September 24, 2011


Woody Allen transitioned as a gag-writer and stand-up comedian to become a prolific filmmaker with unprecedented freedom to write and direct his own projects. With a new movie out almost every year since 1965, Allen's body of work carries a unique voice that channels his interests in philosophy, music, and culture. Woody Allen directed his first feature film during the great spy boom when he re-mixed two Japanese films into a hilarious espionage yarn about egg salad, What's Up Tiger Lilly?, released in November 1966. In this clip, director John Badham (Dracula, Saturday Night Fever), talks about how the studio struggled to define the movie- as evidence in their chock-a-block "trailer from hell":

Woody Allen rode the spy wave into his next project,
Casino Royale. Truly a kitchen-sink movie with multiple writers and directors, the film does have its moments. The costumes included female guards with machine guns in Paco Rabanne-like gladiatorial garb, and the colorful space-age sets made it to some of the top-five spy sets in Spy Vibe's guest set event. Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress share an iconic scene to the tune, The Look of Love. Woody Allen played Jimmy Bond, the megalomaniac nephew of James Bond, with his characteristic slant on the quintessential baddie (dressed in Nehru jacket, of course!). In this clip, James Bond (David Niven) talks about his sex-crazed namesake on TV and introduces his nephew as a rather disappointing secret agent.

Woody Allen then made a mockumentary, Take the Money and Run (1969), about a criminal with great ambition (but zero talent). I can't imagine our current culture of parody without this seminal work. Allen returned to this form in his fantastic story of a human chameleon, Zelig, in 1983. In this classic scene, the main character's attempts to rob a bank are severely challenged by poor penmanship. (Check out the new reality show by fellow C.O.B.R.A.S. writer, Paul Bishop, Take the Money and Run here).

Crime and morality have continued to appear as themes in his films over the years, and these early comedies from the spy-boom era should appeal to Spy Vibers. I showed What's Up Tiger Lilly? to my high school students a year ago and they are still laughing about some of the scenes and dialog. If you are interested in learning more about Woody Allen, I suggest these excellent books: Woody Allen On Woody Allen by Stig Bjorkman, Conversations With Woody Allen by Eric Lax, Woody Allen Interviews by Robert Kapsis. This year's Midnight in Paris has been Allen's greatest box office success. If you haven't checked in with his movies recently, I recommend a double feature of Midnight in Paris (2011) and Scoop (2006). Allen is famous for his use of magic realism, and these two contemporary films are absolutely charming.

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