Thursday, February 12, 2015

Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen's masterpiece. Funny, poignant, bittersweet and often painfully honest, it represents the summation of everything Allen had learned as both performer and filmmaker in the previous decade. The unique cinematic structure, part New Wave and part standup comedy routine, plays like a masterful jazz riff on a theme. Co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, the script is tightly-packed with enough gags and one-liners for several films. Allen and Keaton were never better, and they are ably supported by a fine ensemble cast (especially Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst and Christopher Walken) that make each of their characters unique and well-defined even in their limited screen time.

One appreciates more than ever the value that Allen's collaborators, particularly editor Ralph Rosenblum and cameraman Gordon Willis, brought to the project. Willis' cinematography here ranks with the very best work he ever did, because it is so deceptively simple, unlike the later MANHATTAN or STARDUST MEMORIES, which dazzle with their shimmering black-and-white images. His work here need only be compared with the photography in Allen's recent efforts, which is too often strikingly flat and bland, in order to really appreciate what Willis brought to the table. The editing is equally masterful in its way, never allowing scenes to linger needlessly past their natural ending point, an essential contribution given the riff-like structure Allen is working in here.

It's a pity Allen did not continue to develop this cinematic style further. His following films would become either more stylistically subdued (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS), or, too often, self-consciously derivative (STARDUST MEMORIES, ZELIG). In ANNIE HALL, he struck the perfect balance between his earlier nightclub- and standup-infused structure, and a greater formal sophistication that marked his best mature work, and placed him firmly in the pantheon of the great screen comedians.

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