johnlink ranks MANHATTAN (1979)

I’ve yet to review a Woody Allen film on these pages. I watched quite a few of them in high school and college, but have never been a big enough fan to hunt them down. MANHATTAN, though, is said to be one of the great intellectual comedies of the 70s and, perhaps, of all time. With the new high def transfer of this beautifully shot black-and-white New York film, I thought it was time to give it a look. SOME SPOILERS BELOW

I watched MANHATTAN (1979) on 1.28.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

The exteriors in this are certainly a glimpse into someone who loves New York City for its beauty and splendor as well as its bruises and congestion. The opening moments provide brief glimpses of the city acting as part of a thematic narrative while Allen’s character provides voice over of his new novel’s various attempts at a first chapter. It gives the film a sense of place, and a sense of history.

I’ve heard this called ‘a love letter to New York’ which I am pretty sure is just what any critic says whenever a person from a city shoots a film which takes place in that city while also featuring that city extensively in pictures (and in the title, in this case). I would argue that while Allen does indeed love Manhattan, and he wants to showcase its beauty, the characters presented in the film do not paint the city in a particularly great light.

The action revolves around his Issac, who is in his 40s, and the pieces of two separate love triangles. One involves Issac’s relationship with a 17 year old named Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway, and someone more his own age, Mary, played by Diane Keaton. The other love triangle concerns Mary, Issac’s best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) and Yale’s wife (Anne Byrne). The acting in this is extraordinary, and that does not even include Issac’s ex-wife played by Meryl Streep. Everyone’s work is top notch.

The problem is that most of the characters are not particularly likable. They cheat on each other, try to one up each other, look down their noses at each other, talk about how attractive they themselves are, and generally make a mess of each other’s lives. While this is certainly not out of the ordinary for real life, the passive disdain shown for each other doesn’t make the characters anyone you want to root for (nor did it make me say ‘Wow, I want to live there and hang out with those people!’). Tracy is really the only exception,  though she is played with such naivete that her case seems hopeless (until she makes the right decision at the end). But the fact that Woody Allen plays a man in his 40s trying to convince an 18 year old girl that they are truly in love, and that she should stay with him in New York rather than going to London for college, does not paint Allen in a good light. Especially when you consider what happened in his personal life a decade and a half later with Allen marrying his ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter. In fact, while much of Manhattan has to do with love trumping things like age, sexual prowess, money, or societal standards, the story told made me feel like the basic guidelines we follow should be followed, rather than making me feel like I need to question my assumptions.

For some reason, this is the third May-December romance I’ve seen on film in the last week. I’ve mentioned this is my review for NEXT (which handled it poorly by not addressing it at all), TO CATCH A THIEF (which handled it very well) and now MANHATTAN (which I feel handles it terribly). All the things Issac says throughout this film about why he needs to end it with Tracy are all true! He convinces her that she needs to be on her own and experience life as a young woman by herself. Until the end, these scenes are the most endearing scenes Issac has. But then he screws it all up by saying he was wrong. No he wasn’t! I am not trying to suggest that these romances can never work, but I don’t leave this movie feeling like it will work out for Issac and Tracy. I feel, instead, like Issac would be a detriment to Tracy’s future.

The intellectual conversations are well written, and there are many very funny moments. Some of the best are silent moments, such as when Issac drags his hand into the water while on a romantic boat ride with Mary, only to come up with an arm covered in mud. The direction is very good. The shot selection is very good. The black-and-white looks great (except for a museum scene where you can hardly see what is happening). This is an odd film to score in that I respect the direction, think the acting is some of the best I have watched in a long, long time; but I think the message of the film is atrocious and pessimistic. The writing itself is tough to consider. On one hand, the dialogue is playful and witty and bountiful. On the other, the situations and decisions made are frustrating.

I’m very glad I finally watched this, if only for the performances of Keaton and Hemingway. But it’s not an experience I can say that I fully enjoyed, and I don’t hold this film in the esteem some others seem to.



The music, all Gershwin all the time, is perfectly suited for this film. Allen does a nice job of arraigning it. The music, like the city of New York, is a nearly tangible part of the experience.




~ by johnlink00 on January 29, 2012.

One Response to “johnlink ranks MANHATTAN (1979)”

  1. […] year. I gave 4 films perfect marks for ACTING (SHAWSHANK, TREE OF LIFE, WINTER’S BONE, and MANHATTAN). I gave 6 movies perfect WRITING scores (SHAWSHANK, CASABLANCA, INSIDER, CAINE MUTINY, MARTHA […]

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