There are two love affairs at play in Woody Allen's brilliantly conceived dram-edy Manhattan (1979); the first between two couples with opposing viewpoints about practically everything, and, the other (and more meaningful) between Allen and the isle from whence the film derives its title. Undeniably, Manhattan is Woody Allen's most personal masterwork; an intimate celebration of the New York he knows so well and worships at every possible chance he gets. Allen’s gushing overture to the city is evident from the moment cinematographer Gordon Willis’ utterly gorgeous monochromatic long shot of the city-scape, burgeoning with all the sights, smells and sounds of a hurly-burly metropolis, first appears on the screen, accompanied by Allen’s ecclesiastic’s praise for this multifaceted and eternally restless leviathan, unapologetic in ‘idolizing it all out of proportion’; Allen’s ‘thriving on its hustle and bustle, beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles’, in tandem with his own snap analysis of New York as ‘a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture (and) individual lack of integrity’ – too angry, too lovely, too self-involved and yet, beckoning the tired, hungry and huddled masses, still yearning to be free.
At once, and even more impressively – at a glance – Allen gives us New York as this varied and ribald overview of the ‘tough and romantic’ ode de l’amour about to unfold. Actually, New York is all of these things – and a lot more – Allen’s ability to extol and maintain the cosmopolitan appeal throughout Manhattan, though never more astutely expressed than in his ‘chapter one’ monologue, a peerless compendium of travelogue shot by Willis and married to Allen’s own inimitable zeal for self-deprecating and highly intellectualized good humor. All of this is set to the immortal strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; the visuals spanning the terms and tastes of Allen’s warmly subjective impressions about this eclectic and unhinged paradise lost. New York is Woody Allen’s town. It always will be. In many ways, Manhattan typifies Allen’s existentialist quasi -contempt for upper-middle class academics – the obvious disconnect, of course, being an upper-middle class academic is telling us this story. Indeed, even the picture’s milquetoast antagonist, superbly played by Michael Murphy, is named ‘Yale’; a stuffy college professor stepping out on his too good to be true wife, Emily (Anne Byrne) with the tart and priggish, Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton).
Allen’s own career began unremarkably, penning gags to augment other writers’ dialogue. Throughout the mid-fifties he remained ‘the man behind the curtain’, adding razor-burn witticisms to the likes of the ‘Ed Sullivan’, and ‘Tonight’ shows as well as contributing skits for Sid Caesar. Allen’s first love – writing – would serve his ‘other’ career as a movie actor/director extremely well. For although Hitchcock would likely have deplored Allen’s focus on dialogue to his own ideas about ‘pure cinema’ (images without or with minimal dialogue), in Allen’s case, the shift toward non-stop neurotic banter between severely flawed characters never seems to digress into what Hitchcock dreaded as static shots of ‘conversation’ that deprive audiences of the art of movie-making for its own sake. Allen’s movies move – just not in any sort of conventional way; the camera often removed, stationary and set far aback from the actors. Indeed, there are moments in both Manhattan, and Allen’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall (1977) where the image has been so lovingly composed, seemingly without the benefit of actors, that even as their dialogue overlaps from one scene into the next, it takes the audience several long moments to find and focus on who within the frame is sharing these ideals.
While Annie Hall unequivocally set a standard for a decade’s worth of modern romantic comedies soon to follow it, Allen really ought to have won his second Oscar for Manhattan – in many ways, a far more probative investigation of big city humanity’s romantic foibles; Allen casting himself as the physically unprepossessing 42 year old, twice-divorced and socially awkward comedy writer, Isaac Davis, having a meaningful relationship with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway); a girl not yet out of high school. Tracy’s already a woman, harboring a remarkably forthright capacity to love without restraint of judgment – a refreshing departure from the sort of psychologically saddle-bagged gals Isaac is used to squiring. Knowing what we do today about Allen’s real life predilection for very young girls slightly colors our infinite joy in experiencing Tracy and Isaac’s May/December coeur d'amour epris verve; the moniker of ‘dirty ole man’ and/or cradle-robber rearing its insidious head from time to time. As such, it is largely Hemmingway who salvages the emotional impact of their scenes together today, on the face of it with her wholesome naivety; yet, with an unvarnished clarity that can deconstruct and appreciate Isaac for the man he is, instead of the man she would want him to be. Of course, Isaac breaks her heart. How could he not; jaded, as he is, by a bitter divorce from his second wife, Jill Davis (Meryl Streep) – whom he still loves, or rather, loves to hate and wants to believe might still in love with him, just so he could rub her nose in it; despite Jill since having taken up with a lesbian lover, Connie (Karen Ludwig); the pair, raising the son Jill and Isaac had together.
