With "Hannah and Her Sisters," his 14th film (not including those he merely wrote or acted in) and his best, Woody Allen has established himself, beyond controversy, as one of the few historically significant American filmmakers doing definitive work today. "Hannah" is Allen's summa cinematica, a gathering up of the motifs, themes and techniques that he has accumulated since 1977.

That year, Allen cowrote, directed and starred in "Annie Hall," a movie that was unlike his previous movies in crucial ways. The precise mechanism of Allen's motivations (advice of mentor? mid-life crisis?) remains largely personal. But sometime during the creation of "Annie Hall," he decided to take those steps that would earn him serious regard.

Now, 10 years after the broad-brush, disorganized (if erudite) farce of "Love and Death," he has created "Hannah and Her Sisters." It's almost as if David Brenner had followed up "Soft Pretzels With Mustard" with "Henderson the Rain King."

At the time of "Love and Death," you would have had a hard time persuading anyone that Woody Allen would develop into one of the world's most important filmmakers -- you probably could have gotten more votes for, say, John Schlesinger.

Allen began his show business career as a gag writer, later joining such talents as Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner as a writer for "Your Show of Shows," and his early work, a string of eight comedies that he wrote or cowrote, generally acted in and sometimes directed, rarely transcended those origins. Before entering movies, Allen had worked successfully as a nightclub comedian, and movies like "Bananas," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," "Sleeper" and "Love and Death" were essentially dramatized stand-up routines -- the only difference was that, when Allen told a joke about his girlfriend, you could see the girlfriend.

The movies hinged on Allen's stand-up persona: the emaciated, balding, long-haired victim, with a victim's heavy-framed glasses and singsong whine. He was emphatically Jewish and emphatically New York (in "Sleeper," he explained that "100 years ago a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead," a punchline that must have meant nothing in Kansas), a tireless hustler whose bad luck with women was matched only by his crazed desire for them.

Typically, Allen's strategy in these early movies was to highlight everything that was local and contemporary in this character by throwing him into foreign lands and other times. Woody Allen went forward in time ("Sleeper") and back ("Love and Death"), traveled to foreign lands (the mythical San Marcos in "Bananas"), tried on costumes and entered strange realities ("Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"). And while much of the story involved Allen's attempts to seduce some woman, the story itself was attenuated -- the real action involved the development of the Allen character through conflict with everything that was preposterous, hypocritical and self-serious.sw,-1 sk,1 He may have spoken for New York, for losers, for hypochondriacs everywhere, but mostly, he spoke for a brand of common sense.

Thus, the characteristic movement in Allen's humor, a deflation from the grand to the routine. On Jesus: "If he was a carpenter, I wondered how much he charged for bookshelves." In all these movies, the Allen character strives to reduce metaphysics to manageable size. In the face of the executioner's axe: "Just clean up my neck a little -- leave the top full." That central thrust, combined with visual surrealism (the giant vegetables of "Sleeper," the wheelbarrows full of cole slaw in "Bananas") and spills of language equally surreal ("a Trotskyite who became a Jesus freak and was arrested for selling pornographic connect-the-dots books"), provided the stuff of an Allen comedy since his debut (as a writer and actor) in "What's New, Pussycat?" in 1964.

Yet for all the bravura, there was something singularly unsatisfying about the early Allen movies. They were about one character, and the story line was predictably thin -- boy meets girl. They were all pace. In almost all of them, there is at least one scene of Woody, his nutty-professor hair flapping in the breeze, blithely jogging away from an army of pursuers. That's the image that sticks with you. These are the Woody-running-away movies, the escapist period that ended with "Annie Hall."

"Annie Hall" inaugurated a second period in Allen's career, of films that are almost entirely different from those that went before, most notably because the old Allen persona was frequently purged. Allen didn't appear in "Interiors" or "The Purple Rose of Cairo"; and when he did appear, he was often, as in "Stardust Memories," glum and withdrawn -- not the old Allen.

