Manhattan (1979) Directed by Woody Allen. With Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep and Michael Murphy.
From the opening bars of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, playing to black and white cinematography of 1970’s New York City, Woody Allen’s Manhattan has perhaps the best establishing shots in the history of cinema. This vision is a million miles from the glossy NYC we’ve seen in a thousand rom-coms. Nor would it adorn the ad-campaign for the city’s tourist board. Yet still, this is a depiction of a city by a person who loves it ‘warts n’ all’. Someone who is inspired by it. It is an introduction designed to set the city as a central character in the piece. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
If my review was to end there, I’d slap a 5/5 rating on it without a second thought. The good news is, I still might. Woody Allen had become an established talent at this stage in his career. After Annie Hall and Sleeper, this signalled his third writing collaboration with Marshall Brickman. Allen’s hands-on approach meant that also he acts the lead role and directs at the same time.
The film follows the fortunes of Allen’s central character, Isaac. In essence, he’s playing an extension of his turn in Annie Hall. There are times when a performer’s comedic shtick can wear thin, however, Allen’s strengths are nuanced and multi-faceted, feeding from his keen intellect, his natural comic delivery and his razor-sharp writing. Those are things that never get old. On top of that, Allen has the ability to make us empathise with his character, even when he behaves with extreme stupidity. We enjoy seeing him emotionally shoot himself in the foot, but we still want to see him happy in the end.
Bringing even more Annie Hall to proceedings is the lady herself, Diane Keaton, this time playing a character who gives Allen a run for his money in the neurotic stakes. The strength of the performances and the script are such, that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself hanging on every syllable. This is a film about conversations and intermingling relationships and it is packed with wry witticisms that, if they don’t have you laughing out loud on the outside, ought to have you nodding with amusement on the inside.
Shot entirely in black and white and filmed on location, Allen atmospherically captures the mood of a time and a place. His New York is a lived-in city, bursting with character. It is a vision that doesn’t attempt to paper over the cracks and sweep the dirt under the carpet. While Allen is busy declaring his undying love to New York, he’s also unafraid to take a pop at its many imperfections. Cramped living spaces and noisy neighbours serve as background gags to the foreground of Allen’s paranoid rants on the state of his life and existence. Aside from the fascinating relationships that form the central narrative of the piece, the one romance that isn’t in doubt is the one Allen has with his city. To quote his character, Isaac – “This is really a great city . . . it’s . . . really a knockout,” 5/5