By Linc Leifeste | February 5, 2012
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne
“A divorced New Yorker currently dating a high-schooler brings himself to look for love in the mistress of his best friend instead.” So says the IMDb summary of Woody Allen’s 1979 classic, Manhattan, recently released on blu-ray by MGM. While perfectly conveying the convoluted, messy and awkward nature of the romantic relationships that comprise the meat of the film, the IMDb summary fails to mention the true star and heart of the film (hence the title), New York City itself.
Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is a middle-aged TV writer and aspiring novelist, twice divorced and seemingly unlucky (or inept) in love, currently in the midst of a sexual relationship with 17-year-old high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Tracy, brilliantly portrayed in all her fragile and naive beauty, is providing Isaac with all he needs in the way of sexual satisfaction but leaving him intellectually wanting. So when he meets Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), an over-expressive intellectual journalist and mistress of his good friend Yale (Michael Murphy), he is primed to be smitten, and despite expressing initial disgust at her frequent snobbish intellectual pronouncements, he is. It’s not long before Yale decides he needs to end his relationship with Mary, as he’s still in love with his wife Emily (Anne Byrne), and in passing suggests to Isaac that he pursue Mary. Music to Isaac’s ears, he does just that and soon is carrying on a relationship with her, leading him to break it off with young Tracy. Of course, it’s not long before Mary is back in Yale’s arms and Isaac is left to his own devices.
Despite being a toned down version of Annie Hall‘s Alvy Singer, Isaac is still your stereotypical nearly-interchangeable Woody Allen lead character with his charming mix of intellectual and anti-intellectual strains, his sexual hang-ups, self-deprecating tendencies and borderline neurotic behavior. For me, there’s a darkness to Isaac that wasn’t as pronounced in earlier Allen incarnations, whether it’s his moralistic judgements on other people’s actions, his sexual relationship with a teenager, or his possible attempt (always played for laughs) to run over the female lover his second ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) left him for. In fact, there’s a darkness to Manhattan that’s more prominent than in any of Allen’s earlier works, still probing the dark side of relationships and human behavior as he did in Annie Hall but minus the more experimental and absurd elements.
It’s interesting to listen to Isaac criticize the moral failings of his friend Yale and his ex-wife Jill when he’s in the midst of a sexual relationship with a teenager. There was a point in my life where I’d have probably felt the need to judge the behavior of just about everyone in the this movie. Like the best of Allen’s work, the film presents a portrait of a complicated adult world in which it’s hard to feel comfortable judging the behavior of others. That said, I’m still not able to shake a slight feeling of unease when presented with Isaac’s relationship with Tracy but ultimately the film doesn’t leave me with a sense of discomfort as much as a sense of beauty and joy amidst the suffering (perfectly captured in Isaac’s romantic statement to Tracy, “You’re God’s answer to Job.”) It’s a testament to the film’s beauty that I feel it could easily be added to Isaac’s list of things that make live worth living for him, a list that includes Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and yes,Tracy’s face.
What probably most distinguishes Manhattan from Allen’s oeuvre up to that time are it’s visual qualities. With this film, Allen showed he had the directorial abilities to produce films both beautiful and smart, Manhattan being every bit as visually accomplished as the dialogue and storytelling had been in earlier endeavors. Shot in black and white, the film captures a moment in time in New York that is now long gone (if it ever truly was, with its blend of reality and romanticism). Just the opening and closing montages, with their idyllic shots and Gershwin soundtracks, are capable of making you fall in love with the city but there are numerous scenic locales and venues that are just as crucial to the film’s success as any member of the supporting cast. A couple of my favorite scenes are the carriage ride in Central Park as well as the romantic moments that Isaac and Mary spend strolling through the Hayden Planetarium along with the most iconic shot of the whole movie, Isaac and Mary sitting on a park bench under the Queensboro Bridge at dawn. For more info on many of the locations used in the film I recommend visiting http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/m/manhattan.html.
A quick word about the blu-ray itself. Like it’s sister blu-ray release, Annie Hall, despite featuring no special features other than a hi-def version of the original movie trailer, Manhattan is worthy of an upgrade in your collection for the superior picture and audio. Despite occasionally looking a bit too dark for my tastes, the clarity and detail is a noticeable upgrade as Manhattan, with its stylized black and white beauty, looks even more striking on blu-ray than Annie Hall.