For his 47th feature film, ďIrrational Man,Ē Woody Allen has made a drama with comic highlights that gets into a couple of his favorite subjects: befuddlement about why weíre here, and murder. A former activist turned college professor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a disillusioned wreck who finds a new lease on life by convincing himself that if he kills someone he considers to be a bad person heíll, at least in some small way, make the world a better place. Things donít exactly go as planned. Allen, 79, recently spoke about actors, the music that accompanies his films, and why heís drawn to stories involving murder.

Q: Youíve pulled together another great cast, Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey. Whatís the attraction for actors who could be in big blockbusters to be in your smaller films?

A: Those are very tempting pictures for enormous amounts of money and enormous recognition. We offer them scale and the most no-frills kind of situation. But they will take it because they like to act, and if you give them something to act that isnít just running and ducking explosions and chasing cars, theyíll do it. They have heart and they want to work. Theyíre actors, theyíre artists, so if you give them something decent to sink their teeth into, they accept it, and theyíre willing to sacrifice the money.

Q: Itís difficult to describe ďIrrational Man.Ē Itís serious, but itís not a straight drama, and itís funny, but itís not a comedy.

A: This one is a serious picture, but people find amusing things in it. But I didnít put them there. People coming in thinking that because itís me itís intended to be funny in spots, or maybe I screwed up and itís funny in spots. There are laughs that you hope to get when youíre doing a comedy, but you never do get when itís a comedy. But when youíre doing a drama, you get the unexpected laughs. To me this one is serious from start to finish. So maybe the audience is giving me credit for being amusing when Iím being inept. But if it gets a laugh, let them laugh. Thatís great. Itís how I set my table.

Q: It seems that every few years you decide to do a murder movie.

A: Murder interests me in really serious things like ďCrime and PunishmentĒ and ďMacbeth,Ē but it also interests me when I see it done in Alfred Hitchcock or when I see it done well on any level. I like to read it, I like to see it, and itís fun to make it. When I did ďMatch PointĒ I felt it had some substance, that it would not just be an airplane read or a whodunit, and that it had the chance to say something. So it was worth me trying it. I felt that in this picture, too. For some reason itís the stuff of drama. Murder is used all the time, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, and it interests me.

Q: Were you exacting some sort fantasy revenge by making this film?

A: I learned everything I know about crime and murder as a boy growing up. For some reason as a little kid I was very preoccupied with a few subjects. One was magic tricks, another one was baseball, and another one was crime. I knew all the gangsters and all the criminals and all the murderers. I knew everything about them: their nicknames, what they were in for. It was a real fascination of mine, just as a fan. Iíve never murdered anybody. Iíve thought of murdering people, but I never thought of it seriously. Every once in a while if you canít sleep at night, and youíre lying awake at 3:00 in the morning and you want to get back to sleep, there are various things you think of. One thing Iíve thought of at times is a perfect murder. You know, you inject the tomato with the cyanide. Itís something thatís always fascinated me.

Q: Music is always an import part of your films. ďIrrational ManĒ has a recurring motif of Ramsey Lewisí ďThe in Crowd.Ē How did that happen?

A: The music is always the best part of making the movie for me. I edit the movie and itís all together, then I go into the other room and go through my extensive collection of records. I always have some idea of what I want, which can be completely out of line. So you put on Mozart and you think that itís going to be perfect, and itís not, itís terrible. Or you luck out, and itís perfect. But more often than not, itís not quite right. So you try Louis Armstrong and then you try something else, and this goes on. But here, you put on Ramsey Lewis, and suddenly the scene just comes to life. You just hunt and peck, and then suddenly it works! The music has got a sort of hot, relentless, sexy quality, or something. I donít know what it is, but it works well for the movie. It pulsates in a tense way. But itís really a happy accident, as most of the music is in the movies that I do.

ďIrrational ManĒ opens on July 31 in most markets.