Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: George Gershwin
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne Hoffman, Bella Abzug, Wallace Shawn, Michael O'Donoghue
I was once pleased to call Manhattan my favorite movie, prized above all others, desert island selection (never mind how you play those), etc. By the early '90s and the time of the Woody Allen / Mia Farrow tabloid spectacle I was more interested in forgetting it. In the event of the movie question, I quietly started calling another movie my favorite—City Lights, which has distinctive affinities—and didn't even bother to look at Manhattan again for a very long time.
It's the Tracy character and narrative thread causing the problems, of course, with the awkward (and unmistakable) overtones of predatory sex. I don't actually believe Woody Allen is a pedophile, or anything other than a somewhat boorish and clueless person. I also don't think it's enough to say that his personal life doesn't matter, only the work does. That's a sensible approach and one that mostly works with, say, Roman Polanski. But looking at Manhattan again closely underscores how determinedly Woody Allen interjects himself, on a very personal basis, into the center of his pictures.
Start with the opening sequence, which has claims on a place as one of the greatest movie openings ever. The magnificent climax to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays, and a montage of Gordon Willis's stunning black and white photography unfolds. I have a note to myself asking if this is Willis's greatest movie, and I mean it, though his credits elsewise are boggling (notably the whole Godfather franchise). Long shots of the New York skyline. Skyscrapers. Street scenes. Central Park. New York in winter. New York in spring. An unbelievable shot of Yankee Stadium with a passing train. And then fireworks. It is an amazing, brilliant tone poem, setting the mood perfectly for a love song to a city.
But just ahead of this beautiful mess sits Woody Allen (as Isaac) with his stammering patter and stand-up comic instincts, making cheap gags: "Chapter One. 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.... Oh, I love this.... New York was his town, and it always would be."
That's what struck me most. I was impressed all over again with the photography and music in Manhattan, and by other points as well, such as the complexities and mechanics of the story. It's a narrative worked out well, much better than Allen usually does. Diane Keaton (as Mary) is solid as a rock, as always (especially when working with Allen)—watch how good she is at phone calls. So is Mariel Hemingway (as Tracy)—and for that matter, the Tracy thread is not written to be particularly flattering to Allen. It actually comes with a good deal of sophistication and insight.
But the furshlugginer Woody Allen gags! They do not stop! Here he is early, discussing his own self-declared most profound question of courage: "That's a key question. I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it." Talking with his best friend: "When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg award." In a fight with an ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep in a delicious turn): "My analyst tried to warn me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst." Running for shelter with Mary from a sudden storm: "Come on, it's an electrical storm! Do you want to end up in an ashtray?" Discussing Tracy with friends: "I'm 42 and she's 17. I'm older than her father. Can you believe that? I'm dating a girl wherein I can beat up her father." On the way home from a date with Mary: "You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eye on the meter."
Yes, I understand this is like complaining that Alfred Hitchcock movies are too suspenseful. It was this constant stream of gags as much as anything that appealed to me about Woody Allen movies in the first place, and for a long time. But Manhattan always was something different—far more ambitious, and, indeed, capable of realizing its ambitions. It is an absolutely gorgeous film. There is the famous opening, and nearly as well known a scene in a darkened planetarium museum space with Isaac and Mary getting to know one another, with brilliant use of black space and lines of white to define features, such as Mary's profile. Even small throwaway scenes, such as apartment interiors, are staged and shot memorably.
The story is blithe and chattery but intricately conceived, with a perfect impossible situation at the center of it in the characters of Isaac and Tracy, a story that actually plays out beautifully across the arc of the movie, and doesn't ever really cheat. It is an impossible situation. Isaac knows it and always knows it. Tracy doesn't begin to glean it until the very end. It is likely doomed, but there is still hope. It's a resolution for me on the order of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with practically every point in harmony and believable and tied up neat as a bow. That's remarkable for anyone, but especially for Woody Allen.
So one forgives the instinct for gags, perhaps feeling sad noticing again as they come and come and come. But what are you going to do? One of the problems with classic comedy films—this is equally true for me with City Lights now, by the way—is that the magic of the comedy and the laughs can become thin and less predictable, even as stronger elements survive unblemished. I could speculate about the execrable Interiors from just the year before, which was suffocatingly parched of humor, let alone gags. Perhaps Allen felt constrained to bring that element back in.
Or perhaps, almost certainly we know now, it's the only way Woody Allen knows to play anything. So that's how he plays Isaac. Honestly, can you think of anyone else who could have? None of my complaints means he didn't create a stone masterpiece in Manhattan. When all is said and done, and for all my painfully enumerated difficulties with Woody Allen, this remains one of my very favorite movies.
Top 10 of 1979
During my time in the desert vis a vis Manhattan I claimed Apocalypse Now as my favorite of the year, and it is indeed a worthy effort. I don't hesitate to recommend the longer Redux version, though I like to have a copy of the original around too. The first time I saw the Richard Pryor movie is the hardest I have ever laughed anywhere, I believe, and Alien rounds out a very strong first four. After that it's rock 'n' roll movies, plus Cronenberg and Tarkovsky. Final tally: stupendously excellent year (hovering under: The Marriage of Maria Braun, The China Syndrome, Being There, The Black Stallion, Nosferatu the Vampyre).
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
7. Rock 'n' Roll High School
9. The Brood
10. Breaking Away
Didn't like so much: All That Jazz, Kramer vs. Kramer, Mad Max, Quintet, The Tin Drum
Gaps: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, Best Boy, Life of Brian, 1941, Real Life