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He Adored New York City

July 28th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Manhattan 1979

In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …

Manhattan 1979 poster A Manhattan dvd

Manhattan (1979)
Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
Produced by Charles H. Joffe
96 minutes

Of the 39 feature films he’s directed and written so far, neither the Oscar winning Best Picture Annie Hall nor the handful of other treasures in the Woody Allen vault have the timeless magnificence of Manhattan. Allen discussed the idea of shooting a movie in anamorphic widescreen with cinematographer Gordon Willis on the set of Interiors in 1977. Their ambition was to make a movie that captured an intimacy typically blown away by epic framing and since the story would take place in New York, use black & white film stock to express the vibe of the city. Allen — who grew up in Brooklyn and was introduced to Manhattan via Hollywood movies — began coming up with scenes as he listened to Michael Tilson Thomas recordings of George Gershwin. He then wrote a script with Marshall Brickman.

Manhattan is a valentine for the other 364 days on the calendar. Allen’s intent was to make a picture more serious than Annie Hall but funnier than Interiors, “a serious picture that had laughs in it”. Manhattan fits that bill better than just about any movie you could name. Allen’s one-liners aren’t the knee slappers they may have once been, but the film’s visual and symphonic splendor are as enthralling as they ever were. Expressing the resplendence of a city as it existed mostly in his own dreams, Manhattan volleys between Allen’s contention that we’re being too tough on ourselves, while in the moments that matter most, not being nearly tough enough. Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway — far sexier in other roles — have never seemed more beautiful than they are here, while Woody gives his most nuanced performance.

Manhattan 1979 title card

Four friends gather for supper at Elaine’s. Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is a 42-year-old writer working on a book set in the city he adores. His 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) has more intelligence and maturity than Isaac’s ego will give her credit for. His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is married to Emily (Anne Byrne) but leaving the restaurant, reveals to Isaac that he’s become involved with another woman. Isaac is unable to offer much relationship advice as his second ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) has taken up with a woman and is publishing a tell-all memoir about their marriage, or as she calls it, “an honest account of our breakup.” While Tracy asserts that she’s in love with Isaac, he advises the teenager to view their relationship as little more than “a detour on the highway of life.”

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Isaac and Tracy run into Yale and his mistress: journalist and neurotic dingbat Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). She offends Isaac by disparaging all of his cultural heroes — from Heinrich Boll to Ingmar Bergman — in under a minute. Nervous about his future once he quits a job writing for a hip sketch TV show, Isaac bumps into Mary at a benefit for the Museum of Modern Art and ends up wandering Manhattan with her until sunrise. Yale develops a guilty conscience after breaking off his affair and when Isaac maintains that he’s not serious about Tracy, compels his friend to give Mary a call. Isaac and Mary leap right into a relationship, which ends up being undermined when Mary confesses she still has feelings for Yale. Realizing he made a mistake by dumping Tracy, Isaac sets out to make things right.

Manhattan 1979

Manhattan 1979 Mariel Hemingway Woody Allen Michael Murphy Anne Byrne

Manhattan 1979 Michael Murphy Anne Byrne

Manhattan 1979 Meryl Streep Woody Allen

Manhattan 1979 Mariel Hemingway Woody Allen

Manhattan 1979 Diane Keaton Woody Allen

Manhattan 1979 Woody Allen

Manhattan 1979 Woody Allen Mariel Hemingway

Manhattan 1979 Diane Keaton Woody Allen

Manhattan 1979 Woody Allen

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average 16,781 users: 92% for Manhattan

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Drunk scene · Famous line · Midlife crisis · Museums and galleries · Music · No opening credits · Psychoanalysis · Unconventional romance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Jul 28, 2010 at 6:19 am

    This is a truly great film and definitely my fave of Allen’s. What can you say that hasn’t already? Willis’ cinematography is sublime and the B&W film stock gives the images a fantastic texture.

    So many great scenes and funny lines of dialogue but I think my fave is the bit where Allen lists off the things in life he’s grateful for. Awesome scene.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 30, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    J.D.: The “why is life worth living” scene is one of my favorites in any movie. So many romantic comedies seem to pander to women and to the clumsy girl, but I wish more filmmakers would take their cues from the best, which would be Manhattan. Cameron Crowe gave it a shot with Singles, but that’s a whole other blog post. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 princeandrey // Aug 8, 2010 at 9:02 am

    I remember first seeing this film and being quite repulsed by the “why- life- is- worth- living” scene on the basis of its pretentiousness, not that I disagree with the individual “worthwhile” items (Slow movement of the Jupiter Symphony, etc.), but the “serious” Woody Allen always leaves me cold. As does the “romantic” Woody Allen. And the Mariel Hemingway romance is idiotic on the face of it. BUT, it is a lovely movie nonetheless. Beautifully acted and funny and as an encomium to the now-defunct spirit of New York–when “loving” it was a political and spiritual statement–I have to admit, it’s superb. I also have to say, this Blog is delightful, even though I think it errs on the side of too-much-praise!

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