Retro Review: Manhattan (1979)
“He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town and it always would be.” – Woody Allen (Manhattan)
The love affair between Woody Allen and Manhattan is anything but subtle. He idealizes the city and adores its culture. Existence in Manhattan isn’t just about taking one step of life to the next. It’s about living in a vivacious present and participating in a contemporary society that flirts with the future of culture, while continuing to shows off its hungered artisan past.
Bewildered by relationships, vexed by the peculiar confinements of life, enamored by the creative ideas derived from a unique community, Allen’s Manhattan, (arguably an autobiographical piece), tells the story of his romanticized metropolis. The film introduces audiences to the world Allen lives in as it meets the world he wants to live in. While the film isn’t his personal favorite, Manhattan serves as Woody Allen’s valentine to the city he calls home.
Having assembled a small cast of quirky characters, this film presents the fate of a number of people as they move through and around the Manhattan of Isaac Davis ( Allen). The protagonist, Isaac, is a twice-divorced, neurotic TV writer who has grown weary of his day job. He longs to write a novel but lacks the courage to give up the financial security. Bouncing back from his confidence-shaking divorce, Issac strikes up a half-committed relationship with 17-year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a sweet high school student who claims to love him. Isaac, feeling uncomfortable with her affection, insists that Tracy explore other avenues in life past a middle-aged man who has no future.
Isaac’s best friend is Yale (Michael Murphy), whose happy marriage is endangered by an affair he’s having with Mary (Diane Keaton). Eventually, Isaac and Mary meet, turning the other off in every possible way. She starts by trashing his taste in art, then follows it up by making deprecating statements about his favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. But soon after spending time together, they grow to find one another interesting, complementing the other’s humor and intellectual prowess. The initial disdain morphs into friendship, then something more. But Isaac is reluctant to take matters further until Yale decides that he can no longer be unfaithful to his wife and breaks it off with Mary.
The film is filled with the quips and witticisms that have made Allen a favorite among smart movie-goers world-wide. The brilliance behind such a film is an astonishing reminder of just how far recent comedies have decayed into dumb, illiterate films. The script is intellectually phenomenal, complimenting the actors’ abilities to not only humorously (and charismatically) deliver their lines, but act out their personal stories with a level of depth not seen in today’s gutter-oriented endeavors.
Co-written with Marshall Brickman, Manhattan’s screenplay is so vivid that the characters are made real and fantastically assessable even by today’s standards. Allen is the upper-middle class neurotic Jew who is worried about everything from his ex-wife’s exposé novel to the brown water in his apartment. Sex and love are big issues and, as is usually the case with an Allen character, Isaac really doesn’t understand his own feelings. Diane Keaton, a regular in his films, is perfect as Mary, a strong-willed woman who’s just as screwed up as all the men in Manhattan. Mariel Hemingway, in one of her first roles, is simply wonderful. Tracy comes across as strong-willed, determined and is arguably the only individual who is in touch with her own feelings. Hemingway was given a Supporting Actress Nomination for her performance, illustriously playing a self-aware innocent girl, whose maturity contradicts her age. Michael Murphy plays Isaac’s friend and Mary’s lover, Yale and Meryl Streep has a small role as Isaac’s vindictive ex-wife.
As strong as the performances are, however, the real highlight in the film is the work by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Anyone who doubts the use of black-and-white photography in contemporary stories needs only to spend 90-plus minutes studying Manhattan to be convinced otherwise. Manhattan’s visual charm stems from the masterful monochrome images captured by the creative eyes of a gifted cinematographer. Willis uniquely plays with shadow and light, perfectly complimenting the tone of the scene and drawing attention to some of the most memorable images: Isaac and Mary sitting in silhouette facing the Hudson River at dawn, the pair of them in the Hayden Planetarium and the interior shots of a single lit light at night.
Final Verdict: Manhattan is the finest of Woody’s “quartet” of masterpieces (the others being Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors). There is so much hilarity and truth woven into this picture, complimented by a glorious Gershwin score and wonderful black and white cinematography, its near impossible to imagine a greater comedy, (and as of now there are none). The film is funnier than most of today’s comedic drivel, yet, because there’s real substance here, you don’t feel like you’ve just been exposed to the cinematic equivalent of laughing gas.