Manhattan (United States, 1979)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are three kinds of Woody Allen movies: the comedies, the dramas, and the hybrids. Manhattan, which many critics believe to be Allen's most complete motion picture, belongs solidly in the third category - it has plenty of humorous lines (some of which are laugh-aloud funny) to go along with darker, more "real" subject matter. It's not as serious as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives, nor is it as openly fatuous as Sleeper or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. And, while there are similarities between Annie Hall and Manhattan (the films were made one after the other), the latter is not as light and airy as its immediate predecessor.

In addition to being a romantic comedy/social commentary, Manhattan serves as Woody Allen's valentine to the city he calls home. The opening montage - a sequence of shots of Manhattan set to the stirring strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" - paints a portrait that is both ordinary and sublime: life in the big city. And, because the images are in black-and-white, there's a timeless quality to the impressions the evoke. Allen peppers his film with these inserts, showing the Manhattan skyline or depicting the minutia of everyday life on the city streets, as a way to remind us of how small the troubles of a group of people are. As the familiar refrain goes, "There are six million stories in the naked city..." Of all the ones Allen has told, this is arguably his most compelling.

Manhattan is set in 1979 - the year it was made - but the Gershwin score and glorious black-and-white cinematography remove it from time and displace it from reality. This isn't a New York that has ever really existed, except in the minds of those who view it from afar. Much like the Paris of Amelie, this is a whitewashed, fictionalized clone of the real Manhattan, but it serves Allen's purposes well. During the film's opening voiceover, Allen speaks the following words (amongst others): "He adored New York. He romanticized it all out of proportion." Those two sentences speak volumes about the director's love of the city, and every frame of Manhattan emphasizes it.

For the film, Allen has assembled a small clique of quirky characters. The protagonist is Isaac, Allen in a crepe paper-thin disguise. Isaac is a twice-divorced, neurotic TV writer who has grown weary of his day job. He longs to write a book, but lacks the courage to give up the financial security of his monthly paycheck. He is dating 17-year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a precocious high school student who claims to love him. Isaac feels uncomfortable with her affection, insisting that a relationship between them - a young girl who really hasn't started living and a middle-aged man - has no future.

Isaac's best friend is Yale (Michael Murphy), whose happy marriage is being endangered by an affair he's having with Mary (Diane Keaton). Eventually, Isaac and Mary meet, and they prove to be as incompatible as any two people who have been tossed together by fate. She starts things off by trashing his taste in art, then follows it up by making deprecating statements about his favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. But, like oil and vinegar when shaken up, they complement each other. 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.

Traditional romantic comedies detail the genesis of a relationship, normally climaxing with either the moment in which the two principals confess their love for one another or legitimatize things with a marriage or similar ceremony. Allen's agenda, however, is more ambitious, and this failure to be comfortable with the conventional infuses Manhattan with greater substance. Instead of just showing the "up" side of Isaac and Mary's romance, Allen performs an autopsy (as in Annie Hall), examining it from beginning to ending. By the time Manhattan has closed, Mary has left the picture; the final, bittersweet scene doesn't involve her, but attempts to offer a sense of closure where Isaac's love life is concerned. Only in the concluding moments does he realize what he wants (or so he thinks), but it's the thing he has carelessly tossed aside. This is often the case with real life, but almost never the case with romantic comedies.

The film is filled with the quips and witticisms that have made Allen a favorite of smart movie-goers world-over. It's somewhat astonishing to go back and watch a movie like this after sitting through the scores of dumb comedies that have infiltrated multiplexes in recent years. Sadly, literate comedies are going the way of the dinosaur. Manhattan is funnier than most of today's gutter-oriented endeavors, yet, because there's real substance here, you don't feel like you've just been exposed to the cinematic equivalent of laughing gas. Allen is one of those rare filmmakers who can seamlessly interweave comedy and drama, humor and tragedy. We laugh with the characters, cry with them, and feel with them.

In the wake of Woody Allen's real-life trials and tribulations during the early '90s, it's impossible not to mention the aspect of Manhattan that presents a relationship between Allen and an underage girl. Much has been made of the autobiographical aspects of Allen's films, but, in view of the charges leveled against him by Mia Farrow (and, at least to some degree substantiated by his subsequent marriage), the Isaac/Tracy relationship acquires an eerie, prescient quality. Whether this is a case of life imitating art, or vice versa, it's clear that Allen had issues in this arena as far back as 1979.

As is usually the case, Allen has gathered a group of actors and given them material that plays to their strengths. 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, Allen's off-screen girlfriend at the time, and 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 wonderful - Tracy comes across as strong-willed and is arguably the only individual who is in touch with her own feelings. Hemingway was given a Supporting Actress Nomination for her work here. 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 standout is the work by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of black-and-white photography in contemporary stories needs only to spend 90-plus minutes studying Manhattan to be convinced otherwise. Rarely has there been a more compelling statement for the need for monochrome. Imagine, for a moment, Manhattan in color - it would still be brilliant, but the visual magic would be absent. Willis' cinematography gives us memorable images that play with shadow and light: Isaac and Mary sitting in silhouette facing the Hudson River at dawn, the pair of them in the Hayden Planetarium, and the many shots of the city by day and night.

If Manhattan was only a romantic comedy, it would be a very good one, but the fact that the movie has so much more ambition than the "average" entry into the genre makes it an extraordinary example of the fusion of entertainment and art. This is Allen in peak form, deftly mastering and combining the diverse threads of romance, drama, and comedy - and all against a black-and-white backdrop that makes us wonder why color is such a coveted characteristic in modern motion pictures.

Manhattan (United States, 1979)

Ranked #104 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1979-03-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1