There’s as much eye-am-a-camera spying in They All Laughed as in the most obsessive works of Hitchcock and De Palma, but while those directors dissect the medium’s inherent voyeurism, Peter Bogdanovich prefers to use cinema’s eager peepers to connect viewers to the evanescent yearning of romantic movies. Set in an airier, less hermetic Manhattan than the one heralded (and embalmed) by Woody Allen, the film is a delicately staged roundelay of intertwined pursuit that, through its private-eye plot and point-of-view editing, encourages audience involvement with the characters’ longing. Members of New York’s Odyssey Detective Agency, the men are ineffectual sleuths smitten with the married women whose supposed infidelity they were hired to document: John (Ben Gazzara) falls for Angela (Audrey Hepburn) and Charles (John Ritter) falls for Dolores (Dorothy Stratten) while fellow shamus Arthur (co-writer Blaine Novak) rollerblades through the story with affairs of his own. As in Bogdanovich’s much-maligned musical At Long Last Love, there’s a sense in which flesh-and-blood people strain to match the silver-screen characters of their memories, just as the director himself aims to fill the shoes of auteurs from classical Hollywood; here, however, such tensions are resolved by incorporating their shortcomings into the film’s accepting mood of tender, bittersweet humanity, with Bogdanovich fondly channeling rather than deconstructing cinema’s past. Supposedly created as a showcase for Stratten (whose tragic death cast a pall over the film’s release), the picture instead offers a splendid ensemble, from Gazarra’s world-weary suavity and Ritter’s slapstick acuity to Hepburn’s autumnal grace and, above all, Colleen Camp’s marvelous blend of abrasion and snap. Indeed, the actress embodies the garrulous yet vulnerable charm of They All Laughed, which, for all the Hawksian ping-pong of the dialogue, is closer to the melodic élan of a Jacques Demy film, as wistful and fragile as a sand castle.
A rather TV-ish transfer is nevertheless occasionally sparked both visually and aurally by radiant views of the city (night scenes have a particular vibrancy) and by a serviceable soundtrack that suitably captures the film's sensitivity to music, from Sinatra to Louis Armstrong to the Merry Widow Waltz.
Like the movie itself, Bogdanovich's commentary starts out uneasy but grows on you, pointing out technical details and emotional connections between the characters in his usual sleepy-engaging tone. Many of the same points are made in his chat with Wes Anderson, where he details the improvised atmosphere and fondness for the actors that make the film his own personal favorite.
The disappointing extras shouldn't detract from the charm of Bogdanovich's lilting urban valentine.