Sunday, September 6, 2009

1977: Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

Released: April 20, 1977

Director: Woody Allen; Screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; Cinematography: Gordon Willis; Studio: United Artists; Producers: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Cast: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Shelley Duvall (Pam), Janet Margolin (Robin), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall)

- "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

I’ve always liked Woody Allen, but until I started going through a rough outline of selections for this countdown, I didn’t realize just how profound an impact a large number of his films have had on me. It was driven home to me by the fact that this 1977 Best Picture recipient, which many consider to be his finest achievement, could potentially not even be among my three or four favorites that he ever directed. I say “could potentially” because ranking favorite Woody films is a futile exercise for me, and one that has me constantly second-guessing and contradicting myself. For a man that has been so prolific, it is amazing how high quality his work has been – even his lesser efforts have aspects to be appreciated. Certainly not all of his films are masterpieces, but all of them can be enjoyed on some level.

I have to admit that I wavered somewhat on this pick. After completing the aforementioned rough outline, I thought to myself – “Can I actually have four Woody Allen movies in this countdown? Even I didn’t know I liked him that much…” Since doing more viewing and re-visiting of films, I’ll go ahead and give a preview in admitting that there likely will not be four movies from the Woodman in the countdown, but it still shows high highly I regard him at his best. The writing is just irresistible to me, the dry humor and sarcastic observations fitting perfectly with my own sense of humor.

In my own assessment, Allen certainly made other films that were more visually impressive (Manhattan) or that were flat-out more philosophically complex (Crimes and Misdemeanors), but I contend that he never wrote a screenplay wittier than that of Annie Hall. The story follows the prototypical Woody Allen character, Alvy Singer, as he wanders through his life in search of a lasting romantic relationship. Alvy is a comedian who possesses significant neuroses – he is obsessed with such macabre things as dying and the Holocaust, and is convinced that nearly everyone who is not Jewish is anti-Semitic. Although he has already had two failed marriages, he almost immediately falls for Annie (Diane Keaton). The relationship between them follows a path similar to the rollercoaster that Alvy grew up under, with Annie’s insecurities constantly coming into conflict with Alvy’s paranoia.

Rather than simply tell the story of the relationship with Annie, the movie also creatively uses flashbacks to explain Alvy’s history with other women. We are shown how he came to meet his two ex-wives and the way that those relationships quickly deteriorated. The flashbacks are actually used quite unconventionally, with characters being able to be on-screen with their past selves and to converse with other random characters that suddenly appear in the frame. Without strong writing, such situations would come across as hokey, but Woody is skillful enough to ensure that viewers are laughing at what is taking place, thus deflecting any negative attention toward this breaking of conventions. He also manages to utilize things like cartoon animation and split-screens into the movie, but they are not as obtrusive as one would expect, and actually work quite well.

The flashbacks themselves are some of the most entertaining parts for me, as they are like a roadmap of Alvy’s life, weaving him through various periods of 20th century culture. We see him meet his first wife at a rally for Adlai Stevenson. He subsequently marries Allison (Carol Kane), but soon is unable to concentrate even on making love with her because he has become so preoccupied with the findings of the Warren Commission. His analysis of their findings, and his reasoning for why he believes that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been the lone gunman, is a great comedy routine. It is hilarious as he begins to lump in anyone and everyone into the conspiracy, with Allison patronizingly playing along. It is one of my favorite scenes in the film, but it is just one of many individual sequences that sparkle throughout. In fact, the entire movie does feel a bit episodic, but is never disjointed to the point of feeling rambling. Woody’s writing ties everything together snugly.

The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is what makes the “romantic” aspect of this so-labeled romantic comedy work. As good as they would be together two years later in Manhattan, to me this is their best performance working opposite each other. Whereas the coming together of their characters in Manhattan felt a bit manufactured to me, here it feels very natural. It feels very much like Woody has simply placed a camera in a room and given the audience a peak into the lives of two very neurotic personalities. Alvy and Annie are two people who have anxieties that expose themselves to the type of relationship that they find themselves in.

