Essential Films: ‘Annie Hall’ (1977)

One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, Annie Hall remains American film director Woody Allen’s most beloved film, and one that marked his arrival as among the most instantly recognizable film makers.

Through the eyes and mind of neurotic and doleful New York comedian Alvy Singer, the film looks back over the failed relationship between Alvy (played by Allen himself) and aspiring Jazz singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). There isn’t much plot but rather a series of situations that unfold naturally, taking the viewer on a scattered tour of the highs and lows of their time together, from their meeting at an indoor tennis club, through moving in together and finally to their poignant goodbyes outside a New York café.

During a tour performing routine in college campuses, Alvy visits the Annie’s uptight waspish parents for Easter, a scene brilliantly intercut and contrasted with the Singers having a chaotic Jewish family meal in Brooklyn. It eventually dissolves into the two sets of parents conversing across the split screen:

“How do you celebrate the holidays?”

We fast. No food. To atone for our sins.

“Your sins? I don’t understand.”

To tell you the truth, neither do we.

In another famous scene, Alvy goes to Annie’s apartment for the first time. The two begin to discuss her photography work standing on her roof terrace, when suddenly, the screen shows us subtitles. As both characters spout pretentious comments to each other, their true thoughts are revealed underneath.

“I wonder what she looks like naked.”

“God, I hope she doesn’t turn out to be a schmuck like the others.”

Part of the film’s enduring appeal is its constant playfulness with cinematic form, which makes it look modern even today. Another key to the film’s success is the almost personal relationship the viewer has with the hero. It starts from the first shot when he addresses the audience directly and launches into a classic stand-up comic routine.

“There’s an old joke. Two elderly women were at a Catskills mountain resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions. That’s essentially how I feel about life, full of loneliness, misery, suffering and unhappiness and its all over much too quickly.”

Woody’s genius in this film is to use his characters’ Jewishness and neuroses as the basis for comedy and also a commentary on the absurdities of life. This is a film that invented the romantic comedy. Woody gave the genre a style, delivery, and language that has hugely influenced “rom-coms” ever since.

“ … that’s how I feel about relationships – they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd…”

Leave a Reply