The second entry in the Allen filmography is also one of the most bizarre. A Japanese thriller named International Secret Police: Key of Keys was sold to American International Pictures for state-side distribution. Then, perhaps suddenly remembering that Americans don’t like subtitles, someone had the clever idea to completely disregard the movie’s real dialogue and replace it with dubbing of a decidedly more zany nature. Thus, an espionage thriller becomes a wacky comedy about the hunt for a secret, delicious egg salad recipe.
This gimmick sounds pretty thin for anything more than a Saturday Night Live skit (or perhaps a round or two of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?). For a writer, the constraints of a project like this must be incredibly oppressive. How can you develop comic momentum or sustain dramatic interest in a film when you can’t even control what the actors are doing or how they’re acting?
Anyway, when AIP was sourcing their brilliant idea, Woody Allen’s name ended up on the top of the pile. He was popular enough (thanks to his stand-up comedy and the success of What’s New Pussycat) to catch the studio’s attention, but apparently not so popular that he was above taking on such a gimmicky project. The level of success achieved by What’s New Pussycat has been difficult for me to determine definitively, but it clearly did well enough to give studio heads the impression that Woody Allen had some cultural caché. His image and name are all over the poster and advertising material for this movie, and one of the slogans is “Woody Allen’s lowdown on how to make a Chinese fortune ‘kookie’” (which, in addition to being agonizingly lame, is also somewhat racist, as the movie and the characters in it are Japanese). Furthermore, I suspect this film’s title was chosen as a way of subtly reminding audiences of the similarly-titled What’s New Pussycat. I certainly can’t think of where else the title might have come from. There are no tiger lilies in the movie, or any characters named Tiger Lily. And no one ever says “what’s up.”
The movie begins with a long stretch of the Japanese film in its original language, which made me think they’d given me the wrong DVD. But then Woody Allen appears as himself and explains the premise, essentially saying that he has taken the film you just saw and put a new voice track over it. He even carefully explains that, while the original movie was a serious thriller, what you are now going to see is a funny version and it is going to have silly voices. I guess this is helpful for anyone who might have wandered in blind (like poor Alton Brown), but it’s embarrassing to watch Woody Allen break down the film’s flimsy premise for those too dense to pick it up. There’s also some other guy in the scene with him, who’s mostly just there to set up jokes for Woody.
The movie contains sporadic flashes of inspiration, but for the most part it’s pretty dull, and filled with a lot of gratingly silly voices and inexplicable nonsense. The most peculiar aspect of the film is the fact that, for long stretches, it doesn’t even seem to be trying to be funny. They seem more concerned with matching the dialogue with the mouth movements than with making jokes. In the interest of giving praise where praise is due, the dialogue in this movie matches the mouths and faces of the actors better than any dubbed movie I’ve ever seen. I guess not having to worry about the actual words being said helps in that regard.
One more thing about this film that’s truly bizarre: the band Lovin’ Spoonful are in it. At two points, the movie completely stops dead and the band appears on a black, empty sound-stage and performs a song while stock footage of people dancing is randomly interspersed. The first performance is sort of worked into the narrative (the previous scene was set a nightclub), but the second performance just shows up completely out of nowhere. It’s as if two very boring music videos were being edited in the same studio and some film reels accidentally got swapped. Bands show up in movies all the time, for artistic reasons (i.e. Nick Cave in Wings of Desire) or for marketing/cross-promotion reasons (i.e. The Offspring in Idle Hands), but here there’s absolutely no attempt at any sort of incorporation here. I’ve read that Lovin’ Spoonful were added without Allen’s knowledge, and seemingly in the most lazy and cynical way possible.
But, as I mentioned, there are moments of inspiration. The best parts in the film tend to be the ones where Allen (or whoever it was at the time) dials down the silliness and injects new dialogue that changes the sub-text just enough to be amusingly absurd. For example, at a late point in the film, a macho show-down between two of the main characters is given some erotic undertones.
Or in another scene, when a spy’s threats to reveal hidden-camera footage of a secret lair are modified to be threats of developing and then mocking nude photos of the enemy.
Perhaps the funniest moment comes when a deranged bartender/bad-guy henchman is sadistically feeding a chicken to his pet snake and the new dialogue changes it so that he’s staging a play-wedding between the two animals.
As a further note, for those of you who saw the premise and immediately assumed this movie was going to be racist, I’m pleased to report: this movie is only moderately racist. In fact, one running joke gets a lot more laughs than it probably deserves as a result of these potential anxieties: the main character likes to use Caucasian-centric and incredibly specific insults (“Back off, you Saxon pig!", “Die, you Anglo-Romanic dog!", “Don’t listen to that degenerate hun!", etc). Similarly amusing is watching Japanese characters casually drop Yiddish terms like “plotz” or “schvitz” into every-day sentences.
I will stop listing the film’s best parts now, as I don’t want to give the impression that these moments are representative. For every scene like those above, there’s another endless fight scene or conversation that’s as unfunny as it is boring. There’s even a moment where the movie stops completely and someone does shadow-puppets in front of the camera for nearly five minutes. If that’s not a sign of desperation, I don’t know what is.
To make an incredibly unoriginal observation, this movie feels very long, despite being a ludicrously short 78 minutes. And that 78 minutes, I should add, includes two musical numbers, two long credit sequences, the introduction, as well as the afore-mentioned shadow-puppet sequence. Clearly, I’m not the only person who thought this premise was a bit thin for feature-length.
The best news about this movie for Woody Allen fans is that Allen himself is probably not to blame for its badness. It was allegedly mangled by the studio after he finished with it, a fact made clear in the opening credits when, right after Woody Allen’s name fades out, six more names appear, each dubiously credited with “additional writing and voice work.” After Allen was done with it, in addition to awkwardly cramming in Lovin’ Spoonful, the studio added new footage and hired a Woody Allen sound-alike to re-do some of his work. At the end of the film, Woody Allen appears again as himself, and in a move so shameless (and ironic, given this movie’s premise) that he probably found it funny in a perverse sort of way, Allen’s own voice was dubbed over by his hired mimic.
Speaking of the end credits, you can watch them below. I don’t have much to add, except that it’s sort of creepy. I’m not sure what he originally said, but it’s hard to imagine it was somehow less funny than what he actually does “say.”
This studio interference is ironic in retrospect. By the end of the decade, Woody Allen had begun the most unprecedented run of artistic freedom in the history of American cinema. Perhaps us fans should be thankful for the struggles he faced trying to make this movie. In later films like Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sister, Allen’s experience probably lent his portrayals of comedians and writers struggling with the pandering juggernauts of the entertainment industry a little extra authenticity. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is not a very good movie, but it’s far from being offensively bad; given the insights it likely afforded Allen, I think it’s reasonable to be thankful that it exists.
- Not much to report here. Apart from his few moments on-screen and the humorously dissonant Jewish references, there’s almost nothing that would indicate Woody Allen had anything to do with this movie.
- Some of the female voices in the movie are provided by Louise Lasser, Allen’s wife at the time.
- According to Wikipedia, this movie inspired a genre of comedy wherein people dub comedic dialogue over foreign or silent films. Obviously I’m not in a position to judge people for having frivolous interests, so at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I would like to say that if you consider yourself an enthusiast of this genre, you need to re-think your life.