We sat down to talk with The Woodman at the Essex House hotel. The first thing you realize when you launch into a conversation with Allen is that he's not the kind of comedian who is always "on." Sure, he says funny things from time to time, but he doesn't try to make you laugh. Like so many great comedians, he takes humor very seriously. Gazing at us from behind his trademark black glasses, he is at once that sad-eyed urban everyman who has made countless millions laugh themselves silly since the 1960s and the coolly detached genius filmmaker (and playwright) who, you will soon see, has a rather low opinion of himself.
We started by asking the obvious question about the retro nature of Small Time Crooks: We wondered if Allen had made a conscious decision to offer up a comedy that, in the words of the aliens in his Stardust Memories, might be like "one of your early, funny movies." Allen replied, "It was by accident. When I finished Sweet and Lowdown, I went into my room and looked through my ideas, and this was the one that was most formed and most ready to write--so I wrote it. If it had been another Interiors or something like that, then I would have written that. But this was there at the time, so that's what I did."
As all Woody Allen fans know, "Neurotic" is his middle name. Who else would sound almost ashamed about making a movie that's so much fun? "I must say," he told us, "I had a little guilt because I never trust anything that I enjoy too much. It's great that people enjoy it, but this kind of film comes easy to me. If you can picture going to work every day and you're not preoccupied with any overriding seriousness, and you're working with Tracey Ullman and Elaine May--these are funny people, so it's an enjoyable thing. If it's not agonizing, and we're not all sitting around thinking 'This relationship is not deep enough, and this character isn't saying anything about life,' then I start not to trust it. I start to think, 'I should not be having fun doing this. Something is wrong someplace.' "
In Small Time Crooks, Allen plays a crooked version of Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden from the classic TV sitcom The Honeymooners. Kramden always had crazy schemes to make a fortune. So does Allen in this movie, except he insists upon making his money dishonestly. Also reminiscent of The Honeymooners is the relationship between Ray (Allen's character) and his wife, Frenchie (played by Ullman). He's the dreamer and she's the practical one. They fight constantly but, underneath it all, they love each other very much. Allen readily acknowledged his debt to the Gleason show, saying, "I've watched The Honeymooners and thought to myself, 'God, they're so great, they're so funny. There's not a bit of intellectualism about it. It's the best kind of comedy. It would be so great to be able to do something like that one day.' And, with this particular story, I had that opportunity.
"Another influence was [Ernst] Lubitsch," Allen continued, referring to one of the premier directors of sophisticated movie comedies of the 1930s and early '40s. "I loved his comedies above everyone else's in American movies. When I was making this film, I was aware of The Honeymooners and I was aware of Lubitsch as well."
Allen remarked that Small Time Crooks could have just as easily been a play as a movie, though he recognized that "it would have been an expensive play [to produce]; it would have required a number of sets to actually make it work on stage. I've had many requests to do Bullets Over Broadway as a musical, many requests to do Purple Rose [of Cairo] as a musical. There have been many productions based on films of mine all over Europe, and all over the world."