A work of despairing acuity dressed up as a skittering gagfest -- the tragedy is not of being a criminal, but of being an unsuccessful criminal. What's Up, Tiger Lilly? lent Woody Allen images to goof on, thus his official debut as modernist jester extends the basic contrast with his own sights and sounds, bluntly spliced for maximum Marxian effect. Groucho is evoked even before Woody's parents appear hidden behind fake glasses and mustache for an interview on their son, on the run from the police for following a childhood of nebbishness with a life of crime. Or a failed life of crime, rather, the natural step from failed street gang, failed pool hustler and failed soldier ("psychologically unfit"); as a wannabe hoodlum, preteen Woody runs from the cops with his hand stuck in a gumball machine, then as a young man drags a chair every couple of yards behind a marching band so he can saw his cello. Released from the slammer after attempting robbery with a lighter, he falls for Janet Margolin, the mock-lyricism of their walk in the park spiked in the soundtrack with wisecracks ("After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse"). Still, Jackson Beck's is the main voice laid over the images, a Dragnet deadpan milked on guys in gorilla suits, ventriloquist dummies in the prison's visiting hall and curveball non-sequiturs ("Wanted by federal authorities for dancing with a mailman"). A misspelled bank holdup note is a central joke, ran into the ground; a Langian tyrant is brought in to direct another heist, tipping off the You Only Live Once spoof (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, White Heat, and Knock on Any Door also figure in). Yet the main reference point may be the New York City school of Cassavetes, Clarke, and McBride, panic shot through handheld lenses hidden inside a loaf of bread yet already aimed inward at Allen, for whom unbuttoning his beloved's nightie is no less an ordeal than coping with the vexing modern world around him. Co-written by Mickey Rose. With Marcel Hillaire, Jacquelyn Hyde, and Louise Lasser.
--- Fernando F. Croce