Final Film Critique: When Harry Met Sally

Final Film Critique: When Harry Met Sally

ENG 225- Introduction to Film

Every day, audiences around the world spend a part of their day watching movies. These films often make an impact, whether it is on a single viewer or society. For this film analysis, I will be discussing the film When Harry Met Sally. I will use the formalist approach to analyze this film. According to Goodykoontz & Jacob (2014), “a formalist analysis might instead focus on how the filmmakers use cinematic techniques in specific ways to convey, stress, or enhance the themes of the narrative.” In this analysis, I will discuss the film and its theme. Then, I will analyze the aesthetic choices of the film, along with the impact of the film, all as they pertain to the film’s theme.

When Harry Met Sally is a Romantic Comedy film that was released in 1989. The film was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. The cinematographer was Barry Sonnenfeld. The major actors for the film include Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal and Carrie Fisher. This film was a small studio film, with a budget of 16 million dollars, and ended up being a box office hit, to everyone’s surprise. (IMBD, n.d.)

When speaking in regard to the story, which is defined as what happens in a given film (Goodykoontz & Jacob, 2014), When Harry Met Sally is about a man and a woman that repeatedly cross paths and develop a friendship and then fall in love. Whereas the story of a film is what happens, the plot of the film is how it happens. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry and Sally meet on a road trip to New York, following their college graduation. During this car ride, Harry and Sally discuss whether men and women can be platonic friends. Harry claims that men and women cannot be friends because sex always gets in the way and Sally disagrees. They end up parting ways but cross paths a couple more times. During one of those meetings, they bond over their relationships ending. Harry and Sally develop a friendship and try to navigate their blossoming relationship without letting Harry’s initial theory hold true and letting sex get in the way. Ultimately, they have sex and ruin their friendship, until they realize they are in love with each other and they get married. The difference between this film’s story and its plot is that the story is indicative of the film’s genre classification, whereas the plot is representative of the film’s theme.

Goodykoontz & Jacob (2014) describe theme as an idea, subject, or topic of some kind that pervades the plot, and state that it less about what happens in the movie, and more about the meaning that you take away from the movie. In When Harry Met Sally, most people tend to assume that the main theme is about whether men and women can be friends; however, it is really about the differences between men and women. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly published an article of an interview with Nora Ephron that said, “To her, the movie was never about answering that question; it was about showing how different men and women are.” (Bierly, 2009) This film weaves its theme through all its aesthetic choices, including mise en scene, editing, and technology.

Regarding mise en scene, we see the gender differences theme of the film represented in the lighting, sound, costume, scenery and props. For instance, we see the theme through costume as Harry is usually more casually dressed but Sally is always more put together and dressed prim and proper. When it comes to scenery, whenever Harry is shown spending time with his friend, there is always sports involved, whether they are at a game, the batting cages, or jogging. When Sally is shown spending time with her friend, they are doing more classy things like lunch and wine, at the bookstore, or wedding dress shopping. We see the theme in the props being used in scenes like when they part ways after the road trip, we see Harry’s luggage is a big old duffle bag, another small bag, and a baseball bat; whereas Sally uses nice, neat suitcases that are secured in place. The theme of gender differences is also subtly expressed through the lighting choices in this film, by using the lighting to demonstrate that women are usually more warm and sensitive, and men more aloof. We see this whenever there are scenes of Harry and Sally together, as there is always more lighting at Sally than Harry. For example, in the “high maintenance” scene (2012), we see the split screen of them in their beds on the phone watching tv together, Sally has her bedroom light on, whereas Harry is sitting in the dark. When it comes to expressing the theme through mise en scene, possibly the biggest element they use to do this, is through sound. The film uses all three forms of sound to highlight the theme, however, I am going to focus on the dialogue. The dialogue in this film is the most advantageous tool for delivering the film’s theme. The biggest difference between men and women is in the way they think, and this film offers constant dialogue between the title characters that display this. For example, in the “men and women cannot be friends” scene (2012), Harry and Sally are debating whether men and women can be platonic friends. Harry believes they cannot, due to sex getting in the way, whereas, Sally believes they can. Another example is in the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene (2015), where Sally argues that Harry’s behavior to women is disgusting and Harry argues that it is not because they have a good time. Then they argue about women faking orgasms and Harry says nobody ever has with him because he would be able to tell, but Sally argues that a woman has probably faked it with him at least once without him knowing and then she proceeds to demonstrate how convincing a woman can be when faking it to prove to him he wouldn’t be able to tell. Sally feeling the need to demonstrate to prove her point and Harry just watching and then letting go of the subject afterwards, portrays the common notion that men are more laid back and carefree and women are more argumentative and feel the need to be right all the time.

When it comes to the editing of the film, we can see the theme glimmer through the camera shots and transitions. For example, in the scene during the road trip, the two characters are in mid-shot until Harry offers a grape to Sally. During this, the camera is positioned just left of her head, thus leaving her slightly out of focus. This shot allows us to concentrate on Harry as he spits a grape seed onto the inside window and then says, “I’ll roll down the window!”. The next shot is positioned in a similar way, except, this time to the side of Harry, this is a visually effective 180 degree set up for an edited sequence that will not distract the audience because there is no visual distortion from this line. These shots allow us to get the full comical reaction when Harry spits the seed just past the camera, with Sally’s look of disgust lingering in the background, which shows the differences in their personality and opinions on etiquette.

