After the phenomenal success of Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen confounded the expectations of his critics and fans with Interiors (1978), which saw him doing his best Ingmar Bergman impression. It was his first dramatic film and while critical reaction was mostly positive, it hardly set the box office on fire. With Manhattan (1979), Allen returned to familiar material – the witty romantic comedy – with what many consider his masterpiece but a film that he famously felt was so bad that he offered to make another one for the studio for free if they agreed to not release it. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to him and the end result is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to New York City ever committed to film while also taking an entertaining and insightful look at the love lives of a handful of its inhabitants.
Allen establishes his ambitious intentions right from the start with a grandiose montage of the city scored to George Gershwin and photographed in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis. The opening voiceover narration that plays over this footage works on several levels. On the surface, it is Isaac Davis (Allen) trying to start his novel but rejecting his multiple attempts because the tone is too corny, too preachy or too angry until he comes up with an introduction that makes him sound good and he ends it with the immortal words, “New York was his town and it always would be.” This opening monologue plays over and often comments on images of New York bustling with life from various neighborhoods and all kinds of people from all social strata. That last line would also be prophetic words as Allen’s name has become synonymous with the city he’s immortalized on film so many times.
This is the Big Apple as seen through Allen’s eyes as he presents his unique world populated by a rarefied social strata of well-educated, neurotic people entangled in messy relationships with each other. Still stinging from a bitter divorce, television comedy writer Isaac (Allen) is now dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl (“I’m dating a girl who does homework.”). His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a college professor, is having an affair with a journalist named Mary (Diane Keaton). We meet Isaac and his narcissistic friends at Elaine’s, a then-trendy restaurant on the Upper East Side, which Allen uses to set-up their relationships.
Isaac and Yale’s lives are a mess with the former writing for a television show he loathes and the latter trying to finish a book and start up a magazine. The last thing they need is to complicate their romantic lives. Isaac realizes that Tracy is too young for him (“You should think of me as a detour on the highway of life.”) and gets involved with Mary after Yale introduces them. At first, Isaac and Mary can’t stand each other, arguing over an art exhibit and several artists she feels are overrated but he thinks are great (i.e. Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman, and so on). Mary is everything that Tracy is not – worldly and not afraid to speak her mind (at one point, he describes her way with words as “pithy yet degenerate.”). Isaac is instantly put-off by this because she isn’t easily controllable like Tracy. Mary is not afraid to challenge Isaac, which is what ultimately appeals to him.
He breaks up with Tracy and starts up with Mary. She is more his equal in every way and it makes sense that they get together. She is brutally honest in her assessment of his and her own shortcomings and he likes that. They connect while spending a night into early morning talking through the streets of the city, walking her dog and then getting food at a local diner to the dreamy strains of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” This wonderful scene culminates with the iconic shot of Isaac and Mary sitting on a bench in front of the Queensboro Bridge at dawn, which was also used in the film’s poster.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton continue their undeniable on-screen chemistry as they play so well off each other. She is allowed to tone down the more exaggerated comedic gestures she used in Annie Hall to create a more nuanced character in Manhattan. Initially, Mary comes across as abrasive but once she’s alone with Isaac her tough exterior softens and we realize that they have a lot in common. He makes her laugh and we can see the attraction between them growing. This complicates things because it prompts Isaac to breakup with Tracy to be with Mary who breaks up with Yale, which puts a strain on his friendship with Isaac.
Keaton displays a wonderful level of vulnerability over the course of the film as Mary feels comfortable enough around Isaac to share her insecurities, admitting that she gets involved with dominating men. Keaton’s Mary is a wonderful mix of smarts, beauty and humor – it’s no wonder that both Isaac and Yale are in love with her. The actress is also good during the more serious scenes, like when Mary and Yale breakup and then later she talks to Isaac about it. Keaton convincingly conveys how upset her character is even if ultimately it is the best thing as it opens the door for her and Isaac to get together.
Woody Allen essentially plays himself, which sounds like a backhanded compliment when it actually isn’t as he bounces back and forth between witty one-liners and neurotic hand wringing. Allen is more than a neurotic joke machine as Isaac wrestles with his own moral dilemmas – his love for Tracy, even though he knows she’s too young for him, and his attraction to Mary who is much more compatible. It’s hard not to see Isaac’s relationship with the much younger Tracy eerily foreshadowing Allen’s real-life relationship with his young adopted daughter Soon-Yin Previn and this gives the on-screen relationship between the characters an added uncomfortable vibe at times – one that already exists with the vast age difference and Isaac initially making light of it.
Mariel Hemingway is excellent as Tracy, the young woman that adores Isaac and is able to hold her own with him and his pseudo-intellectual friends. Ironically, she is the most mature character in the film and also the one that is the nicest while also being the youngest. Perhaps she hasn’t lived long enough to become jaded and cynical like Isaac and his friends. There is still an innocence to her and perhaps this is what draws Isaac to Tracy. The actress displays an impressive range of emotions, culminating in the heartbreaking scene where Isaac breaks up with Tracy. The hurt her character feels in this scene is almost tangible and we really empathize with her.
