Having made over 50 films, Woody Allen's career has had as many ups and downs as a Coney Island rollercoaster. He's won 4 Oscars for writing or directing out of an incredible 19 nominations (including for acting) and, at 81, is still going strong. But for every Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris, there's a Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Hollywood Ending to mess with his reputation as a truly great filmmaker.
Concentrating on the period between 1979 and 1985 (following a previous release looking at 1971-78), a new boxset of six films presents a treasure trove cross-section, revealing the light, serious and experimental side of Woody.
It starts with Manhattan. If this was the only film Allen had ever made, he'd still be a bona fide genius. The fact that it came just a few years after his even better Annie Hall is astonishing, and it's a little jarring not to have those films together as companions. Still, by any standards, Manhattan is close to perfect. The story of an unhappy TV writer dating a much younger girl is astute, deeply moving, hilarious and beautiful. It confirmed Allen, post-Oscar, as a serious artist, and created a massive expectation for his next feature.
Stardust Memories is one of Allen's most personal movies about a filmmaker attending a retrospective of his work. As he's surrounded by fans and sycophants, memories of past loves and chances lost are evoked. There's no denying the beauty of the film – it's glorious to look at, but it's also one of the most difficult in his career, with what was seen at the time to be a sneering attitude towards the very people who had made Allen such a success. Watching it now, with the benefit of his later work in mind, it's less of a shock, but still not easy to love.
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy followed, as unexpected as could be. A funny and wistful tale of friends on a weekend retreat in the 1900s countryside, it also didn't fare well with critics, but removed from the weight of expectation it's absolutely delightful, as playful and visually beautiful a film as Allen has ever made.
His next three films contributed to and heralded a genuinely spectacular period in his career.
Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen's own favourite) are three small masterpieces. The mockumentary which follows the fortunes of Leonard Zelig, a chameleon like man who takes on the physical appearance of those he's around, becomes a celebrity and infiltrates some major moments in history, is as technically adventurous as it is funny, once more revealing the tremendous ambition of Allen's filmmaking. If Broadway Danny Rose doesn't make you cry with laughter and with pathos, then you're probably not emotionally ready for a Woody Allen boxset at all, and then, crowning it all, is The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Above all others in this collection, this film brings out all that is genius about Woody Allen. Its originality, its humour, its performances (he always has such GREAT casts), its ambition, both intellectually and emotionally – it's all there. It's a truly great work, rounding off this essential collection very nicely.
WOODY ALLEN: SIX FILMS - 1979 - 1985 / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: WOODY ALLEN / STARRING: WOODY ALLEN, DIANE KEATON, MIA FARROW, JEFF DANIELS / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 12TH