Some people don’t get Woody Allen. His disarming blend of nebbish insecurities and eccentric storytelling slathered with jaunty jazz scores or morose classical music understandably alienates the odd viewer.
And given that Allen’s peculiar personal life and the tabloid scrutiny it’s attracted, its reasonable then that there are those who deride his Manhattanite cerebral ramblings on love, life and death as self-absorbed (I myself loathe Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream). But at the same time there are numerous Woody Allen films that cement his reputation as an ingenious and hilarious auteur who is equally at home at crafting comedy or drama and none more so than his two greatest films-Manhattan and Annie Hall.
By the late 1970’s Woody Allen had established himself as a moderately successful comic actor known for his screwball comedies like Casino Royale, Bananas and What’s New Pussycat?. His films were known for their ludicrous plots, acerbic one-liners and madcap slapstick. It came as no surprise then that his next film, then entitled Anhedonia (psychiatry lingo for the inability to feel pleasure) was a murder mystery comedy that starred Allen as Alvy Singer and Allen’s former girlfriend Diane Keaton as Alvy’s love interest Annie Hall. However after the film was shot (and following some shrewd advice from his editor) Allen concluded that the film worked much better as a romantic comedy and so cut out the murder scenes, brought the romance subplot to the forefront and renamed the film Annie Hall (although he briefly considered Me & My Goy, Rollercoaster Named Desire and best of all It Had to be Jew).
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like romantic comedies, Annie Hall is probably the romantic comedy for you. In terms of plot it’s nothing particularly special: girl meets boy, boy likes girl, boy looses girl, boy tries in vain to get girl back. But essentially Annie Hall is about people talking, to each other, to psychiatrists, to friends, to lovers and occasionally the audience. What do they talk about? Relationships mostly. The film follows the blossoming bond between aspiring nightclub singer Annie and neurotic comedian Alvy. But it’s not the plot that holds its appeal; it’s the way he tells it. The couple’s first conversation for example captures the anxious awkwardness and sense of excitement perfectly. Allen deftly recognises the gauche reality of attempting to subtlety impress someone while at the same time maintain a façade of balanced indifference, but adds subtitles that convey the character’s true thoughts and thereby make the scene that extra bit comical (“I wonder what she looks like naked” “I hope he’s not an idiot”).
However the film is not just funny-it’s hilarious, with every second line is dripping with sly wit. The intense chemistry between the leading couple leads a great back and forth, Keaton’s easygoing kooky charm providing the perfect foil to Allen’s caustic quips. When Annie tells him about a gift from her grandmother Alvy retorts “my grandmother never gave gifts…she was too busy being raped by Cossacks”. Allen also seems to have predicted that uncanny comedy that Christopher Walken is extraordinarily good at. His deadpan turn as Annie’s suicidal brother who has a penchant for driving into oncoming traffic is better than all the Lady Gaga impressions and chicken dinner instructions that followed.
But while it does have laughs by the boatload, the film is also plentiful with scenes that display a sweetness rarely seen in Allen’s work. The “losbter scene” is a particular standout. Capturing a moment of pure clumsy joy as the pair attempts to cook some crustaceans for dinner, Allen crafts a tiny glimpse into the sheer delight of being in love without giving into the excessive saccharine schmaltz common to the genre. When Annie and Alvy inevitably break up, Alvy tries in vain to recreate the moment with another girl, who just stares blankly at him asking: “are you joking or what?” For a moment the dejected eyes behind his trademark specs are heartbreaking. There are a million other inspired moments in Annie Hall, and they ensure the film remains as enjoyable today as it was when it was released. As Roger Ebert once said “It’s pretty much everybody’s favorite Woody Allen film”.
But despite the wise words of Roger Ebert, there is another outstanding entry into Allen’s filmography that is regularly listed by many as a favorite. Despite what Allen would have you believe the critical and commercial success of Annie Hall allowed him to refine his skills and when he made Manhattan he threw off the label of “comedian filmmaker” forever. Once again the film stars Allen as a Jewish New York intellectual who finds himself entwined with a kooky Midwestern girl played by Diane Keaton. But while there are some obvious outward comparisons, the two films are actually poles apart. While Annie Hall concerned a slyly romantic pairing entwined with an anarchic joviality, Manhattan is a much more serious affair. Shot in stunning black and white with a 2.35.1 Widescreen aspect ratio, Allen’s film chronicles a web of relationships as they crumble around each other in a much more focused way than anything he had produced up until then (or since). Transplanting his edgy humor into a tightly woven highbrow morality play whilst keeping his unique charm was a masterstroke. Manhattan follows unhappy TV writer Issac Davis (Allen), his friend Yale (Michael Murphy), Yale’s mistress (Diane Keaton) and Issac’s 17-year-old girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) as they bounce from off each other in a dreamily composed Manhattan. Surprisingly when watching this film you don’t want Allen and Keaton’s characters to stay together, nor do you feel the same sincerity in their on-screen relationship. That’s not to say the film isn’t as funny it is (his futile arguments with his lesbian ex-wife and her partner are side-splitting), it’s just a different breed of humour altogether. Manhattan is above all a romantic film, whereas Annie Hall was a romantic-comedy.
But while it doesn’t have the same endlessly quotable dialogue, the enchanting Gershwin score, perfectly composed cinematography and exceptional performances (especially Mariel Hemingway and her final line “you just have to have a little faith in people”) mean that while Annie Hall is probably his funniest and most beloved film, Manhattan is his most accomplished. Both are films that manage a unique universal appeal despite being so rigidly set in a very specific time and place. So if you’re wondering what all the fuss about Woody Allen is, watch these two films. All will become clear.