While opinions may be firmly polarised when it comes to the bespectacled New Yorker, Woody Allen has left an indelible mark on modern cinema and pop culture. Indeed, with virtually a film a year since the early 1970s, Allen has been impossible to avoid on the cinema landscape. His “early, funny films” (to borrow a line from 1980′s Stardust Memories) were influenced heavily by his stand-up comedy and his absurd, morbid and frequently neurotic outlook on life. With a string of zany comedies behind him, including the political farce Bananas (1971), sci-fi spoof Sleeper (1973) and an excellent take on Russian epics in Love and Death (1975), Allen himself has described Annie Hall as a “turning point” in his career.  It certainly brought him wider acclaim as a filmmaker, allowing the audience to see for the first time the Woody Allen that had classical influences as strong as his comedic ones. It also won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out Star Wars, along with Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Marshall Brickman) , as well as a Best Actress for Diane Keaton.
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen is Alvy, a neurotic comedian who is trying to maintain some semblance of a relationship with the exuberant Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, whose real name is Diane Hall). The film explores their relationship over several years, with Alvy’s narrative voice directing much of the picture. We explore his childhood (where he was “brought up underneath the roller-coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn”), and unlike most traditional romantic comedies, Alvy attempts to trace the reasons as to why the relationship didn’t work. In one of the frequent one-liners throughout the film, Alvy quips “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark”.
The Subtext Scene in the film is as clever as it is pretentious, and so self-consciously so as to render all arguments of pretentiousness invalid. Shortly after meeting Annie on the tennis court, their chit-chat leads to a conversation on Annie’s balcony over a glass of wine. As their small talk plays out on-screen, their inner thoughts and anxieties play out as subtitles beneath them. This consciously deconstructive moment takes the old screenwriting tip of thinking about your subtext and literally displays it on-screen for the viewer, showing Annie’s neuroses are just as complex as anything Alvy has to offer in this moment. The banality of the conversation is contrasted against the screaming inner monologue that won’t allow them to be comfortable for a moment. A section of the screenplay illustrates this motif:
(pointing toward the apartment
after a short pause)
So, did you do shoot the photographs
in there or what?
(Nodding, her hand on her hip)
Yeah, yeah, I sorta dabble around, you know.
Annie’s thoughts pop on the screen as she talks: I dabble? Listen to me-what
They’re … they’re… they’re wonderful,
you know. They have … they have, uh
… a … a quality.
As do Alvy’s: You are a great-looking girl
Well, I-I-I would-I would like to take
a serious photography course soon.
Again, Annie’s thoughts pop on: He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo
Photography’s interesting, ’cause, you
know, it’s-it’s a new art form, and a,
uh, a set of aesthetic criteria have
not emerged yet.
And Alvy’s: I wonder what she looks like naked?
Aesthetic criteria? You mean, whether
it’s, uh, good photo or not?
I’m not smart enough for him. Hang in there
The-the medium enters in as a condition
of the art form itself. That’s-
I don’t know what I’m saying-she senses I’m shallow. 
The scene is distinct in the film for briefly shifting away from Allen/Alvy’s point of view for a few moments. From the beginning of the film, Allen has firmly established that this is his point of view on the crumbling of a relationship, frequently breaking the fourth wall to explain a scenario to the audience. A memorable scene near the start of the film see’s Alvy frustrated with the conversation of what he perceives to be a pseudo-intellectual blow-hard behind him in line at the cinema. The situation is resolved with Allen/Alvy pulling in author Marshall McLuhan from off camera to dissect and critique the man’s incorrect assertions. As Allen puts it to the audience, “Boy, if life were only like this!” At other times, it is Allen’s distinct narration that gives the film its singular flavour, positioning him as a fish out of water within the modern world. Here he isn’t just exposing his own inner monologue, but that of Annie as well. It’s a masterclass in subtextual conversation, even if it has to hit you over the head with it.
The Subtext Scene also continues Allen’s motif of having a conversation with the medium. In his earlier film Love and Death, Allen explored the idea of literature (particularly the Russian epics) and its conversation with film, a theme he would later return to in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005) more directly. With this scene in Annie Hall comes the recognition that the conversation also happens within the film medium itself, with Annie and Alvy’s literal subtext also engaging in a secondary conversation with the audience, acknowledge the turning cogs that exist inside the minds of screenwriter. It could be argued that this self-awareness made later films such as Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1988), not to mention television’s Seinfeld (1990-1998) and its imitators, possible.
Allen’s later films began to learn from the success of Annie Hall, exchanging the broad-brush approach to comedy with a mixture of laughs and pathos, and more than often something a little darker. Indeed, Allen immediately followed Annie Hall with the drama Interiors (1978), a deliberately sober film informed heavily by Allen’s love of Igmar Bergman. Allen’s subsequent filmography would continue to have a conversation with film and the writing, certainly through Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Deconstructing Harry (1997) and to a lesser extent Hollywood Ending (2002). Yet Annie Hall was at the apex of this game, and although some of his later films may be considered technically better, it’s almost impossible to separate Allen, New York and late 1970s intellectualism as a result of these key scenes.
Richard Gray is the Editor of the online magazine, The Reel Bits.
- Stig Bjorkman (ed.) Woody Allen on Woody Allen, . London: Faber and Faber, 1993, Revised Edition 2004, p. 75-93.
- Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists, 1977. Film. Screenplay available at: http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/annie_hall.html