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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

PUBLISHED: 12:56 31 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:00 02 January 2018

When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. It is also onne of the few movies to use New Year's Eve as a major plot point.  Photo: Columbia Tri-StarWhen Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. It is also onne of the few movies to use New Year's Eve as a major plot point. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

When Harry Met Sally; dir: Rob Reiner, starring: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby; Cert: 15 (1989)

Christmas movies are one of the most plentiful genres in Hollywood history. Films about New Year are unaccountably much rarer. This is just one reason to treasure the smart, sharp and amazingly truthful relationship comedy When Harry Met Sally.

Although, not about New Year’s Eve, all the important moments in the narrative revolve around this annual milestone. What makes this film special is the strength of the writing and the depth of the characterisation.

When Harry Met Sally, starring Carrie Fisherl and Meg Ryan. Photo: Columbia Tri-StarWhen Harry Met Sally, starring Carrie Fisherl and Meg Ryan. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

While many recent romantic comedies are cynically targeted towards a female market When Harry Met Sally belongs to different era.

It’s smarter, sharper and refuses to be pigeon-holed. Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron channel the spirit of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in this male vs female battle of wills and words.

It’s unsurprising that Nora Ephron won the screenwriting BAFTA for this film because, not only is the dialogue razor-sharp, she gives the then rising star Meg Ryan, the defining role of her career.

Rob Reiner, on the set of When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Photo: Columbia Tri-StarRob Reiner, on the set of When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

Ryan’s Sally Albright is the focus of this film rather than the wise-cracking Billy Crystal. Crystal is beguiled and dazzled by her wit and her eccentricity and so are we. This is exactly how the stars of the great relationship comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s worked.

She is a smart, independent modern woman – someone who knows her own mind. Ephron makes great comedy out of this by detailing the nit-picking way she orders her food in a restaurant.

Ephron is writing about herself and other professional women she knows. Sally Albright is real and is therefore interesting and we enjoy getting to know her. Billy Crystal’s Harry Burns is more of a wise-cracking leading man but nevertheless is comes across as someone you could meet rather being a Hollywood fantasy figure.

When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. Photo: Columbia Tri-StarWhen Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, harked back to the quick-witted relationship comedies of the 1940s. Photo: Columbia Tri-Star

Rob Reiner, the versatile director who gave us Stand by Me, This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and A Few Good Men, takes care to guide us through a story which, although engaging and hugely entertaining, is not straight forward.

The plot is audacious taking place over a period of 12 years involving multiple hair styles and changes of period wardrobe for both Ryan and Crystal and each chapter is prefaced with anecdotes about marriage and true love from couples of all ages and backgrounds.

Harry meets Sally for the first time at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1977, when they team up to share the driving for a trip to New York. Both plan to start their careers in the city - she as a journalist, he as a political consultant.

Their next accidental meeting is several years later, at LaGuardia Airport. She’s with a new boyfriend. They meet again after that, when they’re both in relationships. They keep on meeting until they realise that they like one another, and they become friends - even though on their very first cross-country trip, Harry warned Sally that true friendship is impossible between a man and a woman, because the issue of sex always gets in the way.

This is the conundrum that lies at the heart of the film but Harry has forgotten the time factor. Their love is not “at first sight” but takes years to develop. In the beginning there isn’t passion, in fact, often there’s hostility and irritation but as their relationship grows and matures – as they grow up – passion boils to the surface.

Any discussion of When Harry Met Sally can’t ignore the huge contribution made by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as their best friends. They are just as well observed as the two leads and become an integral part of the story.

The film has echoes of any number of Woody Allen films because of the New York settings and the witty, quotable dialogue but it has a warmth about it that most Allen films lack and that warmth comes from Harry and Sally. They are nice, likeable people.

It’s a difficult job making ordinary people interesting, funny and believable and both Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are amazing. You believe that Harry and Sally are friends, despite the arguments, because as their love of the film Casablanca shows, at the end of the day they have an awful lot in common.

If you are stuck for something to watch or just want to see the New Year in with something that has a bit of class then check out (or revisit) When Harry Met Sally this weekend.

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