The old Allen, of course, was something he was confident he could pull off. But it was as if "Annie Hall" alerted Allen to the deficiencies in his style. In that confessional movie, Allen began digging into the psychology behind those other movies, explored what made the man who made the old Allen tick. Originally titled "Anhedonia" (a psychological inability to experience pleasure), it came to be called "Annie Hall," and the difference was Diane Keaton. The movie still centered on Allen (as in the famous lobster scene, Annie was important mostly as an audience for Allen's madness), but there were suggestions there of a whole, fully rounded Other, and that Allen was learning how artistically liberating that could be.

"Annie Hall" was also the first movie in which Allen was teamed up with Gordon Willis, an unusually gifted cinematographer with a painterly eye and an architectural sense of camera moves. With his next movie, "Interiors," Allen would solidify his relationship with casting director Juliet Taylor, and began working with the cream of New York stage actors.

An almost impossibly gifted parodist, Allen even parodied his talent for parody (in his "documentary" about the human chameleon, Leonard Zelig), and he continued to use his flair for mimickry to comic effect (as in the re-creation of a '30s comedy in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"). But largely, what characterized this second period was the picture of Allen, a famous autodidact, going back to school. He already knew what things came easily to him; from "Interiors" through "The Purple Rose of Cairo," he would explore those aspects of his craft that were difficult -- writing in other people's voices, writing for women, incorporating drama and serious content into his films.

But largely, he learned serious moviemaking by imitating the movies of others. He did Bergman ("Interiors"), Fellini ("Stardust Memories"), the whole Dwight MacDonald '50s art-house canon. All the while, he was mastering different aspects of his technique.

Take the use of music. In movies like "Bananas," Allen's uses music simply to reinforce a general comic atmosphere. The music could be canned for comedy. In "Manhattan," Isaac Davis imagines a New York that "pulsed to the great tunes of George Gershwin," and Allen uses music to make a character point, a sense of place, a mood of romance that counterpoints the comedy.

"Manhattan" threw the trivial concerns of a few New York intellectuals into relief against the city's enduring works of art (including Gershwin), and that juxtaposition -- between the important and the trivial, high art versus low art -- fueled the entire second period. With the exception of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," the movies of this period were either extraordinarily dour, like "Interiors" and "Stardust Memories," or so light as to be almost throwaway ("Zelig"). It was a frustrating time for his audience, who complained that "Woody wasn't funny anymore," or more justifiably, about movies that seemed to be little more than exercises, that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. Not until "Hannah and Her Sisters" has Allen been able to fully fuse the demands of high and low art, so long separate in his mind.

Part of what's daring about "Hannah and Her Sisters" is the way it dissolves exactly that distinction between high and low art, between comedy and tragedy, that had been implicit in Allen's last nine movies. When an eligible architect, out on the town with two women, asks which one gets dropped off first, the stammering is almost too painful to bear -- there is heartbreak here. There are also "Bananas"-style pratfalls (Woody throws a football and breaks a vase).

Technically, "Hannah and Her Sisters" is Allen's most accomplished, most perfectly realized film. While the movie lacks the overall design of Allen's collaboration with Willis, there was always something cold in Willis' formal perfection that is gladly lost here; Allen's new partner, cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, lends a softness here that's perfectly matched to a new softness in Allen.

Music is used in "Hannah" in all the ways that music can be used -- to drive the pace, to slow it, to peg characters by way of leitmotif, to suggest moods, to introduce and repeat themes. The movie is about characters who bollix themselves with misplaced affections and have to be virtually dragged to the love that lies just around the corner; the two theme songs, appropriately enough, are "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "You Made Me Love You" -- the problem of "Hannah," and its solution.

And "Hannah" is by far Allen's most complex, most deftly managed screenplay. Allen keeps track of the film's eight main characters by giving each his own voice, and working in fragments of individual history (younger sister Lee, for example, turns out to be a reformed alcoholic). Which is astonishing in light of the fact that last year's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," which had no Allen character, was written almost entirely in his own idiom.