The impact that technology has had on this film is through helping to convey the theme of the movie. Through automated dialogue replacement and foley, technology has provided the means for this film’s most useful tool of storytelling and expressing the theme: sound. Foley helps to create the sound effects that make the story realistic and ADR allows us to hear the dialogue over the sound effects in the background. These things, along with scores and soundtracks to help set the mood, work in tandem to provide realism to the film, drawing our focus to the theme. Also, color photography and camera equipment allow cinematographers to use color and lighting to stress the theme.

When Harry Met Sally was unique for its time and not only changed rom-com standards, but also made a cultural impact as well. Audiences around the world still quote lines from the film. “Twenty-five years after Meg Ryan faked cinema’s most famous orgasm in Katz’s Deli, customers still follow her lead in the 126-year-old Lower East Side establishment…Sexually charged gasps and moans fill the deli “at least a couple times a month,” says co-owner Fred Austin.” (Schonfeld, 2014) In the article, Schonfeld also mentions that an improv group even re-enacted the scene as a flash mob. In addition to the film resonating with audiences, it also has helped business for the deli they filmed at. “And the deli itself has become an immediately recognizable icon. It has appeared in films ranging from Enchanted to We Own the Night to Across the Universe, though none has had the impact of When Harry Met Sally…” (Schonfeld, 2014) In regards to personal impact, this film was very enlightening for me and helped with personal relationships because it showed me that men aren’t always as insensitive as they seem, they just think differently than women do, they process information differently in their minds.

This film was inspired by the real lives of the writer and director, Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner. According to Mandi Bierly (2012), during an interview about the film, Nora Ephron revealed that Reiner called her and said he wanted to do a film about two people who become platonic friends so that sex doesn’t ruin their friendship, but it does anyways. When Ephron started writing the script, she based the character Harry off Reiner, and Sally ended up being based off her. “She explains how she realized Reiner — who was divorced at the time and reveling in his depression as much as Harry ultimately would — was the character she should write about. Because Harry had that “dark side,” Sally had to be light — more like Ephron (who, yes, just liked food the way she liked it).” (Bierly, 2012) During this 2012 interview with Bierly, Ephron also stated that Rob had Harry to say what he believed, and if she disagreed, she had Sally to say so for her.

Upon reflection of this assignment, and this course, I have gained much knowledge about film analysis, and the importance of it. Analyzing film not only allows us to further understand a film, but it also provides fresh insight into certain circumstances. Through learning how to analyze the different elements of a film such as editing, cinematography, mise en scene, and so forth, I have gained the ability to interpret the significance of each component of a film and how it enhances the theme of the film. I have learned to analyze the lighting choices and camera angles of a movie and how they contribute to the mood of the film. Through film analysis, I have learned that there is a purpose for every component of a movie and a reason for every elemental choice the director made. Not only has learning about the different techniques used in film, and analyzing them, helped me to become a better film critic, but it has helped me to understand films better. In learning to better understand films, I have learned how to draw meaning from abstract representations, identify symbolism, and how to better relate films to real events. This course teaching me how to analyze a film properly will help me greatly in my future career as a Psychiatrist. Thanks to this course, when I am listening to a patient, I will have the knowledge and ability to respect my patient’s thoughts and opinions, and to deconstruct my patient’s situation and analyze each part of it, and then draw out the meaning behind their actions, so that I may help them better.

In summation, When Harry Met Sally played a pivotal role in changing rom-com standards and made a huge impact, both personally and culturally. Through formalist theory analysis, I was able to explain how this film magnificently demonstrated the important, and highly desirable, theme of gender differences through each element of the film; from the smaller elements such as props and color, all the way to the larger elements such as sound and editing. This film is a classic that will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come. Anyone looking to gain some insight into the opposite sex or looking to find out if men and women can really be friends, need look no further than When Harry Met Sally.


A Muse of Fire. (2011). When Harry Met Sally Men and Women Cannot Be Friends. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Bierly, Mandi. (2012). Entertainment Weekly. Nora Ephron Explains ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ Retrieved from

Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. P. (2014).  Film: From watching to seeing (2nd ed.) [Electronic version]. Retrieved from

IMBD. (N.D.). When Harry Met Sally (1989). Retrieved from

Movieclips. (2015). When Harry Met Sally… (6/11) Movie CLIP – I’ll Have What She’s Having (1989) HD. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Reiner, Rob (Producer & Director), Scheinman, Andrew (Producer), Ephron, Nora (Writer & Producer). (1989). When Harry Met Sally. [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Schonfeld, Zach. (2014). Newsweek-Culture. Twenty-Five Years After ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ People Still Fake Orgasms in Katz’s Deli. Retrieved from

Suarez, Roy. (2012). When Harry Met Sally. High Maintenance. [Video file]. Retrieved from

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