I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death… In fact, now that I think of it, I shall run through the valley of the shadow of death; you get out of the valley quicker that way.
Love and Death is the last of what are often called ‘the early, funny films’ of Woody Allen. After this he would make Annie Hall, which would change everything. As the final film before that turning point, Love and Death is the apotheosis of this gag-driven part of his career, and one of my favourites.
Set in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, the story is told by Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) as he waits to be executed at six the following morning (‘I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.’) His life is one of cowardice, heartache and philosophical angst. Throughout his tale of woe he becomes an accidental war hero, seduces a countess, survives a duel, marries the beautiful Sonja (Dianne Keaton) and almost assassinates the Emperor of France.
Woody’s love of Bob Hope is on full display in this film, such as when he raises the ire of a count:
Anton: If you so much as come near the Countess, I’ll see that you never see the light of day again.
Boris: If a man said that to me, I’d break his neck.
Anton: I am a man.
Boris: Well, I mean a much shorter man.
But, despite what Woody Allen has said himself in interviews, he wasn’t always stealing from the masters in this early part of his career. The film is full of one-liners that are could only come from him. When Sonja tells Boris that ‘Sex without love is an empty experience’ Boris replies, ‘Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.’
Like Sleeper before it, Love and Death has a definite plot and characters. Unlike the earlier films though, this one adds the element of parody. The now standard Woody Allen character here exists in the worlds of Russian literature and European filmmaking. Where this film excels is that you don’t need to be overly familiar with either to get the jokes; I still find the monologues about ‘wheat’ gloriously funny even though I have no idea what they are referring to specifically.
Something else that marks this film as a development for the director is its grandeur. While there the script is tight and fast paced, there is still room for epic war scenes, long takes, sumptuous palaces, beautiful costumes and gorgeous lighting. This was Woody’s first film made in Europe (France and Hungary), a place he wouldn’t return to for a couple of decades. For the musical score, jazz makes way for a perfect use of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. This is the most Stanley Kubrick that Woody Allen got.
As with Sleeper, I liked rewatching this film as much for Dianne Keaton’s hilarious performance as for Woody’s. Aside from the performances though, and the look and the jokes, there is some real substance to the script of Love and Death. Even though it draws its inspiration from Russian literature, we know from Woody Allen’s subsequent career that two of his biggest themes are right there in the title. At this point they are played for laughs. Later they won’t always be.
Next week: Annie Hall