Woody Allen tries on German Expressionism to little effect in a film that might have worked better as one of his New Yorker literary pieces. Largely drawn from Fritz Lang’s M/’31 (criminal city-gangs hunt down serial killer) and Kafka’s THE TRIAL (innocent putz caught in bureaucratic nightmare of assumed guilt), the film never finds the unified tone needed to make this nighttime house-crawl flippantly suspenseful. And the all-star cast feels wasted in glorified cameos when they’re not simply wrong for the part. Good work, however, from John Cusack who brings a touch of Russian intellectual despair as a wealthy whore-house habitué, like something out of Pushkin. Woody apes the style of studio-bound UFA (forced-perspective sets, damp surfaces, like G. W. Pabst with a Kurt Weill soundtrack), but cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, trying to distinguish this from the polished surfaces of film noir, hits on grainy low-contrast b&w and too much panning, as if Woody wanted to recreate the reduced grey-scale he remembered from faded prints first encountered at some West Side revival house in the ‘50s.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In their very different ways, Orson Welles and Béla Tarr offer far more engaged (and entertaining) responses to similar fare in THE TRIAL/’62 (difficult, but it grows on you) and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES/’00 (inexplicable and great).