Manhattan – An Appreciation

We open with the city skyline; far in the back we can see The Empire State Building.  Cut down to the street, covered in snow, with people hustling and bustling about.  We then move to NYU, with students sitting next to a fountain, reading their books.  After that, cars riding along the street, a shopkeeper opening his store, a couple kissing on a balcony.  Music gently plays as a narrator describes the first chapter of a book he is writing.  We see more buildings, parks, and streets.  The music grows to a crescendo, ending with a spectacular fireworks display right above the heights of the city.  In this opening scene, which lasts nearly four minutes, Woody Allen establishes all the life, beauty, and romance that come with living in New York City, a perfect backdrop to his romantic-comedy masterpiece, Manhattan (1979).

Like many of Allen’s films, Manhattan deals with neurotic people and the romantic triangles that develop between them.  Allen plays Isaac, a TV writer dating a much younger student by the name of Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway.  Although their relationship seems to be working, Isaac continuously pushes Tracy away, even encouraging her to go to school in London.  At the same time, Isaac’s close friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is in the middle of an affair with Mary, played by Diane Keaton, who had just won an Oscar for playing the lead role in Allen’s previous film, Annie Hall (1977).  Things get complicated when Yale, in an attempt to fix his marriage, decides to leave Mary, even to the point of literally telling Allen to pursue her.  Thus sets the tension between a group of people all trying to do what they think is right, despite how much their own personal feelings are telling them to do otherwise.

On the outside, Manhattan may seem like a simple romantic comedy, but in reality there are a number of different layers running underneath.  This movie is not only about love and doing what one feels is right, but also (and maybe even more importantly) it is about losing that love and regretting not following one’s heart.  Many of the characters throughout the film portray themselves as composed, well-mannered people, but deep down are the opposite.  Isaac thinks of Tracy not as an equal, but rather as a fling that he was never meant to stay with.  Only after breaking up with her does he realize how much she cared for him, and how much they fit together, although he may have realized it too late.  Yale, in an attempt to come off as the proper educated husband, pushes Mary away, but soon after regrets what he has done and tries to win her back.  Mary herself is introduced as a pseudo-intellectual, a know-it-all who has an opinion on everything, but in reality is the most emotionally unstable person in the whole film, falling for two men and not able to make a clear decision.  Even Jill, Isaac’s second ex-wife (played by a young Meryl Streep), chastises Isaac for not being able to get over their marriage, yet she is the one who decides to write a book about their relationship, even while being with another woman.

With all these different layers running at the same time, Allen is still able to bring it all together in one of the best movies ever made about falling in love.  Nearly every scene in the movie has pitch-perfect tone.  Take for example an early scene between Isaac and Mary, recently leaving a dinner party.  They walk around the city at night, bring along her dog, stop at an-all night diner, and end by sitting on a bench facing a towering bridge, just as the sun is comes up over the horizon.  The conversation is funny yet subtle, they make fun of each other but don’t flirt, they begin to learn about each others lives, and without even realizing it, the characters begin to become attracted to one another.  For us as the audience, by the end of the scene we find ourselves breathless, without even realizing it as well.

Another scene: escaping a thunderstorm, Isaac and Mary run over to an observatory museum.  As they walk and talk about each other’s relationship issues, a fake solar system encompasses them.  One moment, they are walking on the surface of the Moon, the next they are standing right next to the rings of Saturn.  They move in and out of the darkness, popping in to the light at one moment and then disappearing in to the darkness at another.  This is brilliant direction by Woody Allen; to put these two characters in this particular place, we are seeing the literal blossoming of their own relationship.  Not only does the contrast of dark and light give the scene a quiet and intimate feel, but we get to see these two characters actually walk among the stars, the same way we feel when we fall in love with another person.

This kind of tone and feeling throughout the movie could not have been accomplished without the visual skill of Gordon Willis.  Working on films such as The Godfather trilogy and All the President’s Men (1976), Willis is one of cinema’s all-time great cinematographers, and with Manhattan, he and Allen created one of the best looking movies ever captured on film.  An entire essay can be written just on the look of this movie.  In stunning black and white photography, Willis uses the perfect mix of shadows and light in every scene; the darkness plays just as much of an important role as the light.  At any particular moment in the film, one can take a still and frame it on a wall.  Light sources are seen on screen, actors are beautifully framed in hallways and between buildings, and many times the main action of the scene is placed off-center, allowing the background to become a main part of the composition of the shot.  The visuals are accompanied by a soundtrack that is filled with the music of George Gershwin, evoking a style and feel of the 1930’s, a time and genre Allen has confessed to being in love with.  The class of the music guides and amplifies the story in a beautiful way, as if it is a character all on its own.  When the combination of visual and musical skill is at their peak, it only works to enhance the story, and here it does it in a tremendous way.

With all these great elements in play, we have yet to talk about the acting.  Woody Allen is known to attract great talents, and here is no exception.  All the main actors portray the right amount of sophistication mixed with just a touch of immaturity. This is best displayed in the scene at the opera between Isaac, Mary, Yale, and Yale’s wife.  Isaac, Mary and Yale all realize the love triangle between them, while at the same time attempt to keep it secret from Yale’s wife.  Watch this scene as Allen, Keaton, and Murphy shuffle in their seats, uncomfortable with the awkward situation that they are in.  The scene could have been over the top and corny with the wrong actors, but here they accomplish their goal with absolute hilarity.

The biggest acting surprise was from Mariel Hemingway, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role.  The same age as the character she was playing, Hemingway plays Tracy with the same level of maturity (maybe even more) compared to the other characters.  She is able to walk along, keep a conversation, and stand her ground amongst these intellectual elitists, and in the end comes off as the most sympathetic character in the film.  For example, during the break-up scene between Isaac and Tracy at the ice cream shop, Hemingway is able to display her emotion effectively while only saying a few words.  I could literally feel the heartbreak of this young girl as she says; “Now I don’t feel so good.”

Manhattan plays as a romantic story, while at the same time being the ultimate cinematic love note to New York City.  One can only hope that a filmmaker would capture their city in the way that this director has captured his.  Amazingly, after making the film, Woody Allen was reported to have hated what he saw.  In fact, Allen disliked this film so much that he offered to do his next film for free in exchange for this film not to be released.  Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for us, the film was distributed and seen, and with that Allen went on to be known as one of the great directors.  Watching this film is like a breath of fresh air: for nearly the entire duration I found myself smiling.  This feeling of joy and romance couldn’t be felt more than in the last scene of the film.  As Isaac apologizes for breaking up with Tracy and pleads for her to stay, we can see in their faces that these are two people who have truly come to love each other.  Regardless of what Tracy’s answer is, it isn’t about whether she stays or goes, but rather about what has happened before, and the hope that whatever has gone will hopefully come back again.


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

You can reach Allen via email or Twitter

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