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Neurotic November: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Woody Allen is a polarizing figure, a sought-after writer and director with an abiding love for old Hollywood, but with a controversial personal life. This month we watch and review some of his most nostalgic films.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s 1940. CW Briggs (Woody Allen) is a successful insurance investigator caught in a conflict with a new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) who is questioning his processes and threatening his old-time way of handling things. While at a club for a birthday party, a magician hypnotizes the two, and unknown to them, does not break the spell. Before long, he is calling CW late at night directing him to use his knowledge of security systems to rob wealthy families of their jewels. Betty Ann hires a couple of detectives to assist CW in essentially investigating himself to see if it is more efficient to farm out this sort of work instead of keeping it in-house. The detectives soon discover that CW is committing the crimes, but CW, unaware of his hypnotic state, sets out to clear himself.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: If you're a fan of B-movies from the 40s, you'll delight in this film. Aside from the slower pace, which I imagine has something to do with filling in blanks for modern viewers who didn't grow up watching those Bs which cut out a lot of exposition in favor of reliance on formula, the movie reproduces the feel of another time. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion runs an hour and 43 minutes rather than a tight hour. The characters embody stereotypes but not as obviously as the personality-driven character actors of the 40s since these roles are played by chameleon actors.

RB: Woody himself feels that this is potentially his worst film, but as usual, he’s selling himself short. The film remarkably captures the look of 1940’s films. It is not shot in black and white, but, to me, looks the way that I imagine black and white films looking in color. Roger Ebert noted this in his mostly positive review stating that “it’s look and feel is uncanny, it’s a tribute to a black-and-white era, filmed in color, and yet the colors seem burnished and aged. No noir films were shot in color in the 1940’s, but if one had been, it would have looked like this. And great attention is given to the women played by Hunt, (Elizabeth) Berkley and (Charlize) Theron; they look not so much like the women in classic film noir as like the women on film noir posters”.

SG: The authenticity of this movie blows me away. Every set feels true to the era but also lived-in. The surfaces have dents and dings from use. The rooms feel warm and cozy; the walls are adorned with wood panels or deeply saturated and textured wallpaper, the floors have area rugs, and the furniture is made of wood. Most opulent among the furniture items include a vintage radio from which we hear a news broadcast and Fitzgerald's waterfall style bed frame. I imagine a chunk of the cost of this expensive film came from acquiring all of these great items, including working vintage cars for the street scenes, for atmosphere. It was 1000% worth the investment as far as I'm concerned.

RB: This seems like a good time to mention Theron, who is cast beautifully in a small role as a spoiled heiress that encounters CW after he has burgled her family jewels and attempts to seduce him. She captures the spirit of the era perfectly and this subplot is absurdly hilarious. Allen films are often criticized (sometimes fairly) for plotlines where beautiful young women are attracted to his older, nebbish character. In this film, however, that works when you consider that Woody is essentially playing a Bob Hope type of wisecracking, egotistical star, and Hope played this sort of role far into his sixties (admittedly sometimes to dubious effect).

SG: I found it interesting that Theron, who is not terribly buxom, was cast in this seductive role, but she executes flawlessly. She is excellent channeling the noir sirens of the 40s; she looks like Veronica Lake but most resembles the femme fatale in The Big Sleep. "The first time I talked to him about doing the part, he said, 'If I were making this film in the 1940s I would cast Lauren Bacall. Would you be interested?' Okay so Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall-- how difficult a decision is that?" said Theron.

David Ogden Stires is very good as the hypnotist. His stentorian voice claims authority immediately and imbues a sinister edge to an outlandish character. He said he based his character partly on Mark Sweet and The Amazing Randi.

RB: Allen himself felt that he had miscast himself, his first two choices, Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks turned down the role. That’s a shame because while I can’t see Nicholson doing this sort of thing, Tom Hanks would’ve been brilliant with the rapid-fire insults and jokes that Woody ultimately wrote for himself.

SG: I think casting Nicholson would feel like a spoof of himself and his role in Chinatown. The association would have worked against the lighthearted tone. Hanks would have been fantastic in the part, alternately frazzled and confident, and a closer age match to the women.

However, I find it hard to believe that someone could top Allen's comic timing in the scenes between him and Hunt when one or both of them is under hypnosis. He absolutely sells himself short criticizing the film and his performance.

Well, I tend to grow on people. We could meet later and I could grow on you, if you like.
cameo by Professor Irwin Corey

RB: Woody wanted to reshoot the entire film (as he had previously done with September, a dour piece that I wouldn’t recommend revisiting) but the movie was already very expensive to shoot and the sets would’ve needed to have been reassembled, so that wasn’t possible. It would be interesting to see how Woody would’ve improved upon this, as the basic idea had been bouncing around since his days as a TV writer in the 1950’s.

SG: Some critics were very harsh in their reviews. BBC's Nev Pierce said, "The action shuffles along like its increasingly frail lead-- with each slapstick encounter more embarrassing than the last and few of the one-liners betraying any trace of their creator’s legendary wit." Joanne Laurier of the World Socialist Web Site said, "From the point of view of the acting talent utilized, the stunning cinematography, the aesthetically rich production efforts, as well as Allen’s excellent jazz selections, the project seems incredibly wasteful." I imagine these criticisms colored Allen's remembrances and feelings for the film.

I really enjoyed the jaunty musical theme that runs throughout the film, and I couldn't find out who wrote it. It incorporates banjo, drums and trombone to give an authentic but distinctive feel.

RB: This film comes in the middle of a quartet of movies that Woody did for Dreamworks. His contract with them stipulated that he could essentially do anything that he wanted to do, but the films must be comedies. The first, Small Time Crooks, was very successful so a full-scale campaign and wide release was launched for this film and it did not pay off.

SG: Although it wasn't embraced by Americans, in Spain the movie was a big hit.

RB: Reviews were generally mixed and tepid at the time, with positive ones usually coming from those reviewers that were familiar with the tropes that Woody was trying to capture in the film. It’s a mix of screwball comedy, Bob Hope movie and B mystery film, all genres that are beloved among friends of the Picture Show. For me, this is a light, breezy, funny tribute to the kinds of movies that I love and with that in mind, I bestow four stars upon it.

SG: It doesn't always gel the way I think Allen intended it to, and could have used some editing or tightening up, but it is a fun romp just dripping with nostalgia. Four stars.

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This is definitely one of Woody's most underrated films, and I hope you've inspired more people to give it a whirl.

One note of correction: "No noir films were shot in color in the 1940’s." (cough DESERT FURY cough)

Rodney Bowcock
Rodney Bowcock
Dec 01, 2023
Replying to

Yes, you are correct of course. I was quoting Ebert in the piece and should've included that caveat.

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