New York again, this time shot through the lens of a romantic. Whilst Bickle plies his trade on the bad side of town, Alvy Singer falls in and out of love with Annie Hall, along the way exploring the nature of all of his previous relationships and setting the foundations for every romantic comedy that was to come in the Eighties. Where Annie Hall really succeeds though is that it ditches the traditional romantic comedy narrative (that love always wins) for something else (love always hurts, but we get better at dealing with it) but never falls into the trap of making the experience a depressing one for the viewer.
Episodic in nature, Annie Hall succeeds due to its bravery at ignoring what was and wasn’t acceptable in a comedy at the time. It’s quite adult in its nature (in the truest sense of the word, the film requires a certain degree of awareness of relationships to get it), with a gentle, under-stated humour to it all that grows out of the situation rather than the other way round. It’s not afraid to experiment as well, bringing on authors to discuss their work in the movie queue (“Boy, if Life were only like this!”) and the fact that most men find themselves attracted to the Wicked Queen rather than Snow White because at least she’s interesting, throwing in knock-about comedy along the way and some surrealist edges (the house under the roller coaster being the reason that Alvy is so nervous about everything). None of this would of course work if it weren’t for the quality of Allen’s writing – there’s a real sense that the entire structure was set down beforehand and little editing was required other than to finesse it into shape – and the no nonsense direction. There is nothing fancy about the direction on show here, but it’s all done with such a confidence that this doesn’t require flashy camera angles to impress, the quality elsewhere is enough. It’s also surprising how many future stars got their big break in this film (it delivers small character parts in spades) – Christopher Walken as Annie’s deranged brother, Jeff Goldblum (“I forgot my mantra?”) and a squint and you can just about make her out Sigourney Weaver as Alvy’s date at the end. No matter how small the part, there’s usually a memorable line attached to it.
Annie Hall makes the list because it’s a film that’s easy to fall in love with and difficult to worry about the faults of (unlike the other 1977 film that could have made the list which becomes more and more problematic the more times I’ve seen it). Sure, the end section is weak compared to the blisteringly funny start, and sometimes it feels a little too clever for its own good, but Annie Hall succeeds because it isn’t trying to be perfect, like its title character it just wants to be liked. And in its title character there’s probably one of the best female characters from the seventies (and the seventies has some of the strongest female roles since the Hollywood heyday, few female roles are as good these days), something formed by Allen trusting in his actress to deliver what he wanted. Keaton is by turn funny, honest in a manner in which none of the other characters are and at times neurotic, but never in a way designed to poke fun at her. Her ticks are recognisable, everyone knows someone who can’t deal with spiders, everyone gets nerves on the first date. The great thing is that she makes these almost incidental to the nub of her character rather than being her character. And crucially, she isn’t defined by her occupation, something that many films at the time were guilty of at the time (and a common complaint with current films as well) nor does she exist outside of the social norm, she isn’t interesting because she’s someone we’d hate to spend time with but because we would like to instead. Alvy is a weaker character (although still light years ahead of the quality of many modern comedies where weirdness is the be all i end all), relying more on the established stich of Allen himself, but he still feels fully formed enough that we can trust in his memories of the relationship rather than doubt them. For once, the principal character is too honest to be even considered an unreliable narrator (the final punch line of the film even makes a joke of this) and contrary to many seventies male leads he’s the hero in the truest sense rather than an anti-authority one.
Both Allen & Keaton remarked that the relationship was not autobiographical, and whilst the comment can perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s easy to instead see it as an idealised relationship for both of them. It’s not about everything, it’s not even about a specific moment in their relationship (time is a tricky factor in this film – not that it matters), it’s the snapshots of the things they’d remember when chatting about things in later years – the edited highlights of their relationship as it were when they meet up years later. For me, Allen would never make a better straight comedy, one that mixes the screwball antics of his earlier films with the talent for introspection of his latter ones. Even the attempt to capture the mood again with Manhattan Murder Mystery (reportedly based on an earlier discarded sub-plot involving Alvy & Annie’s paranoia regarding their neighbour) missed the charm & wit of this, and as good as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah & Her Sisters are, they either fall to far into whimsy or straight drama and thus lack the lightness of touch here.. For better or worse, this charming film is a perfect example of its genre, except for the fact that in the end love does not overcome all obstacles.
It just sets up some bloody good jokes along the way.