What’s Up Tiger Lily? Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of What’s Up Tiger Lily?

Dictionary compilers take note: if you want a succinct definition of the phrase “one-joke movie”, “see What’s Up Tiger Lily?” tells you all you need to know.

Between his cinema debut in 1965 (the screenplay and a supporting role in What’s New Pussycat?) and his “official” directorial debut in 1969 (Take the Money and Run), Woody Allen spent much of his time rather incongruously making not one but two James Bond spoofs.

One was the disastrously overblown Casino Royale, while the other was What’s Up Tiger Lily?, which started life as a Japanese spy thriller called Kagi no Kagi (Key of Keys) that had been imported to the US by producer Henry G Saperstein, who after a series of disastrous test screenings hit upon the idea of hiring Woody Allen to supervise the English dubbing.

Not too surprisingly, the end result didn’t bear much resemblance to the original, as Allen and his colleagues completely rewrote the script from scratch, turning a decidedly campy but presumably straightfaced Japanese film into a wild Jewish-American farce, in which the protagonist (“Phil Moskowitz, lovable rogue”) gets embroiled in an elaborate and virtually incomprehensible plot involving international intrigue, copious martial arts scenes, and elaborate attempts to steal a microfilm secret egg salad recipe.

Needless to say, this is all extremely silly, though there are plenty of laughs along the way, whether it’s the character’s names (I’m particularly fond of ‘Shepherd Wong’ for some reason), surreal moments when dialogue and image match perfectly (“Is this the body of a killer?” asks a man while revealing that he’s not wearing a shoulder holster) or, best of all, the various exclamations uttered by Moskowitz when he’s giving bad guys a taste of their own medicine (“Saracen pig! Spartan dog! Roman cow!”).

Woody Allen has totally disowned the film (“stupid and juvenile… an insipid, sophomoric exercise”), and even sued the producers in an attempt to prevent its release after he discovered they’d made changes to his original hour-long concept and padded out the footage to 80 minutes (mostly through shots of then-popular Sixties band The Lovin’ Spoonful and various dance numbers, which are inserted into the narrative with little rhyme or reason), though dropped the suit after the film opened to unexpectedly good reviews, though as many of those reviews complained that it was at least twenty minutes too long, they pretty much supported Allen’s own criticisms.

I can see why he’s harsh about it – to say that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? doesn’t have much in common with Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors is the understatement of the millennium! – but it’s still worth a look, especially for those who prefer the “early, funny films”: it’s several notches below masterpieces like Bananas or Sleeper, but you can still glimpse the same comic sensibility at work. It’s also doubly fascinating 35 years on, in the wake of the Austin Powers films – Allen was doing the same ironic deconstruction of Sixties spy films at the time the originals were released!

Incidentally, Woody Allen fans should be warned that he’s barely featured in the film – I don’t think he dubbed any of the voices, so his onscreen presence is restricted to a brief intro, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance in the middle, and the closing credits. But his presence is all over the soundtrack – who else would have an obviously Japanese villain breathe his last with the words “I’m dying – call my rabbi”?

As for the DVD, a major bonus is that it’s in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio – previously, I’d only ever seen it in pan-and-scan 4:3, which made a nonsense of the Scope compositions and rendered the projectionist shadow puppetry scene all but incomprehensible. I’m also happy to confirm that this is the original version, not a recent US reissue that apparently cut out all the off-colour politically incorrect jokes (when I heard about this, I wondered what on earth could have been left – this film is very much from the pre-feminist era, and rarely lets you forget it!).

But although those are definite pluses, they’re stacked up against several minuses. The print is in reasonable if never especially great condition (there are quite a few spots and scratches and occasionally more severe damage, but no more than you’d expect for a low-budget film that’s into its fourth decade), but the transfer is very poor indeed.

For starters, it’s not anamorphic, which I think is quite unacceptable for a 2001 release – and the definition is even lower than that would suggest: I’m not even sure it’s much better than VHS, and I’d guess it was sourced from the same master used for that version. The picture is very contrasty, colours are decidedly smeary and shadow detail is virtually nonexistent, while the overall image is very soft indeed.

The sound is the original mono, but that’s excusable: a 5.1 remix would have added little or nothing. That said, it’s very basic mono, and the recording quality leaves a fair bit to be desired – it’s never painful to listen to, but it’s as no-frills as they come in terms of definition and range. There are eighteen chapter stops, which is ample given the brief 80-minute running time.

And that’s it – a substandard transfer, no extras, and a £15.99 price tag: although Woody Allen and his team were undoubtedly having a laugh, it’s a pity the distributors decided to apply the same principle.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that they should have gone to the lengths of digging out the original Kagi no Kagi for comparison purposes (fascinating though that would have been!), as I suspect that would take detective work well beyond the call of duty, budget and the likely size of the target market – but as it stands this DVD is outrageously overpriced for what you get: in effect, you’re being charged a fiver for the chapter selection, since that’s the only practical difference between it and the VHS version. If you can find it for rent, though, it’s certainly worth seeing, and not just for Woody Allen completists.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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