Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is made of such durable stuff that it’s liked even by many of the filmmaker’s detractors, and yet it had such a troubled production that it’s a miracle it exists at all. It’s that peculiar type of classic, the unlikely triumph. In its rough cut, it ran well over two hours, with an innumerably greater quantity of gags, subplots, and digressions than made it into the release version; were it not for the intervention of editorial consultant Ralph Rosenblum, it probably would have been an unreleasable mess. Even in its present form, rescued from the abyss of self-indulgence, the film still shouldn’t work; its achronological structure, as applied to a charming romantic comedy, was unprecedented, and its use of breaking-the-fourth-wall direct address, surrealism, and cartoonish flights of fancy weren’t terribly fashionable either.
It’s also a film that has one opening scene after another, never seeming to run short of prologues and prefaces. The first shot is of Allen himself, speaking directly to the camera, explaining the two old jokes that underscore his trouble with women; in that instant he’s nameless, neither Woody nor Alvy Singer. Following this, the introductions continue: his Coney Island childhood (which is reprised, late in the film), his public-school experience, the in medias res establishment of his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), and so on. One imagines that, if a script doctor had been brought in at some point, even in 1977, he undoubtedly would have told Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman to cut the intro stuff down to five minutes at the most, and get straight to business. The truth is, hard as it is to believe, that the Annie Hall we all know and love is the result of heavy tightening-up.
But it remains a classic, largely because it’s filled with classic scenes and bits, like pulling Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster to refute some blowhard at the old New Yorker theater, battling feral lobsters in the kitchen, Alvy attempting to kill a spider in Annie’s bathtub, or Alvy’s schoolmates giving us their future occupations. There are a lot of pretenders to the throne of the great American romantic comedy, but there’s something about the directness of Allen’s stand-up-inspired comedy style that translates beautifully to this film.
Only a handful of Allen’s subsequent films have struck the “confirmed classic” paydirt with moviegoers and critics, and that may be due in large part to Annie Hall’s nimbleness in hiding the autobiographical material in plain sight, dressed up with all the jokes in the world. Any excuse will suffice for Allen to allow the film to spin off into a comic or experimental digression (including an animated sequence!), but the most frequent excuse is to distract us—or his perpetually in-denial self—from the disintegration of his love life. Many of his subsequent features are either considerably more straight-no-chaser with the confessional aspect, or the jokes simply aren’t as funny.
The protraction of the film’s first act is absolutely necessary, because by the time the introductions are over, so are Annie and Alvy—a brilliantly spring-loaded narrative trap that is abetted by the fact that Annie’s very first scene isn’t cute or la-de-da at all, but of a woman chomping at the bit of an unhappy relationship, fully immersed in the therapy her partner talked her into in the first place. She’s snuck into the film, in a way, but Woody/Alvy keep the jokes coming, and the narrative doubles back to paint the picture of their once-happy courtship—another in a subset of false beginnings. The one-liners, still gut-busting after 35 years, paint over the Annie/Alvy fissures until there’s nothing left to do but face facts, and even then, there’s the line about the dead shark, the confrontation with the L.A. cop, Tony Roberts’s hilarious sun mask, etc. The timeline of the couple’s relationship is illuminated in a non-linear, blackout-sketch style, creating a collage effect, in which the causality-based explanation of their split dissipates: Scenes from a Marriage scrambled by a variety program of ceaseless experimentation.