My favorite and most quotable lines are too numerous to repeat, so I’ll avoid that exercise (although I do have to admit that it would be fun to try and list my favorites!). I’ll just reinforce the fact that it is ultimately Woody’s screenplay that makes this such a great movie. The writing manages to cover everything from relationships, to the drug culture of the 70s, to those moving to Hollywood with big dreams, and so much more, and do so effortlessly. This movie would kick off an unbelievable streak of creativity and while it might not necessarily be my favorite of his films, it is one that is in regular rotation and that never ceases to be funny.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1977: Not a lot of great movies for me in 1977, but a number of films that I definitely like. I very nearly chose Robert Altman's 3 Women, an interesting entry in Altman's filmography. It is very similar to Persona, but not quite at the same level. The other close contender comes from the first female to enter the countdown, with the Soviet director Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent. It's a harrowing story of Soviet partisans resisting the Nazi invasion and is one that is not easily forgotten.

That is the extent of serious contenders for me in this year. Other films worth mentioning for me are: Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett), Soldier of Orange (Paul Verhoeven) and, yes for the entertainment value, I'll throw in Star Wars (George Lucas).


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1977:

    Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg; Germany)


    Killer of Sheep (Barnett; USA)
    Annie Hall (Allen; USA)
    Beauty's Exotic Dance: Torture! (Tanaka; Japan)
    Soldier of Orange (Verhoeven; Holland)
    Man of Marble (Wajda; Poland)
    New York New York (Scorsese; USA)
    Iphigenia (Cacoyannis; Greece)
    Julia (Zinnemann; USA)

    Note: I included THE ASCENT for 1976, and in fact had it at #1.

    Excellent choice there Dave! I agree that the chemistry between the two stars, the flashbacks and the first-rate writing has always had this as one of my own favorite Allens as well. I could understand you not wanting to go on Allen overload during the countdown here, but ANNIE HALL is unquestionably one of his masterpieces.

  2. Ah yes, Sam... HITLER is unfortunately one that I just was not able to get to in time for this year in the countdown. It has been on the Netflix queue ever since Allan posted his review at WitD. It sounds like a truly amazing film, so I'll look forward to seeing it.

    ***And as a heads up for anyone interested, Shepitko's THE ASCENT is being shown on TCM at 12:00 AM Tuesday of this week... so set the DVRs appropriately. :)

  3. Dave – a great pick and a great article. The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is magical. They are a neurotic Tracy and Hepburn. Over all I see 1977 as one of the weaker years of the decade. I will be recording THE ASCENT on TCM this week.

    # 1 Annie Hall

    Best of the Rest
    New York, New York
    The Late Show

  4. Thanks, John. We're in complete agreement that this is something of a "down year" for this decade (relatively speaking of course, since ANNIE HALL is a great one). But, it is something of a calm before the storm, because there are some masterpieces to close out the decade.

  5. Yeah, 1977 was pretty weak. Should I be embarrassed to speak up for Close Encounters of the Third Kind? I think there's still a freshness to the first staging of what came for a long while to be Spielberg's characteristic ephiphanies. By comparison, Annie Hall is another of those films I admire without strong feelings. On the other hand, I just saw Cacoyannis's Iphigenia this weekend and I can second Sam J's inclusion of it in a list of favorites from this year.

  6. Great review of 'Annie Hall', which is one of my all-time favourites too - reading this makes me want to see it again. I also agree that it has so many quotable lines, and I'm tempted to list them but won't. I agree on 'Julia' and 'New York, New York' - also I *think* I liked Wim Wenders' 'The American Friend', but I don't remember it at all... Judy

  7. Annie Hall may be my favorite comedy of all time, and it's certainly one of the very best - formally inventive, structurally creative, and, most importantly, absolutely, timelessly, hilarious.

    Yet it has some strong competition here - I'll speak up for Close Encounters of the Third Kind which is in some ways the perfect Spielberg film with its loving devotion to suburban minutiae side by side with a wondrous treatment of the mysterious and supernatural unknown. Personally, it resonates with me very strongly and is a film I feel quite "at home" with for lack of a better word.

    Yet ultimately I'll bypass both these films and pick Star Wars, one of the most sheerly enjoyable entertainments in film history. When you take a step back and don't take its position in the cultural landscape for granted it's really a remarkable achievement - what the hell was George Lucas thinking to even attempt such a thing?

    On the basis of these three films alone, I don't think 1977 was really a weak year - in fact it may have been the last REALLY strong year for the American cinema of the 70s. But I agree that beneath the top layer, there was not as much depth as in past years; New Hollywood's riches were already drying up.