By John H. Foote
Has New York City ever looked as beautiful, as majestic, as ravishing as it does in the splendid black and white used in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan? Gordon Willis, the gifted cinematographer known as the Prince of Darkness, who shot both The Godfather films, shot Manhattan for Allen, and his crisp, clean black and white astonishes with its rich beauty. This might be the greatest example of black and white cinematography I have seen, including Schindler’s List (1993) and Raging Bull (1980). The city looks glorious, the night life alive with its twinkling lights that look like stars descended to earth and that astonishing sense of timelessness black and white brings to film.
Allen wanted to shoot the film in black and white because that was how he remembered the city from his youth in famous black and white photographs and old movies set in New York. With the city being a character in this film, more so than any other film Allen ever made, it was an inspired decision, perfectly capturing the beauty and mystique of this grand old city.
Manhattan was hailed from the moment of its release as Allen’s greatest film, and I heartily agree. He made a great film before – Annie Hall (1977) – and many great films since including Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Match Point (2005) and Midnight in Paris (2011), but none surpass the breathtaking comic beauty of and within Manhattan.
As with the best of Allen’s films, it is a relationship film, and oddly the wisest character in the film is a 17-year old high schooler, Tracy, portrayed with winsome charm by Mariel Hemingway. Allen is a writer who at 42 finds herself dating Tracy, a bright high school girl who thinks she might be in love with Isaac (Allen). When he meets Mary (Diane Keaton), who is in the middle of an affair with Isaac’s best friend, they connect, intellectually and sexually, though she is caustic, insecure, arrogant and condescending. Truth be told Isaac does not really like Mary, but believes she is closer to be a match for him than Tracy.
To complicate his life, his ex-wife, portrayed by a chilly and haughty Meryl Streep, is writing a book about their marriage which ended when she left Isaac for a woman, something he does not talk about publicly. Worse, he tried running down her lover in his car.
Like the best of Allen films the dialogue sparkles throughout but this film is so much more visually pleasing than anything he had directed up to this time. New York City looks positively radiant in every shot, the most famous shot from the film being the Brooklyn Bridge from a park bench Isaac and Mary are sitting on. The city has more inner beauty than the characters, who aside from Tracy, are nasty and superficial, self-absorbed and self-indulgent. Mary being the worst by far. Having used Isaac to get her previous lover back, Isaac sits wondering what it is to be happy, and realizes, with some shock, he was happiest with Tracy, his 17- year old lover. When Isaac realizes he really does love Tracy, he goes back to the heartbroken young girl who is about to leave for England on a Drama scholarship for six months. He begs her not to go, saying in six months she will have moved on but wise as always she tells him “You have to have a little faith in people” leaving him smiling at the fact she is wiser than anyone he knows, which is why he loves her.
Allen again gave a fine performance, but once again the supporting characters were the more interesting. Meryl Streep, still emerging as a major new actress, was bitter and caustic as Jill, his very angry ex-wife who writes truthfully about their relationship knowing it will hurt him.
Diane Keaton was brilliant as the pretentious Mary, looking down on anyone who does not see art as she does, believing her opinion is the only one worth listening too, and treating people who do not share her opinion as non-existent. Yet she is bathing in insecurity which becomes more and more apparent to Isaac the more they spend time together. But Mary is, it turns out, treacherous and looking out for only herself, when it appears she was using Isaac to win her previous lover back. Spitting her opinions like venom, she might be the most dislikable character Keaton has ever portrayed, but positively brilliant in doing so.
Best of all was Mariel Hemingway as Tracy, a brilliant young woman advanced far beyond her years yet innocent in matters of the heart. Treated as an adult by Isaac and his friends, she believes she is in love with Isaac, even after he breaks up with her. Will they remain together when she returns? Perhaps.
The film came under fire, not at the time, but years later when Allen took up with Soon Yi Previn, 40 years his junior and those who believed the fantasies spun by the vindictive Mia Farrow were quick to weigh in on the relationship between Isaac and Tracy being a foreshadow. Rubbish. Allen had been with Diane Keaton for years and later took up with Mia Farrow, before Soon Yi was even in the picture romantically. Because it was well documented Allen wrote from his life, about his relationships he was an easy target for the fools believing Farrow.
Though most actors revere Allen and love the freedom they are given to create, Meryl Streep did not feel that way. She was critical of Allen’s work with actors and for not giving her in particular enough help in creating her character. In the end, her performance was superb, as were all the actors in the film.
Manhattan remains a classic of the decade and might just be Allen’s finest film. For me it is a breathtaking experience throughout, one I will cherish for the rest of my life. This was my awakening to Woody Allen as a great film director.
Incredibly, though the film was awarded accolades galore, it was nominated for just two Academy Awards, Allen for his screenplay and Hemingway for Best Supporting Actress. One of the greatest comedic films ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.