1975’s Love and Death is commonly cited as the last of Woody Allen’s “early, funny ones”, but drawing that sort of stark distinction isn’t exactly a useful way of trying to understanding this phase of the director’s astonishingly prolific body of work. Sure, critics and audiences rightly noticed a shift towards more earthbound humor and human drama in his next feature, the 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall, but the comedies that preceded it weren’t totally devoid of the heavier themes he’d fixate on later, namely philosophy, intellectualism versus physical desire and the messiness of romantic relationships. That's true even if they were couched in slapstick gags. At the same time, the more complex films that followed were not completely lacking in laughs, the self-consciously grim Interiors aside. What’s more problematic about drawing such a line through his career, through any artist’s career, is that it retrospectively gives the impression that they went to bed one thing and woke up another, in Allen’s case a goofball gag writer and an art house auteur, when it’s much more accurate to say they’re just normal people, subject to the same chaotic universe we all are, trying to find their voice and follow their muse, which, as Love and Death proved, can be a real pain in the ass.
After his dystopian sci-fi experiment Sleeper, Allen was having trouble with the script for his next project, a romantic comedy/murder mystery revolving around a New York couple. Elements of the story later made it into Annie Hall and 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but at the time, with deadlines looming and the plot’s disparate elements failing to coalesce, he decided to turn his attention to something less stressful. Looking to his bookshelves for inspiration, he came across a volume of Russian history and realized he’d found a subject ripe for parody. Following Allen’s “militant coward” Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko as he desperately attempts to avoid service in the Napoleonic Wars while also wooing his fickle cousin Sonja (brilliantly acted by his real life-love interest Diane Keaton), the script came together quickly and Allen enjoyed the work; not only did Napoleon’s epically ill-fated attempts to conquer Russia provide ample opportunity for him to zanily fumble his way through military life and trade quips with beautiful women, but it also allowed him to get more cerebral, to make high-minded literary allusions to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and to imagine large-scale battle scenes, complete with the obligatory nods to Eisenstein and others. The writing though, was the last easy thing about Love and Death.
Filming began in France and initially went well, but soon ran smack into a severe iteration of Murphy’s Law. There was a rash of accidents and injuries surrounding the shoot: Allen himself slipped on a patch of ice in front of the Eiffel Tower, severely spraining his back, while Keaton took an errant violin bow to the eye and a key supporting actor broke both of his legs in a car wreck, all causing costly delays. To save money, the studio, United Artists, insisted that he film the more elaborate scenes in Hungary, where the cost of the production would be cheaper, and that’s when things when from troublesome to miserable. He had hired a talented French cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, who had considerable difficulty navigating the language barrier between the Hungarian crew and the Russian extras, which meant spending more time dealing the terrible weather. Rain ruined festive shots, unexpected sunshine marred somber ones, but mostly it was just downright freezing; “I was so cold, I can’t tell you,” Allen told writer Eric Lax, “I have memories of myself trying to practice my clarinet out on a field where I couldn’t move my fingers to play the horn, it was so cold...I hated my experience in Budapest.”
It wasn’t just the weather that got Allen down, he jokingly recalled that he finally got around to reading Moby Dick thanks to the “drab” capital city, and the continued complications, which just kept piling up, didn’t help his morale. Producer Charles Joffe and some of the crew were sidelined by food poisoning (a fate the hypochondriac Allen reportedly avoided by having brought his own canned food and bottled water) and the negatives for an extended and complicated scene were mishandled and ruined, necessitating frustrating reshoots, which helped send the film way over budget. And yet, in the end, all the misery paid off. “You might say that it looks like a million, except that is probably a million or so less than it cost” wrote the New York Times Vincent Canby, while Roger Ebert praised it as “his most ambitious experiment with the comic possibilities of film”. The movie found favor with audiences as well, and even Allen himself fondly referred to it as “my funniest picture to that time”. Even though it turned out to be an unexpected and difficult detour, without the head-clearing, creatively challenging experience of Love and Death, Annie Hall likely wouldn’t have been the left-field stylistic breakthrough it’s so often portrayed as.