For all its conventional virtues, "Hannah" is also adventurous in form: Flashbacks don't seem to cut away from present-day reality, but strike you as part of the same whole; the movie moves seamlessly in and out of its interior monologues. Past and present, private thoughts and spoken ones, hopes and dreams and ordinary life sit side by side; it's as daringly eccentric a vision of reality as "Annie Hall," without that movie's obvious surreal effects.

In "Hannah and Her Sisters," Allen tersely reworks and restates the themes and motifs of the second period. Although it's given a different coloration entirely, the relationship of the sisters, for example, is largely borrowed from the (similarly) artistic family in "Interiors": The oldest sister who has the most talent, who the other sisters must compete with; the middle sister, who lacks direction; the sexy youngest sister.

The relationship of the youngest sister, Lee, with an older man, Frederick, who serves as her teacher, resonates with "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." The bilious alienation toward contemporary culture of "Stardust Memories" comes condensed in one of Frederick's tirades (which ranges from Nazis and professional wrestlers to television preachers); Allen himself delivers the critique of the drug culture, familiar since "Annie Hall."

The old Allen character returns in full color, this time as Mickey, a neurotic television writer obsessed with New York ("This is your town") and death, who seems to carry the Basie band around in his head the way Isaac Davis carried Gershwin, butt of hypochondria jokes and masturbation jokes ("Now you're knocking my hobbies").

The point is not that Allen's on familiar terrain -- quite the opposite. He's mining familiar terrain, but finding new alloys. The appearance of the familiar Allen character, for example, doesn't represent a desperate return to what's worked before, but the decision of an artist who's grown comfortable again with his form. Allen doesn't have to censor those impulses which, because they came so easily to him, inhibited his progress around the time of "Interiors." Confident of his tools, he's more freewheeling in the use of them.

What's significant about Mickey, in "Hannah," is how little Allen relies on him, how off-to-the-side he is. He retains, in certain ways, a privileged position -- he gets more flashbacks, more monologues, than the other characters, and simply because he's played by Woody Allen in a Woody Allen movie, you focus more on him. But in relation to the totality of the vision, he's rather tangential.

This is the first Woody Allen movie that isn't about Woody Allen at all. The focus is Dianne Wiest's Holly, the directionless middle sister. While we get a hilarious snippet of Mickey's home life (reminiscent of "Annie Hall"), it's just a joke; the relationships within her family are the stuff of the movie -- the competition among the sisters, the burden of frustrations bequeathed them by their parents, a second-rank show biz couple.

Holly has family troubles, career troubles -- a life -- and Mickey ultimately plays a role in resolving them. In the old Woody Allen movies, it would have been the other way around: She would have had Mickey, she would have been "Woody's girl," and her troubles, if she had any, would have been props to Woody's comedy and torment. In Holly, Allen has finally created the Other. He's completed the project he began in "Annie Hall."

Allen's development as a filmmaker is due partly to his own industry, partly to the enlightened support of a group of studio executives led by Arthur Krim, first at United Artists and then at Orion. No other American filmmaker, perhaps, could have sustained Allen's pace (he has made roughly a movie a year for the last decade); but no other filmmaker has been given the degree of support, the carte blanche that Krim & Co. have given to Allen.

Allen's arrangment with Orion is simple: He doesn't spend a lot of money (by Hollywood standards), and he brings his movies in on time. In return, Orion makes all his movies and grants him total artistic freedom, secure in the knowledge that a certain core audience, based primarily in New York, will turn out regardless of the nature of the film or its reviews.

It doesn't detract from Allen's genius to suggest that some of the credit for "Hannah and Her Sisters" belongs to his fans, who have sat through movies that no one should have to sit through, the "Interiors" and "Stardust Memories," and plunked down their $5 just the same. Allen couldn't have made "Hannah" without "Stardust Memories," and he couldn't have made either without the faith of that audience. David Brenner could make a film a year and never come close to "Hannah and Her Sisters." But there are other filmmakers -- Albert Brooks comes to mind -- who could profit from that kind of support, that continuity of work. They, too, deserve a happy ending.