Retrospective: When Harry Met Sally (1989)


This movie is possibly one of the best known ‘rom-coms’. When Harry Met Sally is filled with pathos and lots of clever, quotable lines with a certain amount of truth around them. The film has realistic time jumps showing the natural development of careers and romantic failures before the eponymous characters finally get together.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan star as Harry Burns and Sally Albright. They are first introduced at the end of their university careers, sharing a drive from Chicago to New York where they talk about love, life, death and sex, which sets the framework for the movie. Harry and Sally share a lot of interests but disagree over their common ground, such as their continuing argument over the story of Casablanca. Throughout the movie, Sally has the brilliant ability to silence a room. The first example of this is during an argument over relationships and the importance of sex. She silences a cafeteria by shouting ‘I HAVE GOOD SEX’ and the famous fake orgasm scene in a New York deli, all of which makes her a fascinating character.

I don’t quite want to call it the anti-rom-com as it’s still quite close to the larger plot devices used by romantic comedies. Annie Hall is often considered to be the progenitor of the modern rom-com although I disagree and think the early Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn films are good candidates, most notably Philadelphia Story. Harry Met Sally is very good at portraying a relationship develop, from standoffish dislike to love on a vaguely plausible timeline rather than feeling like it takes place on one dizzy day when “the one”. It does it over a number of years which helps its rather thin plot no end as you see the development of both the characters independently of each other as well as when they are together. This inspired two recent movies; The Time Traveller’s Wife and One Day (yes, they are based off books but books written almost two decades after this film) which both similarly show the gradual development of two principle characters.

Another nice side to the movie is its self-referential aspect to Hollywood’s past, with Harry and Sally comparing notes on Casablanca another one of the all-time great movies. It also does something else rather interesting by having interviews with various elderly couples, showing husbands and wives mostly bickering over the details of their first meetings. This is one of the clearest signs that Rob Reiner hadn’t forgotten his roots from Spinal Tap as this documentary bit is a clear nod to his past. There is something really nice and passive aggressive about the dialogue between both the main two characters and their best friends Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby). Marie is a marriage obsessive and in a torrid affair with a married man. Jess is a sort of everyman figure. What makes these relationships interesting is that they have Harry and Sally play against their normal character as Jess plays the straight man for Harry while Sally is a rock for Marie which is completely different to Harry and Sally’s personal relationship.

This movie has been one of the harder reviews for me to write, not because I dislike it or because it has any particularly challenging content but it’s just one of those good movies which are very hard to write about partly because it’s one iconic scene has overwhelmed people’s memory of the various other nice, clever humorous touches and the fact that both stars have almost completely disappeared from movies. It also looks very late 80s which dates it no matter how clever the comedy is. Another unfortunate difficulty is that in many ways Friends took away the novelty and intelligence of When Harry Met Sally, which is quite similar but just uses a bigger cast and over  a significantly longer period of time while having the same sort of sparky dialogue. You can see its impact on both the big and small screen and the fact it’s a fun movie with lots of lovely crafted scenes makes it well worth a watch.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl

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One thought on “Retrospective: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

  1. It doesn’t matter, whatever mood I’m in, I can always watch When Harry Met Sally…
    It’s my kind of film, it’s low maintenance.

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