It was one of the proudest days of my life when a family friend told me, in my teens, that I looked ‘a bit like’ Woody Allen, as well as having a similar sense of humour. Well, I was a fan anyway, albeit of what were accurately and deathlessly dubbed the cineast’s ‘earlier, funnier’ films in Stardust Memories (1980), the last of a trilogy of movies that definitively signposted Allen’s move away from pure comedy and into the mildly humorous auteur-ism with which a new generation of moviegoers is familiar.
Annie Hall (1977) had been a harbinger. Rather like contemporary rock music getting its hair cut and hiding its sense of the fantastical under a bushel, here was a film that was adult, mature and commanding, whereas preceding hits such as Take the Money and Run (1967), Bananas (1970) and Love and Death (1975) had been childlike and innocent. There were laughs in Annie Hall, but they wwere chuckles and discreet giggles, whereas hitherto Allen had dealt in belly-laughs, chortles, guffaws.
Annie Hall might be said to have invented an entire dramatic trope- urbane, neurosis-addled East Coast intellectuals, the ‘elitists’ that rednecks and Republicans drone on about (for which read ‘Jews’). Said trope has practically annexed US television comedy, from the brilliant (Seinfeld) to the awful (New Girl); yet watching its first incarnation in the comedy of manners that Allen and the still-mesmerizing Diane Keaton pick their way through like the live lobsters that Allen’s character Alvy Singer inadvertently drops at one point is to marvel at a model of economy and simplicity delivered with canny sophistication almost wholly absent from Hollywood today.
Not since Fred and Ginger did their thing have two characters negotiated each other with such wit and, it has to be said, actorly assurance. The great British writer of teleplays, Andrew Davies, once told the current reviewer: ‘I keep Allen’s screenplays in the bog to read while I’m going and they’re an invaluable tutor.’ The dialogue hardly fizzes with smart-alecky putdowns and zingers, but there’s lots to feast on here, such as – famously – the two old dears on holiday; ‘the food here is really terrible'; ‘yes, I know, and such small portions’. That’s Allen returning big-style to his Jewish roots, a theme which recurs often. This is a highly autobiographical movie, with ‘I’ being one of the most frequently used words in the script. It is also a profoundly character-driven piece, and Allen proves himself capable of directing a large cast with utter authority in small ensemble scenes and sketches. The performance he draws from Keaton is particularly memorable; at once neurotic and confident, sexy and severe, penitent and imploring.
In one of his more uncharitable moments, the late Leslie Halliwell in his ninth edition (1989) of the Filmgoer’s Companion, sniped as to how well the film would wear in a decade and implied that it was very much of its time; well, it hits as many targets now as it did then, possibly because the human frailties and idiocies it illustrates are so timeless.
While it does reflect that brief moment in time when liberal young people reacted against the counterculture of the 1960s (one only has to look at Keaton’s androgynous trouser suits and shirts, a million miles from the floaty. flowery creations her ilk would have sported ten years before), this is hardly a criticism that should militate against seeing a master director at work. This is the movie where Allen became *Allen*- and for that alone, it should stand as a monument to his singular art.