Not every fruit falls from the tree fully ripened. Not every artist creates a masterpiece the first time out. It took Woody Allen the better part of a decade to hone his style well enough to produce a genuine classic.
Critics, audiences, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed that “Annie Hall” was the writer, director, and star’s best film to date, maybe his best film ever, winning critical praise, popular approval, and four Oscars for Director, Actress, Screenplay, and Best Picture of 1977. “Annie Hall” was Allen’s coming of age.
After a succession of straightforward, gag-filled comedies like “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,” Allen found a new maturity in “Annie Hall.” The string of jokes continues, of course, and the movie is one of his funniest, but this time out he has added realistic dimensions to his characters, amplitude to his relationships, psychology to his humor. It is Woody’s most romantic and most poignant comedy, albeit a neurotic one.
The movie is also the most autobiographical of all Allen’s films. The main character he plays, Alvy Singer, is a standup comedian, Jewish, born and raised in New York City, insecure, paranoid, introverted, moody, cynical, compulsive, and threatened. How many of the latter adjectives can actually be attributed to Allen’s own personality is debatable, but they certainly fit his public persona, true or not. As in his previous films, the character is angst-ridden, confused (growing up under a roller-coaster didn’t help), searching for love and finding it hard to attain.
He meets, dates, marries, and lives with a series of women in the course of the film, which covers a number of years in Alvy’s life. But now rather than portraying the inept loser, Allen plays the struggling intellectual, forever his own worst enemy, overanalyzing everything, overprotective, overcautious, over-fastidious. It is only when he meets Annie that he sees someone worth being with. Annie (Diane Keaton) is about as opposite Alvy as possible. When he meets her, she’s simple, unaffected, down-home, a vivacious if quirky, white-bread middle Westerner who throws around terms like “La-de-dah” and “neat” without the slightest heed for sophistication. Alvy says she must have grown up in a Norman Rockwell painting.
The contrast in backgrounds and interests between Alvy and Annie provides much of the material for satire in the film. When Alvy goes to dinner at Annie’s folks’ home, he is in for more surprises than he bargained for, including a racist grandmother and a weirdo brother (played by that master of weirdo roles, Christopher Walken). It’s what happens to Alvy and Annie’s involvement as Annie begins to develop her own identity and outgrow Alvy’s insular world that constitutes the bulk of the plot and precipitates the most touching and truthful parts of the story.
In addition to Ms. Keaton, Allen uses an assortment of familiar faces throughout the film. As Alvy’s best and oldest friend, Tony Roberts plays Rob (although they call one another “Max”), a glib, handsome, amoral actor who goes to Hollywood and becomes the successful star of a hit television sitcom. This allows Allen to get Alvy to Hollywood and poke fun at California lifestyles. Alvy, a dedicated New Yorker, is convinced that California’s only contribution to culture is being able to make a right turn off a red light.
In both New York and California, Allen derides shallow pretension, probably why he likes Annie initially–her seeming ingenuousness–and why he grows to resent what he thinks she later becomes. In this regard, it’s hard to see how or why Alvy continues to maintain such a good rapport with Rob, the most shallow and pretentious person in the film, but he does. Then there are Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, and Shelley Duvall as some of the other women in Alvy’s life; Paul Simon as Tony Lacey, a rich and famous singer; Colleen Dewhurst and Donald Symington as Annie’s mom and dad; and bit parts by Marshall McLuhan, Jeff Goldblum, even Sigourney Weaver, whom one can barely make out.
Allen has never been afraid of experimenting in his films, things like his mock-documentary technique in “Take the Money and Run,” an actor walking off the screen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a human chameleon in “Zelig,” Kafka-like overtones in “Shadows and Fog,” and so on. In “Annie Hall” Allen uses a variety of storytelling methods: lots of flashbacks, animations, subtitles, split screens, characters directly addressing the audience. None of it is overdone, however, and it all contributes to a surprisingly smooth flow of scenes and ideas.
The picture quality and sound are also quite smooth, not the most impressive from a modern audiovisual standpoint but acceptable. MGM present the screen in two sizes, standard and non-anamorphic wide on two sides of the disc. Both versions are cropped differently from the same master print. The standard full-frame provides more top-to-bottom material, and the widescreen (1.66:1) offers more left-to-right information. Flip a coin. Colors are refined and natural, although they are not very bright, even subdued much of the time. It’s a good transfer, nonetheless, with hues rock steady, even if the picture is somewhat soft and fuzzy.
The monaural sound only needs to convey dialogue, which it does in an admirably understated way. Expect no more.
The keep case says the DVD comes with trivia and production notes, and this must be a reference to the printed booklet insert because I couldn’t find anything like it on the disc itself. There is a theatrical trailer, at any rate, plus a generous forty-nine scene selections, English and French spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Alvy sums up his romance with Annie when he says to her, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark; it has to constantly move forward or it dies. And what I think we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Woody Allen has been criticized for continually portraying his own real self in films and indulgently repeating variations of the same themes throughout his movies. That may be so, but in “Annie Hall” it still seems fresh and moving. This is no dead shark.