Annie Hall is a difficult one to review. We’ve seen this film so many times. For most people, it’s the first Woody Allen film you hear about, and the first you ever saw. It’s been with us long enough to inspire a love that led to a whole website. It’s considered the best Woody Allen film (as recently confirmed by critics on the Sight & Sound poll).
Woody Allen plays Alvy Singer. Right at the start he tells us – Annie and he broke up. And he’s been going back through it all to try and work out where it went wrong. And we go in flashback through Alvy’s life to try and find it. From childhood, early loves, first meetings and the break up.
The film starts with Allen to camera – same as always but something more. He tells us two jokes, but those jokes are imbued with a sadness, about love. It’s a bittersweet chuckle – the first of Allen’s film career. And after that we are off to a masterclass of film making, of emotion, of comedy and more. It created a style of film-making that has inspired thousands of imitators.
Allen draws his own inspirations too. Most notably Ingmar Bergman‘s ‘Wild Strawberries‘, whose lead character shares Alvy’s exploration of the past by reliving it through the magic of movies, and Federico Fellini‘s gritty but nostalgic view of being young. There’s the deeper theme – death, the universe and everything – inspired by the European cinema that Allen alluded to in Love And Death.
The film started out as something different. Originally named ‘Anhedonia‘, it was a longer journey with Allen’s usual farcical asides. ‘Annie Hall‘ was one of a number of women. But the original cut was two and a half hours long, and Annie was the character that shone through. The story was cut down to be about Alvy and Annie. Some of the scenes that were written were later re-used in later films.
Diane Keaton is wonderful, and it’s easy to see how Allen and his editing team wanted to keep returning to her. Her Annie has become one of the cinema’s great women – and a generation of sensitive boys fell in love with her. And every generation of sensitive boys did the same, ever since.
The film is full of memorable moments, many are often parodied. The lobster scene (the first day of principal photography), the Marshall McLuhan scene, the sneezing on the cocaine. But it’s the tender moments. Alvy and Annie’s impromptu firts kiss. Annie’s heartbreaking version of ‘It Had To Be You“. And then there’s the one-liners that have entered the public lexicon and never looked back (amongs many, “those who can’t do teach”). Ironic that the joke Allen says is attributed to Groucho Marx is now more attributed to Woody Allen.
Even the amazing array of cameos can’t detract from Allen and Keaton. One wonders if there was bigger roles for them in the original cut. Jeff Goldblum, Paul Simon, Christopher Walken and in the classroom scene – Brooke Shields. Of the full supporting cast, Tony Roberts puts in a solid performance as the confident alpha male Alvy will never be. Shelley Duvall‘s story gives us a glimpse of the original cut. Carol Kane, Janet Margolin and Colleen Dewhurst round out the cast.
It’s a number of firsts for Allen. The more serious narrative. The glorious use of a city in a film (his beloved New York, for the first time). The title card and that particular font. And that very particular witty, dialogue driven, urban comedy. And we’ve laughed with Allen on film before. But we’ve never felt the range of emotion that he brings to Alvy Singer. He gets a lot credit for making a jump as a director on this film, but he also makes a giant leap as an actor.
Another first is the addition of Gordon Willis to Woody Allen’s cinematographer. He worked previously on ‘The Godfather‘, and he brought a dramatic realism to Allen’s screenplay. Willis would go on to work with Allen for almost a decade, including what is considered his next best films – Manhattan and Purple Rose Of Cairo.
This is the best Woody Allen film. He would return to these heights in a number of genres in the decade ahead, but this is not only a perfect film, but a perfect Woody Allen film. It seems like every year there is a Woody Allen inspired film, and they are more often than not inspired by Annie Hall. Some are great, but none match this – Woody Allen’s masterpiece.