While Manhattan features an abundance of Allen’s funny one-liners, the screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman tempers it somewhat with the characters’ messy personal lives, like the resentment Isaac feels towards his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) for leaving him for another woman, or Yale cheating on his perfectly lovely wife (Anne Byrne) with Mary. Allen expertly shifts gears from comedy to drama from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene.
Allen takes us through a guided tour through the city with key scenes taking place at famous establishments, like Elaine’s and the Russian Tea Room, or tourist spots like the Hayden Planetarium, in such a way that New York becomes a character unto itself. Willis’ gorgeously textured black and white cinematography not only evokes the classic Hollywood cinema that Allen loves so much but at the time of Manhattan’s release black and white film stock was rarely used in popular contemporary cinema. Whether they meant to or not, Allen and Willis were making a bold artistic statement with this choice, which elevated the film from being just another romantic comedy to something more. For example, there is a fantastic scene in the aforementioned Planetarium where Isaac and Mary walk through the exhibits, including a Lunar landscape and Saturn looming large in the background in another room while the two characters appear almost entirely in silhouette. Sadly, several of the places the characters frequent no longer exist making Manhattan a historical document of sorts.
Woody Allen first started talking about the origins of Manhattan over dinners with cinematographer Gordon Willis while they were filming Interiors. Allen wanted to make “an intimate romantic picture” in a widescreen aspect ratio and do it in black and white because “that had a Manhattan feel to it.” At the time, he was listening to recordings of Gershwin overtures and thought of setting a scene to that music.
Allen began working on a story with regular collaborator Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall). They would talk about potential ideas, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I liked this really young girl and if Keaton was this major pseudo-intellectual?” Brickman would envision a scene and ad-lib it. Allen would do the same and they’d go back and forth. The two men ran into a roadblock when neither of them could figure out the film’s climax until during filming Brickman’s wife told him they needed a scene where Isaac confronts Yale, which became the climactic scene in the latter’s classroom.
Originally, the opening montage scene was going to be scored to “I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan because that song played several times every night at Elaine’s on the jukebox. During post-production, editor Susan E. Morse suggested they use “Rhapsody in Blue” instead. Allen agreed and decided to use Gershwin music throughout. When Manhattan was finished, he was so disappointed with the film that he asked United Pictures not to release it: “I wanted to offer them to make one free movie, if they would just throw it away.” Fortunately, they declined Allen’s offer.
Manhattan received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The relationships aren’t really the point of the movie: It’s more about what people say during relationships – or, to put it more bluntly, it’s about how people lie technically telling the truth.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie is full of moments that are uproariously funny and others that are sometimes shattering for the degree in which they evoke civilized desolation.” The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris said of the film that it “materialized out of the void as the one truly great American films of the ‘70s.” In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “There’s no opportunity to heap condescending abuse on the phonies and sellouts decorating the Hollywood landscape. The result appears to be a more authentic and magnanimous comic perception of human vanity and foolhardiness.” In recent years, critics like J. Hoberman offered their assessment of the film when he wrote, “What’s most authentic about Manhattan is its fantasy. The New York City that Woody so tediously defended in Annie Hall was in crisis. And so he imagined an improved version. More than that, he cast this shining city in the form of those movies that he might have seen as a child in Coney Island—freeing the visions that he sensed to be locked up in the silver screen.”
After the failure of Interiors, Manhattan could be seen as Allen’s return to the same formula that made Annie Hall a success. While there are similarities between the two films, Manhattan showed how much he had matured as a filmmaker by injecting more dramatic weight without upsetting the overall balance of the film. He wasn’t simply content to make an entertaining romantic comedy. Manhattan not only expressed his feelings for New York but also his views on relationships. It is arguably Allen’s most complete expression of his unique cinematic worldview – highly educated people with very little common sense when it comes to their personal lives, making bad decisions even when they realize it. But like the rest of us, they keep on trying, hoping that the next relationship is the one. He continues to explore it with numerous variations, such as locations, time periods, but they can be traced back to Annie Hall and Manhattan.
Ultimately, Manhattan is about figuring out what you want in life and going for it. Isaac doesn’t do this until late in the film during a classic scene where he lists the things that make life worth living for him and in doing so achieves an epiphany. The film ends on a bit of ambiguous note as we are left wondering that the woman he picked was the right one and if so, how long the relationship will last. In a way, it is cinematic litmus test for the viewer – if you’re an optimist, the ending is hopeful and if you’re a pessimist, it is bittersweet. In other words, this scene conveys the same uncertainty that goes with relationships that the rest of us experience. That being said, I think Tracy sums it up best when she tells Isaac, “You have to have a little faith in people.”
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Lax, Eric. Conversations with Woody Allen. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007.