As with all Woody Allen comedies, there is a lot to unpack from this seemingly straight-forward tale of mismatched lovers; Allen, as Isaac, perpetually angst-ridden and driven to wild distraction in between moments of succumbing to his own bemusements; this drifting TV comedy writer indulging a May/December whirlwind with seventeen year old music protégée, Tracy merely to illustrate – if to no one but himself - his desirability amongst attractive young women has not waned. Outwardly, Isaac's friends, Yale and Emily support his relationship. After all, Tracy is sweet and easy to get along with; the first genuine opportunity Isaac has had to bury the hatchet along with his fears of sexual inadequacy after Jill’s tell-all memoir hit the Time’s best seller list. But Tracy is sooooo young – perhaps, a bone of contention for all concerned, certainly creating a wedge between Isaac and Yale that is about to turn into a chasm when Isaac begins courting Mary. The wrinkle: even as Yale professes the virtues of a stable relationship he is having an extramarital affair with Mary, whom Isaac initially cannot stand – pegging her as just another pretentious and navel-gazing pseudo-intellectual. Yale confides his affair to Isaac and asks him to check out Mary on approval. But Isaac and Mary's first casual meeting goes hopelessly awry. She's too opinionated, too bold in her uber-philosophic and caustic criticisms and dismissal of pop culture. No, Mary grates on Isaac like nails on a chalkboard…or maybe not. A chance meeting without Yale reveals Mary has another side. Perhaps, she is just as vulnerable, using her smarts as a shield against being hurt.
Isaac decides to convince Tracy he is all wrong for her so he can pursue Mary without guilt. Too bad for Isaac, leaving Tracy jilted also leaves him with residual angst and a mountain of regrets. He is, after all, quite the bastard; having taken advantage of this young girl’s infatuation with an ‘older successful writer’. As such, Isaac finds he cannot betray Tracy's naive sweetness directly, even if it is for her own good. So far, the plot, nimbly scripted by Allen and Marshall Brickman, sounds about as close to cliché as romantic comedy can get…but only if the movie had been written and directed by anyone other than Woody Allen. The most engaging aspect of any Woody Allen film in general, though this one specifically, is its outwardly uncomplicated amalgam of timely and ageless dialogue. No other screenwriter, deceased or living, save the late and very great, Paddy Chayefsky, has Allen’s ability to use the milieu of the rom/com to touch upon a panacea of topical debates. Even Allen’s ostensibly ‘toss-away’ banter in Manhattan runs the gamut from sexual politics to religious contemplation; all of it deftly given to Allen’s depth of human understanding and his tongue-firmly-in-cheek analyses ringing with more than a tiny echo of truth.
It’s good for the laugh, to be sure, but oh so much more comprehensively fascinating, since, despite its’ disconnect from the central plot, Allen’s erudite and glib observations about life in general and love in totem manages an even more delicious coup; to flesh out his characters as people of substance – good, bad, or indifferently flawed. Since Allen is cribbing mostly from his own experiences, and using people he knows in life as his templates, the conversations these characters have are never anything less than spot on truthful – perhaps even subtly tweaked embellishments from stolen moments gleaned elsewhere in Allen’s repository of happenstances. Allen is at his most wonderfully sardonic when he suggests to Tracy he believes in mating for life "like pigeons and Catholics" or, when challenged by Yale for being ‘self-righteous’ – “You think you’re God!” he unashamedly comes back with, “Well, I have to model myself on somebody!” It takes an intellectual classicist of Allen’s rare breed to be able to weave – as Columbia President Harry Cohn might have coined less profoundly – ‘the bitter with the sour.’ We get healthy dollops of each criterion in Manhattan; particularly in Isaac’s frequent exchanges with Mary. The chemistry between Allen and Diane Keaton is decidedly different herein than their romantic sparring in Annie Hall, chiefly because Mary, unlike Annie, is Woody Allen’s equal – or, in fact, the female version of his alter ego.
