channels and suddenly Manhattan or some other picture comes on, I go right past it. If I saw Manhattan again, I would only see the worst. I would say: ‘Oh, God, this is so embarrassing. I could have done this. I should have done that.’ So I spare myself.”
So Woody Allen is to art cinema like The New Yorker is to world literature. They will never changed the way you look at the world, but you can rely on the quality of their entertainment to make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth of prestige out of it. Sometimes, the way you see the world isn’t in need of radical change. It’s like everything else.
Author Bio: Chris is a sometimes filmmaker and freelance writer living in Colorado. He also likes to convince strangers to part with resources to create cultural events. His favorite directors are Federico Fellini, Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, the Coen Bros., Stanley Kubrick, and Edgar Wright.