With 1979’s Manhattan, Woody Allen completed an unofficial trilogy of sorts. Along with preceding releases Annie Hall (1977) and Interiors (1978), the three films announced Allen’s arrival as a formidable cinematic force. No longer concerned solely with delivering jokes, each film represented a significant creative advance for the director. Annie Hall saw Allen seamlessly integrate experimental and European influences to create a delightful film as inventive as it was entertaining. Interiors, a grim and boldly unapologetic homage to Ingmar Bergman, proved Allen’s chops at skillful direction and the evocation of icy, angst ridden moods. Manhattan follows as a stylistic hybrid, returning to Allen’s comfort zone of satirical wit and sight gags, presented in a visually poetic package.
Manhattan aesthetically ups the ante by incorporating formal elements that conjure the dynamic muscularity of the American experience. From the intensity of the Gershwin orchestral pieces that adorn its track, to the raw, biting textures of DP Gordon Willis’ black-and-white images of the city’s bustle, Manhattan celebrates the energy and drive that carved the world’s most famous skyline out of sweat and dreams. The leafy environs of Central Park surrounded by an Art Deco canyon, a determined delivery truck on a narrow street covered in new fallen snow, and the misty splendor of sunrise at the Brooklyn Bridge all serve as visual couplets in Allen’s epic tome. While Interiors is a descendant of Bergman, Manhattan evokes the legacy of John Ford; its exultations a steel and brick cognate to Ford’s magnificent western vistas from films like The Searchers.
But today Monument Valley is inhabited mainly by cheerful Navajo tour guides, while Allen’s New York City has been overrun by a neurotic creative class, and Manhattan’s razor sharp narrative is all about their fallacies and foibles. Allen stars as a comedy writer named Isaac Davis who, in a brief fit of artistic integrity, quits his cushy job on a hit TV show and is immediately hip-deep in regret and financial insecurity. Adding to Davis’ woes is his ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who is about to publish a nasty tell-all book about their dysfunctional marriage. Meanwhile, Davis’ best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a deluded academic permanently lodged in his ivory tower, is cheating on his devoted wife (Anne Byrne) with an unstable, high maintenance book editor (Diane Keaton). Davis’ only solace is in the barely legal arms of his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17 year old high school student who ironically seems the most mature of the lot.
Through vignettes laced with bull’s-eye observational humor, Allen skewers the misconceptions and warped priorities of the self proclaimed intellectual elite. Contrasting the impressive achievements of New York’s builders with the wobbly self absorption of its current residents, Manhattan is a full immersion in the cloudy rivers of Solipsism. While Davis and his friends wallow in self aggrandizement and chimerical crises, Allen fills his frames with constant reminders of man’s ultimate miniscule ranking in the universe. In the film’s most memorable scene, shot at the old Hayden Planetarium, Allen and Keaton discuss their romantic complications while wandering amid surreal heavenly grandeur. In a hilarious metaphor, Allen’s friends drip with cultural sophistication, but they are easily undone by the mysterious dingy brown water that drips from his rusty faucet. In a scene that builds to the film’s climactic confrontation, Allen tries to catalogue real things of transcendent permanence, a lofty process rapidly derailed by memories of his romance with young Tracy.
Current knowledge of Allen’s controversial personal proclivities adds a layer of ick to the Isaac/Tracy relationship not present – or at least not as pronounced - in 1979. The degree of distraction will vary from viewer to viewer, but suffice to say Allen’s subsequent issues with adopted offspring will likely prevent the full appreciation of Manhattan’s brilliance by today’s audiences. But also there are reassuring reminders of society’s advancements in shielding children from sexual situations. In a scene at the Russian Tea Room, Isaac jokes in a hushed tone about picking up a couple of girls with his 5-ish son (Damien Scheller). This exchange was innocently amusing in 1979, but today it seems wildly inappropriate, even for an actor without Allen’s tortured history on the subject.
In more recent films, Allen has shown an annoying tendency to make his actors all Sound Like Him. Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Judy Davis are but a few examples of gifted talents who have abandoned their personalities to the staccato allure of Allen-esque line readings. In Manhattan, Michael Murphy does a fine job of retaining his persona amid a sea of whiney hemming and hawing. Murphy’s neurotic naturalism is a display of exquisite control, both of timing and timbre, and he interprets rather than parrots. The scenes with Allen and Murphy rank as the film’s most effective and believable, and it’s both unfortunate and puzzling that Manhattan stands as their only collaboration.
In 1979, it had been a generation since anyone had seen a new black and white film in 2.35:1 and Manhattan’s starkly glorious imagery was a revelation. Gordon Willis’ compositions still resonate with beauty and superb balance. His effective use of the frame’s challenging width has never been surpassed, and this film features several skillful examples. A night scene in Isaac’s apartment essentially features two pools of light – one on a sofa and another illuminating a spiral stairway – on opposite edges of the frame, creating a perfect tableau for the scene’s casual intimacy. In a day exterior, a discussion of car buying between Allen and Murphy is staged uncomfortably extreme camera right, but trees and an antique Porsche provide perfect visual counterweight.
Despite the modern day infliction of Allen’s personal baggage, Manhattan remains an artistic triumph, and deserves its ranking among Woody Allen’s best films. Manhattan’s clever contrast of gutsy Greatest Generation aesthetics with Me Generation navel gazing creates an entertaining and thought provoking cinematic meditation that can be appreciated on a number of levels. While Allen is hardly a conservative moralist, his film shines a light on the creeping decay in the American psyche, and humorously reflects a growing national uneasiness that would manifest itself with Ronald Reagan’s election a year later. The brave and industrious visionaries who built New York have been replaced by a pampered, self absorbed set, concerned only with sex and fashionable places to have lunch. And ironically, in the years hence almost nothing has changed. You may not agree with Allen’s thesis, but Manhattan’s flawless execution makes for a compelling case.