Prior to Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen was known as a comic, cutting his teeth in stand-up comedy and paying his dues as a comedy writer. When he started making films, his early efforts were flat-out comedies and farces like Bananas (1971). It wasn’t until Annie Hall that he demonstrated a capacity for something deeper and poignant while still being very funny. Based loosely on his relationship with Diane Keaton, the film features Allen’s protagonist reflecting on a past relationship that he still hasn’t gotten over. With this film, he took the romantic comedy to another level by breaking down the fourth wall and even mixing in animation to create a film so influential that for years after (and still today) other films of its kind would be judged by its high standards.
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is a successful comedian that gets involved with an unsuccessful actress Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). He’s a raging neurotic and she’s incredibly insecure and together they make a great couple because they are willing to put up with each other’s many idiosyncrasies – he obsesses about death and she says inappropriate things. Over the course of the film, we see them fall in love and then break up when she moves to Los Angeles, wooed there by a record producer (Paul Simon) who is attracted to her. Throughout it all, New York City serves as the backdrop to their romantic escapades.
Unlike most romantic comedies, Annie Hall draws attention to itself as a film with Allen addressing the camera or stopping a scene to make a point, like when he and Annie are waiting in line for a film and he complains about some pretentious boob pontificating endlessly nearby. Allen then produces famous academic Marshall McLuhan to refute the man’s incorrect theorizing. Allen also employs split screens and subtitles for ironic effect as well as appearing in flashbacks to comment on his past self. What also sets Annie Hall apart from Allen’s earlier work is his decision to hire legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot his film. Willis gives it a definite cinematic look occasionally incorporating hand-held camera to create a more intimate feel.
None of these clever techniques would mean anything if Annie Hall wasn’t anchored by the strong performances by Allen and Keaton and the undeniable chemistry they have. Already a seasoned pro, he spouts funny one-liners with excellent comic timing and Keaton matches him beat for beat as his ideal foil. They also both have the chops to handle the semi-serious stuff like when Alvy and Annie’s relationship sours. Of course, they have fantastic material to work with thanks to the well-written screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman, which is so much more than a collection of one-liners. It also features all kinds of wonderful observations about love and relationships, like how Alvy is unable to enjoy life and Annie calls him on it, which forces him to examine his own life. Alvy realizes that he still loves Annie and regrets breaking up with her.
Annie Hall was a big breakthrough for Allen, winning four Academy Awards and influencing countless romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally… (1989) to Singles (1992) to High Fidelity (2000). Arguably, only Allen has been able to top Annie Hall when, two years later, he released Manhattan (1979), which managed to be an even greater artistic achievement.
After the phenomenal success of Annie Hall, Allen confounded the expectations of his critics and fans with Interiors (1978), which saw him doing his best Ingmar Bergman impression. It was his first dramatic film and while critical reaction was mostly positive, it hardly set the box office on fire. With Manhattan, Allen returned to familiar material – the witty romantic comedy – with what many consider his masterpiece but a film that he famously felt was so bad that he offered to make another one for the studio for free if they agreed to not release it. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to him and the end result is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to New York City every committed to film while also taking an entertaining and insightful look at the love lives of a handful of its inhabitants.
Allen establishes his ambitious intentions right from the start with a grandiose montage of the city scored to George Gershwin and photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis. This is the Big Apple as seen through Allen’s eyes as he presents rarefied social strata of well-educated, neurotic people entangled in messy relationships with each other. Still stinging from a bitter divorce, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is now dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl (“I’m dating a girl who does homework.”). His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with a journalist named Mary (Diane Keaton).
Isaac and Yale’s lives are a mess with the former writing for a television show he loathes and the latter trying to finish a book and start up a magazine. The last thing they need is to complicate their romantic lives. Isaac realizes that Tracy is too young for him (“You should think of me as a detour on the highway of life.”) and gets involved with Mary after Yale introduces them. At first, Isaac and Mary can’t stand each other, arguing over an art exhibit and several artists she feels overrated but he thinks are great, however, he likes her unflinching honesty and she’s attracted to his sense of humor.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton continue their undeniable on-screen chemistry playing so well off each other. She is allowed to tone down the more exaggerated comedic gestures she used in Annie Hall to create a more nuanced character in Manhattan. Mary is torn between her love for Yale, even though she knows it’s wrong and her attraction to Isaac. Allen is more than a neurotic joke machine as Isaac wrestles with his own moral dilemmas – his love for Tracy, even though he knows she’s too young for him, and his attraction to Mary who is much more compatible.
While Manhattan features an abundance of Allen’s funny one-liners, the screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman tempers it somewhat with the characters’ messy personal lives, like the resentment Isaac feels towards his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) for leaving him for another woman, or Yale cheating on his perfectly lovely wife (Anne Byrne) with Mary. Allen expertly shifts gears from comedy to drama from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene.
Allen takes us through a guided tour through the city with key scenes taking place at famous establishments, like Elaine’s and the Russian tearoom, or tourist spots like the Hayden Planetarium, in such a way that New York becomes a character unto itself. It also doesn’t hurt that Willis’ gorgeously textured black and white cinematography makes everything look so good. Sadly, several of the places the characters frequent no longer exist making Manhattan a historical document of sorts. Allen’s film is arguably the best representation of his worldview: highly educated people with very little common sense when it comes to their personal lives, making bad decisions even when they realize it. But like the rest of us, they keep on trying, hoping that the next relationship is the one.
I think it’s safe to say that both Annie Hall and Manhattan have never looked and sounded better, showing off Gordon Willis’ incredible cinematography with excellent-looking transfers. It’s time to throw away your DVDs and upgrade to these Blu Ray versions.
Sadly, in keeping with other Allen home video releases there are no extra features save for theatrical trailers for each film.