Reviews and notes
A milestone in Woody Allen's career as he dropped (temporarily, at least) the slavish imitation which undermined Interiors
and found a tone of his own. The note of tragi-comedy is nicely judged as his hero, a TV comedy writer nervously contemplating a switch to serious literature, equally nervously frets over the women in his life and a pending betrayal of his best friend. An edgy social comedy framed as a loving tribute to neurotic New York, overlaid with an evocative Gershwin score, it's funny and sad in exactly the right proportions. Allen could well strive vainly ever to better this film.
- Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide.
"He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved."
The familiar voice shifts from Bogie lisp to Woody whine. The ironic-nostalgic tone mixes distant memories of Forties film noir with more recent ones of Seventies noir parodies, like Play It Again, Sam
. On the screen are gorgeous black-and-white shots of Manhattan skyscrapers (Empire State, Chrysler, Seagram's) and vistas (a block of tenements, Park Avenue in the snow); on the sound track, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue
, reaching its crescendo as Fourth-of-July fireworks explode over Central Park.
At this moment, you can almost hear the audience sigh with pleasure, and with relief. After having had some trouble following Woody Allen on a trip into the darkest Interiors
of a Bergmanomane's mind, moviegoers watching the first few minutes of MANHATTAN
feel they can relax. It's sweet and it's funny; seems like old times. This is our Woody Allen - the director and co-writer of Annie Hall
- and, under the pseudonym Isaac Davis, our "Woody Allen" - the exasperating, endearing comic persona who's been growing up and older in the decade since Take the Money and Run
He's grown away from what Michael Dempsey identifies as the machines and the machine people, and toward an adult copability. In MANHATTAN
there are no infernal gadgets, no mechanical men, and only one castrating woman: Isaac's ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who's gone lesbian and written an expose about their marriage. Everybody's human here - too human. They resemble the "liberated" survivors and sufferers of Paul Mazursky's films, people who behave shabbily precisely because they're trying so hard to be decent. Isaac and his child sweetheart Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and his dingdong belle Mary (Diane Keaton) and his pal Yale (Michael Murphy, bringing his Altmangy charm and Mazurskian vulnerability to the hero's-best-friend role usually played by Tony Roberts) form the unequal sides of a quadrangular love story - hip, not tough, and heroically romantic - that can be seen as Woody Allen's Blume in Love
, transposed from sunny southern Cal. to the monochrome canyons of New York.
Once we recognize this similarity, we can more sensibly evaluate Allen's (and co-author Marshall Brickman's) achievement. MANHATTAN
is after all, "only" a distinguished example of the cosmopolitan romantic comedy-drama - a movie form that begins with the films of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew in the Teens, and extends through the witty love stories of the Thirties (Angel
, Love Affair
) and the Tracy-Hepburn-Kanin-Gordon comedies of the Forties and Fifties, up to Annie Hall
and An Unmarried Woman
. It's a mistake to become so awed by, and protective of, Woody Allen's gifts that we assume he's creating a Long Day's Journey into Night
every time he sacrifices a laugh for the tone of his film.
With growth come growing pains, and that's one of the things MANHATTAN
is about. The Woody character has attained sufficient "maturiosity" to be more disturbed by his success with women than by his failures. In the sexual sense, he no longer fails. He gets the girl, they go to bed, they have a good time. And then the troubles start - troubles that extend beyond the bedroom door, and into the kitchens and brown studies of everyday life. It's a mark of growing up that Annie Hall
define a serious search for something the young Woody only joked about: an enduring relationship. Now when he jokes about it - when he says, "I think there's something wrong with me because I've never had a relationship with a woman that's lasted longer than the one Hitler had with Eva Braun" - the tone is rueful. (And, thank God, the joke is funny.)
If Isaac is to have a long relationship, it will be with one of two Woody Allen cultural archetypes: the sophisticated New Yorker, or the more open, caring, Diane Keaton girleen. Here, however, Keaton plays Mary, the scraggly-haired, name-dropping, ever-so-funky-chic journalist, described by Isaac - who, nonetheless, loves her - as "winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award." And the Diane Keaton part, Tracy, is taken by Mariel Hemingway, in whom Allen invests the "warmth and poignance associated with young women" of which he says Keaton made him aware. Tracy is special: she's the recipient of Woody Allen's first serious, passionate on screen kiss. And Mariel is special: she gives the film's most endearing and mature performance.
Tracy is bright and fresh and sweet and, at seventeen, still very much in the process of becoming. As an intoxicating blend of child and woman, Tracy allows Isaac to be both a teacher and a born-again kid - both her superior and her equal. It takes Isaac most of MANHATTAN
to see that Tracy might also be an ideal: the warm Wasp dreamgirl who's also a mensch. In the meantime, and with the best of intentions, he treats both Mary and Tracy as if following the admonition from Sleeper
: "Shut up and eat your shiksa."
was seen as Allen's farewell valentine to Diane Keaton; but it scans better as his comic valentine to New York, the city of "left-wing Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers." In MANHATTAN
his view of New York is even more romantic, and more crucial to the film's visual and emotional strategies. The film was shot in black-and-white and, just as important, in wide-screen: often the characters will fill only one side of the frame, or a small part of a Manhattan postcard picture as it might have been made by Edward Weston. Or a conversation will take place off screen as we watch a Central Park hansom, or the 59th Street Bridge. There are visits to Bloomingdale's, the Russian Tea Room, the Uptown Racquet Club, The Museum of Modern Art. MANHATTAN
could be a time-capsule movie, a lexicon of 1970's architecture and anxieties. New York is an oversized, anachronistic machine - the kind Woody Allen has learned to live in, and love.
The old machine fixation has been purged. In its place comes the realization that people are even more damnably unpredictable, and eminently worth the trouble. MANHATTAN
may begin with a standard "Woody Allen" monologue, but it ends with an accusation that's also on an affirmation: "You have to have a little faith in people." It's a challenge that MANHATTAN
thrusts at our image of "Woody," but doesn't resolve. Will he jump further out of his comic-strip character, and into a maturity that goes beyond "maturiosity"? Will Woody Allen's films continue to move from Buster Keaton slapstick toward a romantic human comedy?
The answers aren't simple, because Woody Allen's films aren't so much big-screen episodes of Soap
as they are consecutive chapters in a fascinating autobiography. MANHATTAN
poses the questions instead of answering them. But it proves that audiences owe all
the Woody Allens - actor, writer, director, persona - a lot of faith.
- Richard Corless, Film Comment, May-June 1979.
Weblink: A Film Review by James Berardinelli, 2002
Back to screening list