Along with Annie Hall, Manhattan may be the Woody Allen film most people have seen, or at least know about. It is certainly one I have seen more than many others. I think I first saw it on the big screen where its beautiful widescreen black and white photography (by Gordon Willis) was absolutely magnificent. It still looks amazing on DVD, and I assume Blu-Ray is even better.
To recap the story very briefly, Manhattan is about a 42-year-old divorced TV comedy writer (Woody Allen) who is dating an emotionally mature 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemingway) while his married friend (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with an acerbic critic (Diane Keaton). When that relationship ends, Allen and Keaton’s characters get together, then separate, before Allen’s character returns to the student realising she is one of the things on his list of things he truly loves in life.
Like Annie Hall, there is not a lot for me to add about this film since it is considered Woody’s masterpiece and so much has been written already. So what do I like about it?
I’ll keep it to just three things. Firstly, the music. This is the first of Woody’s film with a score since the early comedies. The music is all George Gershwin, consisting of the lush and romantic Rhapsody in Blue over the film’s montage opening, as well as the New York Philharmonic and Dick Hyman’s jazz trio performing arrangements of Gershwin songs. As a card-carrying Gershwinphile I especially appreciate that Woody went for obscure numbers, so for every Embraceable You or Love Is Here To Stay there is a Blue Blue Blue or Bronco Busters. The score features several songs from Gershwin musicals which aren’t considered ‘standards’ but which perfectly fit this film and were obviously chosen with care. I think this is the first of Woody’s films to have a released soundtrack, and it’s obviously a favourite of mine.
Secondly, I love the structure. I once wrote a very detailed scene study of this film to analyse how it works. Good times (really!). The construction is very elegant. Unlike Annie Hall, it is very straightforward in its style and its storytelling. It is also once of those films which seems light on plot, and seemingly made up of observational scenes of characters moving in and out of each other’s lives. However as Woody runs through the city in the finale to find Mariel Hemingway, you realise that there is plot and that it has been working very subtly and very effectively all along.
You also realise by the end that there is a point. Woody is told ‘You have to have a little faith in people’ and he offers a very small smile. This is the third element of the film I enjoy – its artfulness. The structure and the photography and the music and the characters all produce a highly entertaining film that delights audiences with its intellectual repartee and its romantic vision of New York. In that final scene though, you realise that Woody does have something to say about life. The title and the grand city-wide canvas are a king of misdirection. The film is about the city, but it’s also about one character and his almost imperceptible change for the better.
Watching this film after Interiors it’s another clear step forward. Woody combines the romance and the wit of Annie Hall with the mature direction, tight script and interesting visuals of Interiors. And just as his character ‘romanticises New York all out of proportion’, this film fuels the romance for Woody’s own version of New York – something which moviegoers would either celebrate or bemoan for years to come. This is a New York that is either satirical or nostalgic, or both, peopled purely with intellectuals, photographed with love and featuring a soundtrack of sweet jazz. To paraphrase, this was his city, and it always would be.
Next week: Stardust Memories