In Tsarist Russia, Boris (Woody Allen) was born to a man who owned a small area of land - it was so small he could carry it around with him - and a sense that the world about him was not all it was cracked up to be. He fretted over the existence of God and wished he could be given a sign from above, but none came, although he did meet Death who told him they would meet again. Don't bother yourself, said Boris, to which Death replied that it was no bother. But as he grew he became torn between the pleasures of the flesh and more intellectual pursuits - and his love for his twice removed cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton).
Love and Death was the Woody Allen comedy that began to strongly suggest his interests lay not so much in making his audience laugh, but more in making them share in the angst he felt as a member of the human race which was so full of contradictions that he was conflicted in his feelings towards it. In his later work those conflicts became increasingly developed into misanthropy, but here the philosophical concerns were tempered with very funny gags, many in the vein of his comedy idols Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. And yet, the Allen voice was there too, making itself plain in the arguments Boris gets into.
So yes, you got all the one-liners of those previous works, but in addition the worries about our place in the universe were difficult to ignore. This makes Love and Death, for many of his fans, the perfect balancing point between the early, funny ones and the later, serious ones, yet in truth Allen had not quite achieved a smooth transition between scenes of Boris's comic cowardice and those where he is preoccupied with philosophy. The setting meant that the main line of humour was the way his recognisable from his other efforts character was landed right in the middle of the Great Russian Novel with very little concessions to behaviour appropriate to the period.
Fortunately, this did mean a good many big laughs, with his sense of the ridiculous well to the fore, something that when he eschewed it later on made for far starker musings. Here we have Old Nehamkin and Young Nehamkin, where the younger was older for reasons Boris can never fathom, or Boris being sent to war against Napoleon (James Tolkan) and climbing into a cannon only to see it fired, whereupon he lands on a gathering of French Generals and becomes a hero. All very silly, but don't dismiss this amongst the literary references and selfconscious tributes to Ingmar Bergman because Allen had serious things to say about war.
Or more pertinently, the old conundrum about having the power to go back in time and kill off some dictator responsible for the deaths of millions: Adolf Hitler wouldn't have provided too much humour, so the tyrant here is Napoleon. After some complications, Boris gets to marry Sonja who plots against the Emperor, and although the film up to that stage has come across as a scattershot mishmash of jokes and observations, Allen does conjure with some weighty issues in the second half. All this while continuing to deliver the chuckles, but the morality of killing anyone, whether they have caused countless deaths or not, raises the question that if you do choose to use fatal violence then you may have lost the upper hand in the ethical debate. That there is no solution otherwise promoted is also part of this, as life becomes meaningless outside of the baser urges and the noble tenets that the individual decides to apply to it, God-directed or not. Heavy stuff, but Allen got away with it, both likeable and witty here in a way that he not always would be.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.