Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Then When Harry Met Sally was the first film I recorded on the Matsui video recorder I was given for Christmas on Boxing Day 1992. That’s the recording I watched incessantly week in and out for years. Imagine my surprise when I finally invested in a sell-thru copy and realised the BBC had snipped the swearing in the argument scene after Harry met Helen over Surry With A Fringe On Top.

It’s one of my favourite films, poster on my wall for nearly a decade, top five, copper bottom, listed in by hundred things about me on this blog and printed on a Moo minicard. No one involved, from Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal to Norah Ephron and Rob Reiner would make a better film and I don’t think that a romantic comedy of this quality has been produced in the past twenty years. It’s miraculous.

Now I haven’t gone mad by the way. I know this isn’t a Woody Allen film exactly in that he had nothing to do with its production, but as a way of extending the entertainment, I’m also including a few films which to an extent have clearly been influenced by Woody’s films to one degree or another.

Stephen J. Spignesi devotes an entire chapter in The Woody Allen Companion (title: “The “Woody Allen Movie” Not Made by Woody Allen” would you believe) to reproducing an article from Premiere magazine in 1989 pointing out the similarities between this film and Allen’s oeuvre, with Spignesi himself offering a few more.

He describes writer Ephron as Woody’s biggest fan and the argument is persuasive. From the credits, which feature white writing on a black background (albeit in the wrong font) to the closing moments which seem to meld elements of Annie Hall (Harry realising he’s in love with Sally during a montage just as Woody did) and Manhattan (running to sweep her off her feet afterwards just as Isaac did for Tracy).

They inhabit similar sonic landscapes with Harry Connick Jr. offering renditions of many of the song which had appeared in Woody’s films, particularly It Had To Be You, whith Diane Keaton sings so touchingly in Annie Hall. Similarly, Sally’s wardrobe has more than a passing resemblance to Annie’s. The overall impression is of an love letter to Woody's films with Diana Keaton.

Ephron also does drops references into her dialogue to people putting their names in books so that they’ll be able to tell who’s is what at the end of a relationship (Annie Hall), to Casablanca and to the ordering of food (Play It Again, Sam). There is an improvisational quality too, with the likes of "pepperrr" made up on the spot (and you can see Meg looking off camera to the crew in embarrassment).

As Spignesi notes, the framing structure, of older couples talking about how they first met, is similar to Take The Money And Run even if they’re not speaking directly about Harry and Sally. And the ravishing shots of the city, from the oranges of Central Park to the modernist concrete of the museums suggest the colour equivalent of what Manhattan achieved.

Some of the connections offered are more tenuous. They both have reading scenes and scenes set in bookstores, characters sharing professions and the repetitions of actions without the other person appearing for melancholic purposes. The former feels more like a coincidence and the latter merely a trope of romantic comedy in general.

I think it’s more clearer to say that When Harry Met Sally, the Woody Allen films and the Neil Simon's are all part of a romantic comedy sub-genre set in the upmarket Autumnal sections of New York set to a jazz soundtrack, amongst people of a particular social class who read similar magazines and attend the same kinds of parties with Sex In The City and Friends the televisual equivalents.

The rhythms of Ephron and Allen’s dialogue are very dissimilar; When Harry Met Sally sounds closer to a Robert Riskin screwball comedy from the 30s, the cultural references more pop culture related and middle brow, television rather than theatre. It’s also shot in more conventional style – Gordon Willis favoured characters in landscapes whereas Barry Sonnenfeld, the photographer here, lets most of the action play out across Meg and Billy’s faces.

Similarly it could be argued that Reiner’s film might not have existed in this form without Manhattan, Annie Hall, even Hannah and Her Sisters providing some of the ground work in presenting New York as a place as potentially romantic as Paris or Venice, except of course that it also ignores the contribution of Neil Simon, especially Barefoot In The Park.

I’m just, having watched the film again in relation to Woody’s career, weary of saying that When Harry Met Sally is “The “Woody Allen Movie” Not Made by Woody Allen” because it’s not.

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