Friday, November 25, 2011

Classic Throwback: Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

As part of the LAMBS in the Director’s Chair, which focuses on Woody Allen this month, I thought I would look at Manhattan, one of his most famous films that I was yet to see.

I guess one’s enjoyment of a Woody Allen film comes down to how much you like and relate to Woody Allen’s character in the film and enjoy his often meandering, dialogue-heavy plots. From my experience, and this is only Annie Hall and Manhattan, he is certainly an acquired taste. Usually portraying a weasely, nervous, opinionated and cynical individual, there is also something inherently impressive about his intellect, something likeable about his unique sense of humour, and something to admire - romanticism about love, a particular passion, or a place. Though I share a similar cynicism and an appreciation for film, and some neurotic attributes, I don't think I have too much in common with his characters. Despite this, I enjoyed Manhattan immensely.

Just as Allen utilized his delightful film Midnight in Paris like a love letter to Paris, he was declaring his love for the city of New York over 30 years ago in this film. The two would actually work as a great double feature because there is an overlap in theme too. Manhattan opens with a montage of images of Manhattan, accompanied by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Allen’s personal narration. He is trying, and struggling, to find the right words to effectively declare his love for New York City, which is the basis for the novel that his character, Isaac Davis, is trying to write.

He comes to the conclusion, after dismissing past attempts as being 'too angry' or 'missing the point' that he is “as tough and romantic as the city he loved.” “New York was his town,” he declares, “and it always would be.” Just as a city is constantly evolving - beautiful one day, ugly the next, suffocating one day and invigorating the next - humans too find the same struggles within themselves, whether it is regards to the sense of purpose one feels towards their career, their dreams and ambitions, or simply deciding whether they love someone. These are the things that Manhattan is about.

Isaac is a frequently angry, cynical 42 year-old television comedy writer who gives up his unfulfilling job to focus on this novel. He is happily dating the sweet and lovely Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway), a 17 year-old student who cares for him and envisions their relationship becoming serious, and repeatedly socializes with his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) and his wife Emily (Anne Byrne). Isaac is twice-divorced and is currently also dealing with the stress of learning that one of his ex-wives, Jill (Meryl Streep), is writing a novel about their marriage and break-up and her shift to lesbianism. She lives with her partner, and Isaac’s son.

Through Yale he meets Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), his mistress, and is immediately off-put by her cultural snobbery. Later, having met again at an Equal Rights Amendment, they start to bond and share a cab home. With Mary facing anxiety over her relationship with Yale, she turns to Isaac as a friend, eventually winning him over enough to dump Tracy (suggesting they could never be serious because she  was too young and encouraging her to study drama in London) and start a relationship with her. With Mary evidently messed up psychologically, Isaac lives to regret that decision - realising he should never have left Tracy.

Though it is ripe with failed relationships, there are many beautiful moments in this film - the moment that Isaac and Mary first meet, discover they have completely opposing views on seemingly everything but are naturally intrigued by one another, the iconic shot of Isaac and Mary sitting beneath the Queensboro Bridge watching the sun rise, the scene where they wander through a barely illuminated exhibition on the solar system, Isaac and Tracy's handsome cab ride through Central Park and a monologue near the conclusion where a depressed Isaac runs through a checklist of all the features of life that make you value it.

The film is funny, and though it is full of socially immoral and incorrect behaviour – Isaac, a 42 year-old man, dates a 17 year-old high school student, while his friend Yale, married for 12 years, has an ongoing affair – it is nothing short of a delight.

Allen wrote the screenplay with Marshall Brickman, who also collaborated together on Annie Hall, where they won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. As much as I loved Annie Hall, I think this might be an even funnier film. Allen’s neurotic fast-talking is ripe with witty observations about odd social behavior, narcassitic rants about his Jewish heritage and sexual prowess, and a heap of references to art, literature and film.

Many of Isaac's expressed delights – including his defense of Ingmar Bergman, his filmmaking idol – are tied directly into Allen’s character. In addition to Allen, the cast are all excellent, especially Keaton and Hemmingway, and the widescreen black and white cinematography from Gordon Willis (who also worked on Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather) is magnificent. I'm really glad I got to experience Manhattan. New York in the 70's, for some reason, is an era and a place I wish I had been able to see. Woody Allen, through his rambling protagonist, and his romantic respect and love for the city, brings it beautifully to life.

My Rating: ★★★★★ (A)


  1. I love Manhattan. It's my third favourite after Purple Rose and Midnight in Paris. I too think it is funnier than Annie Hall, and that beginning is just so incredible.

    Woody Allen is my ultimate filmmaker. So much so that I am baffled about what to write about him for LAMBS in the Director's Chair.

  2. I'm not a big Woody fan but enjoyed Zelig and Annie Hall a bit. I've been told that Hannah and her Sisters is a must-see and I think I'll give Manhatten a try now if not just because I love NY! Still, I just don't really gel with Allen as Allen all the time. Nevertheless a convincing read!

  3. Great review! This is a favorite of mine, both of Woody's and of all time really. I would give it the same rating.

  4. @ Nikhat - I need to see more Woody. I have seen almost all of his films over the last decade - but only Annie Hall and Manhattan from before. I think Midnight in Paris and Manhattan make a great companion piece - the way they open with gorgeous shots of their respective cities.

    @ Pete - I haven't seen Zelig, but I too have heard that Hannah and Her Sisters is a must-see. I urge you to give Manhattan a go. I haven't seen Allen in his films all that much (only Annie Hall actually) but he is fantastic in this. Thanks for reading!

    @ Matt S - It is pretty extraordinary isn't it?

  5. Good stuff, Andy. This is perhaps my second favourite Woody Allen film behind Annie Hall. It is surely his most visually beautiful film - the black and white photography works so well.

  6. Thanks Dan. Totally agree, though I think I like it a liitle bit more than Annie Hall :-)

  7. I guess you're right on how we relate to Woody Allen character determines how much we like it. I didn't notice it when I watched it, but it is a great choice to purposely make a movie in black and white. Nice review :)

  8. Thanks for stopping by Andina. I love the decision to shoot in b+w. It's beautifully lensed. My mother was telling me the other day that she doesn't like Woody Allen films - until I reminded her that Midnight in Paris was one haha.