Woody Allen followed the triumph of Annie Hall with a dead-serious drama that few people saw and even fewer liked: Interiors (Confession: I haven’t seen it). Luckily for his career, Allen followed Interiors with Manhattan.
Like Annie Hall, Manhattan is a realistic, character-driven comedy about love, romance, and how the sexual urge messes up our lives. But since it’s not taking place in a character’s mind, it lacks the earlier film’s flights of fancy, and, while there are plenty of laughs, it isn’t near as funny. Those laughs almost all come from one-liners spoken by Allen himself. Since his character, Isaac, writes for television, we easily accept his quick and very funny wit. It helps, of course, that he’s played by Woody Allen.
Isaac hates writing for television, and is working on a novel about the decline of civilization. He has two ex-wives; the last one (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman. She’s writing a book about their relationship that will reveal a great deal about his private life–an act she justifies on the grounds that the book is "honest."
Isaac is now sleeping with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is so much younger than him it’s illegal. "I’m 42 and she’s 17. I’m older than her father. Can you believe that? I’m dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father." She’s falling in love with him, and he wishes she wasn’t. Isaac’s best friends are a married couple, Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne). These seem happy, but Yale is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton); it started as a fling, but has become serious.
Before the movie is over, most of these people are going to change partners and make some very bad mistakes. They’re going to hurt people they love, and you’ll react with disappointment, anger, understanding sympathy, and laughter.
Allen and his collaborators–primarily co-writer Marshall Brickman, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and editor Susan E. Morse–tell the story efficiently, effectively, and visually. One scene with Allen and Keaton, in an exceptionally dark science museum (there are reasons why Willis is sometimes called "The Prince of Darkness"), carries a strong erotic undercurrent without their ever touching. In another powerful scene, Isaac, Mary, Yale, and Emily sit side-by-side at a concert, without saying a word, and the tension may make you want to explode.
Another important collaborator died more than 40 years before the film was made: George Gershwin. Allen scored the film entirely with instrumental recordings of Gershwin tunes, most of them hits. Even without the lyrics, you can’t help noticing the songs, both because you already know them and because they’re played louder than traditional background music. No music says "New York" like a Gershwin tune.
If Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s masterpiece, and I think it is, than Manhattan belongs in the small, second tier of his near masterpieces.
How It Looks
I don’t believe that New York ever looked as beautiful as it does here. Willis shot Manhattan in black and white and in Panavision (anamorphic ‘scope with Panavision lenses). The resulting deep gray scale and wide canvas sharpens the sense of a lively and vibrant city filled with art, culture, and intelligent but troubled people. Many individual shots could serve as postcards or tourist advertising. Others could be used to teach intimate composition in a widescreen aspect ratio.
20th Century-Fox and MGM, who together are releasing this original United Artist picture, have captured Willis’ work splendidly. The gray scale is spot-on perfect, and you can see fine detail throughout the picture. Night scenes are often grainy, but they always were.
How It Sounds
And the Extras
Woody Allen doesn’t approve of DVD and Blu-ray supplements. The only one on this disc is the original theatrical trailer.