A bit of telling dialogue between them: Mary, referring to a former flame – “I was tired of submerging my identity to a very brilliant, dominating man. He's a genius.” Isaac – “Oh really, he was a genius, Helen's a genius and Dennis is a genius. You know a lot of geniuses. You know, you should meet some stupid people once in a while. You could learn something,” cuts to the heart of their problematic relationship. In some ways, Isaac Davis is a very mid-19th century creature of habit trapped in the aftermath of ‘the second sex’ he neither understands nor is willing to embrace, even incredulously; having already been emasculated by Jill in their failed marriage and since publicly humiliated by her recollections of him in her biography; described as a chauvinistic Jewish liberal, prone to fits of rage, paranoia and self-righteous misanthropy, resulting in ‘nihilistic moods of despair’. No, Isaac is not about to leave his testicles in a Mason jar on the nightstand for a go around with Mary – not yet. Could this be the primary reason why his sometimes paternal and mentoring rapport with Tracy appears ever so promising – at first? Isaac can manage a girl. But can he handle a woman? Hmmmm. And yet, even Isaac can recognize Mary as his better half, someone with whom he can relate to on just about every subject, despite disagreeing with her on most, yet well-assured she will not hold back or back down from her principles to satisfy or even appease his.
“I'm honest, whaddya want?” Mary tells him, “I say what's on my mind and, if you can't take it, well then - fuck off.” “And I like the way you express yourself too…” Isaac condescends, “It's so pithy, yet degenerate. You get many dates?” From this inauspicious beginning springs forth a momentary diversion, one threatening to undo every established relationship in the movie; Mary, separated from Yale, being ‘introduced’ by him to Isaac in the misguided hope she will pursue the…um… ‘friendship’ destined not to remain adversarial, or even cynically platonic, for much longer. By Manhattan’s third act, Mary has made sympathetic inroads into Isaac’s personal life; offering misguided words of encouragement when he suggests a male child being reared by two lesbians is threatening to his sense of masculinity. “Oh, y'know, I mean I think that works,” Mary suggests, Keaton momentarily succumbing to a flashback from her more indecisive Annie Hall as she stutters, “Uh, they made some studies. I read in one in the psychoanalytic quarterlies. You don't need a male, I mean. Two mothers are absolutely fine” to which Isaac swats back, “Really? Because I always feel very few people survive one mother. I wrote a piece on mine once called The Castrating Zionist.”
Is Mary genuine? Possibly. Is she attainable? Unfortunately, for Isaac the answer is no. Mary still loves Yale, going back to him at the first possible opportunity and leaving Isaac without any viable alternative for happiness – lasting or otherwise, since he has already professed his love for Mary – both to Mary (and failed) and to Tracy, chiefly to break her heart and put an end to their incompatible affair once and for all. Rushing back to Tracy in the eleventh hour of her planned departure for London where she plans to study music for six months, Isaac back-peddles on virtually everything he has said that sent her packing in the first place. Sobering for both, Tracy refuses to change her plans now. Although she lingers in her residual affections for Isaac, Tracy vows to return to him ‘more complete’ at the end of six months. Isaac is not fooled. Six months apart and away is a lifetime for a girl of her years. The experience will surely offer Tracy opportunities he can only guess at – much less fulfill – and likely will not be able to compete with once she has come home. Tracy is at the ideal age to be matured, shaken loose of her idealism and susceptible to a better understanding of what life has to offer without Isaac’s ingrained input and personal reflections that, whether either realizes it now, have insincerely colored her perspectives. The ambiguity with which Allen concludes Manhattan is daring to say the least. Virtually every relationship established at the start of the picture has been torn asunder by the end; each left to the virtues and/or vices of a very uncertain and even more unstable future. Will Yale divorce Emily to marry Mary? Will Mary have him under these terms or run back to Isaac. Will Tracy come back to Isaac or find someone better to love in England? Will Isaac get Mary back? Hmmm. Nothing is resolved, and yet, it all seems as fitting a conclusion as one might hope for these imperfect, misshapen and morally ambiguous lost souls.
