Manhattan (1979) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Karen Ludwig, Anne Byrne Hoffman
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Review published July 3, 2003
There may forever be arguments as to which film is Woody Allen's best, with Annie Hall perhaps gaining the most attention. However, if the question were regarding which film most exemplified Woody Allen as a great filmmaker, there's probably little argument that Manhattan is his finest achievement as a director, conceptually and in execution. The real argument is whether Manhattan is a great film for its story and characters or for the beauty of seeing a city never looking so gorgeous, shot in lush black-and-white, with brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall). I would argue that it's actually the unison of the two that makes Manhattan profoundly moving, with each shot of the romanticized New York City perfectly accentuating the smaller, quieter romantic story within.
Allen casts himself as 42-year-old, Isaac, having a fling with a 17-year-old girl (Hemingway, Superman IV) after his latest marriage dissolved when his wife (Streep, The Deer Hunter) left him for another woman (Ludwig, Thirteen Days). Isaac has a lot on his mind, intending to write a book, while his ex is writing a tell-all book of her own. His best friend Yale (Murphy, Brewster McCloud) is a married man having an affair of his own with Mary (Keaton, Love and Death), but then decides to break off the affair and stick to his wife (Byrne, Why Would I Lie?), pushing Mary on Isaac instead. Now Isaac in involved with two different relationships, one with a mature intellectual and one with an innocent loving child, and has to choose the path to happiness, a happiness he has struggled to find in this big city for all of his life.
Admittedly, had this been shot in typical Woody Allen fashion, it probably would not have been as critically acclaimed as it has over the years. While the story is interesting and the characters fresh and vibrant, what really sets Manhattan apart is the widescreen format, the sleek black-and-white look, the glorious cinematography, and the George Gershwin music that accentuates everything throughout. This is a film as much about a love affair with New York City as it is between four of its inhabitants, a love so strong that Woody Allen could never see leaving its crowded apartment buildings and brown water to be with the woman he loves somewhere else. The film is called Manhattan, after all.
While I won't claim it is a masterpiece as some others have, I will admit that there is a beauty to the way Allen decided to film Manhattan that makes it transcend the love story and become something much more. It's beyond storytelling, or character study. This is filmmaking at its finest. It's not his funniest film, nor is it his most romantic, but it is one of the most magical films about New York. For the ninety-plus minutes that you see it through the eyes of Woody Allen, you will believe it is the greatest city on Earth.
©2003 Vince Leo