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To Catch a Thief | The Nation

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To Catch a Thief

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As Woody Allen awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into Jackie Gleason. The covers had slipped off his belly, so that he looked down from the freshly Brylcreemed pillow upon a hemisphere of flesh, which already was quivering with babyish violence.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting this nonsense, he thought. Only six months had passed since Sweet and Lowdown, and Mother and Father were dead. Yet his unaccustomed bulk had begun to intrigue Woody Allen, who wondered at how The Great One used to slide about in this body. Could he, too, move in rolls and waves? With firm resolution, he pushed himself off the bed.

"What's that?" someone cried, as he hit the floor. Although the bedroom door was locked, Woody Allen knew at once this was Tracey Ullman's voice. Something in her tone--or perhaps in this apartment, which he now perceived to be cramped and dingy--put him in mind of Audrey Meadows. At once, his limbs began to flail in self-contradiction, one arm stretching greedily as if to enclose his fictional wife, the other cocking back in mimed assault. "Wait, and I'll let you in!" he called, though she had neither asked for admission nor threatened to leave. Was this what it meant to speak like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners--to miss the point, to babble and fume? He suddenly realized that Tracey Ullman would snap all the wisecracks, while he would be reduced to empty threats and nonsense syllables. All his life, Woody Allen had stammered, as too many ideas fought to reach his tongue. Now he would stammer for want of words.

There, in spirit, you have the premise of Small Time Crooks, one of those comic miniatures that are a particular glory of Allen's career. I can't guess what uneasy dream might have inspired him to take on Gleason's persona, in the way he's previously emulated Bob Hope. All I know is that a supposedly stable commodity, "the Woody Allen movie," has somehow retained its identity while morphing into a feature-length version of The Honeymooners, complete with dumb pals, a cockamamie get-rich-quick scheme and the final "Baby, you're the greatest."

Of course, when you move from spirit to flesh, you find that Allen is hilariously out of proportion to the role he's assumed. As Ray Winkler, an ex-con who is currently working as a dishwasher, he first shows up in midstride on the streets of Manhattan, a copy of the Daily News tucked under one arm, his hands stuck deep into the pockets of his walking shorts. The gait is energetic, but the body's missing; the famous eyeglasses and nose seem to be bouncing on an armature composed solely of elbows and knees. Yet this is the corpus with which he claims to menace his wife, Frenchy (Ullman): a trim woman of middling size, with hair that must outweigh Ray by five pounds. "Get me my dinner!" Ray bellows; and for some reason, perhaps boredom, Frenchy rolls her toreador slacks off the bed on which she's been reposing, watching yet another TV show about Princess Di. She's as big as her husband and has him intellectually overmatched. But it seems that Frenchy has weaknesses. First, she actually loves the shnook she married. Second, as the Princess Di fixation suggests, she longs for respectability, and does so with all the fervor of a onetime stripper. It's this second vulnerability that leads to a quick, rough education for Frenchy and Ray, after they strike it rich.

Although Ray's initial criminal scheme is a bust, it launches Frenchy on an unexpected career in the cookie business, in which there's money galore. Yet when Frenchy, now dressed in much pricier leopard-skin outfits, attempts to follow Di's example and become a patron of the arts, she learns that her talent for things that taste good has not translated into good taste. "Show them your collection of leather pigs," Ray says encouragingly, as Frenchy gives a cluster of appalled socialites the tour of her new, gilt nightmare on Park Avenue. (The shrieks and giggles of the film's production designer, Santo Loquasto, are now reputed to echo from a refuge upstate.) And so, with admirable though fatal determination, Frenchy vows to improve herself. Her chosen instructor: Hugh Grant, here cast as a perfectly hughgrantlike art dealer named David, whose savoir-faire and pheromones must surely rub off on Frenchy.

Ray, being incapable of improvement, sulks off into the company of someone who is as contentedly low-class as himself, and even dumber: Frenchy's cousin, who smiles as if recently struck on the head and snuffles the dialogue up her nose. To improve the joke, this logic-frazzler is played by one of the world's most terrifyingly brilliant people, Elaine May. Seeing her with Woody Allen is a joy comparable only to the meeting of Chaplin and Keaton in Limelight. With what sweet patience she endures Ray's sputterings! And with what joy he badgers her! At last, a woman who won't talk back. Sideways, he can deal with.

In the past, when mocking the stupidities of working-class people, Allen has sometimes vented a rancor beyond his anger at rich and middle-class idiots. Mighty Aphrodite provides one example of the trait, with a walloping dose of misogyny thrown in. Small Time Crooks offers the redemptive sight of Allen's biases running the other way. This, too, may be to the credit of The Honeymooners. It was the show with the grimmest-looking set on television, where wife and husband, though locked into the strains of lifelong penury, kept rediscovering their mutual affection. Small Time Crooks has none of The Honeymooners' old-neighborhood sentimentality (just as Allen lacks The Great One's bulk). And yet loyalty and lack of pretense count as overriding virtues here, as they did on Gleason's show, lending a surprising warmth to the humor of Small Time Crooks.

The visual equivalent would be the rooftop sunset that cinematographer Zhao Fei renders, with magical skill, toward the beginning of the film. It's one of those views of urban prettiness for which Allen has always been a sucker. Maybe it's also the sign of a late-career glow.

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