Manhattan is spared the tedium of becoming just another wordy pseudo- cerebral excursion into modern romance by Allen’s adroit sense of humor; also, his self-deprecating acting style and his minimalist approach to story-telling. There is something else at play here too – an intangible sense of reality apart from the world of this artificially-crafted narrative. It goes without saying Allen's delivery of each line carries an irrefutable weight of witty comedic genius. I still get a chuckle from his semi-leering grin as he confronts a party guest at a fundraiser who claims her doctor told her, her orgasms were ‘the wrong kind’. Disbelievingly amused, Allen’s Isaac casually rebuffs, “You had the wrong kind? I've never had the wrong kind - ever. My worst one was right on the money.” But again, such zingers are only a fragment of the sparkle Manhattan delivers in spades virtually from its first frame to its last. A good line is a good line – period. But Allen gives every line friction and ballast. There’s never a lull or lag in his genius, a moment when the audience can delay their desires for instant gratification. The fusion of the movie’s stunning B&W visuals and Allen’s acerbic jocularity attain a peerless symbiosis; New York, already a mythical destination for so many who do not live there, elevated to an uber-stylish, escapist quagmire by Gordon Willis’ carefully composed monochromatic elegance.
Manhattan is as much a story of this tiny little isle where all of these lives can playfully and occasionally self-destructively intersect and mingle with devastating and farcical consequences. The usually introspective Allen makes no apology for creating another character out of this vast cityscape. In fact, he revels in peeling back its varied layers to get to the heart of what makes New York...well...New York. First introduced with a flourish of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and a series of static shots that take us on a Cook’s Tour from the Bronx to the Battery and everyplace in between, very shortly thereafter Manhattan unspools from this idolized panacea of iconic landmarks into a far more intimate portrait of flawed intimacy; Allen’s imperishable sense of nostalgia colliding with the harsher realities of love amongst these cosmopolitan ruins that threaten to dismantle the more sumptuous and imaginative daydreams we all share. Clearly, Woody Allen has imparted his love of this eternal city on Gordon Willis (or perhaps Willis merely shares it wholeheartedly). In any case, Manhattan - the movie, becomes a visceral journey to the very heart of every great love – and even a few minor ones – best embodied by these flawed beings, struggling for happiness within its tight borders. Isaac, Mary, Yale and Tracy may be imperfectly matched. But Manhattan - as seen through the eyes and social commentary of Woody Allen remains about as close to perfect as cities and motion pictures get.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray easily bests their old SD DVD from 2002. Alas, it’s not perfect, and this is a shame. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved, revealing a tad more info to the right and left of the frame when directly compared to the DVD. Gordon Willis’ sumptuous deep focus imagery is given its due – mostly – with a startling amount of clarity. Fine details pop as they should; hair, clothing et al looking impressively textured. I have a slight issue with gray scale tonality. Manhattan has always looked ‘dark’ on home video, but this new Blu-ray seems just a tad ‘dimly’ contrasted; the image settling into a mid-grade level with velvety blacks that tend to occasionally overpower. Film grain has been ideally preserved. We waffle between mid-level and thicker grain, but I think this is indicative of what the movie must have looked like theatrically. Razor sharp crispness evolves and background detail is elevated to a whole new level. Still, for best results, Manhattan ought to be viewed in a completely darkened room. Owing to Woody Allen’s minimalist use of sound, the audio on this Blu-ray remains DTS 2.0 mono, adequate for the dialogue and doing justice to the many timeless orchestral arrangements scattered throughout. The biggest disappointment: no extras! Honestly, and despite Allen’s aversion to elaborating on his art, it would have been prudent of MGM/Fox to give us a featurette on the making of the movie, or, at the very least, reflections from Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway and the rest. We won’t poo-poo it further. Manhattan on Blu-ray comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)