Manhattan is Woody Allen’s most beautiful film. Beautiful in many ways. The stunning black and white photography. The lush and gorgeous score. And, of course, the set. The island of Manhattan, from bookshops to skylines. In the middle of all this, Allen plops some of his greatest characters, one of his greatest moral questions and creates a masterpiece of cinema.
It’s odd to read the plot synopsis on IMDB or Wikipedia or elsewhere as the basics of the story fail to reveal the beauty of this film. Woody Allen stars as Isaac Davis, and we follow him as he romanticises the hell of of New York City, falling in love, and dealing with the poetry of every day life.
His life is divided by two women and one friend. One is the teenaged Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway. The other is the high strung, neurotic but sweet Mary played by Diane Keaton. The friend, Yale, is played by Michael Murphy and is one of the more fascinating characters in all of Allen’s films.
What really shines in this film is New York. The portrayal of it is given away in the legendary prologue. ‘Rhapsody In Blue‘ plays over the most beautiful black and white New York ever committed to film. We see it from all angles before concluding with fireworks. Allen’s narration captures all the different feelings he has for his city.
Allen is often called a New York director, and it is this film that ties him to it. Anyone who has ever seen this film and been to New York has their view of it changed. Then there is the iconic use of the 59th Street Bridge, the Central Park boating lake and so much more. Allen’s been making postcards in Europe these days, a style he perfected on this film
It’s funny too. That bitter sweet funny of Annie Hall continues here. Again, Keaton shines as the ultimate contradictory woman. You almost want to throw things at the screen when she throws her life away again. And she plays it straight, giving Allen plenty of classic lines (“I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion“). Wallace Shawn‘s cameo as Keaton’s ex is one of many bigger, great gags.
There’s not a bad note in the film. Literally, if you think of the music. A number of George Gershwin classics (performed by the New York Philharmonic) always hit the spot, such as Isaac and Mary’s walk, where they fall in love, as Someone To Watch Over Me plays. The performances are great, and Meryl Streep eats up the few scenes she has.
In all this, Allen wraps up his big morality tale. He even questions morality itself. Isaac spends the whole film trying to do the right thing – choose the right girl, quitting the wrong job, loving the finer things. Where Yale is his opposite – lying and cheating, the man who buys the car but doesn’t do the work. Their showdown with the skeleton resonates like a scene from Shakespeare. We’re only human – but is that good enough?
Hemingways character cops a lot of flack in the light of Allen’s private life. But as a fictional character, she supplies the light and the hope. Much like how Salinger uses young girls to represent innocence, so too does Allen. He makes fun of her for wanting to do the horse carriage ride, but she puts a full stop on the whole film with her very simple line – “You have to have a little faith in people”.
And that’s what Manhattan ultimately does. It restores our faith in life. Allen peppers the film with lists of things to love – I’m the prologue, arguing with Mary, into the tape recorder. That terrible things happen, but life is beautiful anyway. And maybe it’s not all hopeless out there.
‘Manhattan‘ and ‘Annie Hall‘ joust it out as Allen’s best film. Both a masterpieces in their own right. ‘Annie Hall‘ is sad and romantic, whereas ‘Manhattan‘ is big and full of love. It swells with love, like it’s massive orchestral score. It is, perhaps, Allen’s most life affirming work.
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne.