Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen

“You have to have a little faith in people” – Tracy.

In “Manhattan,” Woody Allen’s New York is a world filled with artists, poets, musicians, writers, intellectuals and psychoanalyst. It’s an oasis of art galleries, museums, books and neurosis. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” fills the air as Gordon Willis’ superb black and white photography paints a majestic world of urban beauty. Filmed in Cinemascope, the black and white images instill a sense of character with every image we see. The city itself is the main character in this film with everyone else in a supporting role.   John Baxter in his excellent biography on Woody states accurately, “While the opening montage recalls the unblinking succession of images with which Antonioni closed L’Eclisse in 1962, Allen’s use of the city as a character exactly parallel’s Fellini’s treatment of Rome in La Dolce Vita.” Baxter also notes other similarities including the ending “in which Marcello Mastroianni tries to talk to the girl on the beach, only to find they can’t communicate.” This easily parallels Isaac’s attempt to mend his relationship with Tracy just as she is leaving for London.

It’s one of Woody’s best written scripts, co-written by Marshall Brinkman, this was the third film they wrote together and the last time until they made “Manhattan Murder Mystery” in 1993. After “Interiors,” Woody promised his backers he would make a funny film…like his earlier works. “Manhattan” is not quite that, it’s more a comedy/drama than a flat out comedy like “Bananas” or “Sleeper.” This is a film about relationships, broken relationships, lost relationships. The film centers on Isaac Davis (Wood Allen), a 43 year old TV writer attempting to write his first serious novel. Isaac is having an affair with a seventeen year old high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), a college professor, though married to Emily,  is having an affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) a neurotic writer who is currently reviewing Tolstoy for an intelligencia magazine as well as writing novelizations of movies on the side. The tale takes a turn when Yale decides to break off his affair with Mary in hopes of saving his marriage. Isaac, with Yale’s knowledge, begins dating Mary, discarding the impressionable young Tracy who is heartbroken. A subplot involves Isaac’s problems with his caustic ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) who left him for a woman, taking their son, and is now writing her own book, “Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood,” a tell all about their life which Isaac fears will expose his sexual idiosyncrasies, a fear she does nothing to deny. A final twist occurs when Yale realizes he wants Mary back, abandoning his wife. Isaac, now alone tries in vain to win back Tracy who is leaving for London that same day.

I had not seen “Manhattan” in many years until I watched it again recently, yet I always considered it one of my favorite Woody Allen films. Other favorites, I have always watched over and over again, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Broadway Danny Rose” to name a few, yet I always skipped over this one. A fear began to build up that maybe, just maybe, the film could not live up to my memories, so I continued not watch it preferring to savor those precious memories and not be disappointed.  Well, my fears were happily unjustified, “Manhattan” is an exceptionally multifaceted film, smoothly transitioning between comedy, romance and drama like an exceptional multi course meal at an expensive restaurant topped off with a fine wine and, of course, with Gershwin in the background.

Isaac is surrounded by people with broken relationships, his ex-wife Jill, Yale his best friend whose having an affair with Mary who had split up with her best sexual partner ever, Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit appearance. With Tracy, Isaac has a chance at true love, if it is even possible between a 43 year old man and a 17 year old girl. Isaac is the only character, other than the still evolving Tracy, in the film who believes in monogamy which he expresses when he tells Yale, “I believe people should mate for life, like pigeons and Catholics.” Tracy cares for Isaac deeply, and though she is younger than everyone else she possesses an innocent kind of maturity, and maturity of any kind is something Isaac lacks.  His fatal flaw was not seeing Tracy as special or treating their relationship seriously which comes back to haunt him later when he finally realizes that despite their age difference, he might have blown he one chance at true love.

The film’s real love story, the true romance though is the one between Woody and his town, Manhattan. The opening montage of black and white shots are love letters to the one consistent lover in his life photographed on a canvas so lustrous as to make the entire borough look like one of the great wonders of the world. The entire film is one big love affair with the characters visiting one iconic New York location after another; row boating in Central Park, shopping at Zabar’s, the Guggenheim Museum, the 59th Street Bridge and on and on all to the melodic beauty of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

The cast consist of one fine performance after another by Michael Murphy, Meryl Streep and Anne Byrne.  Highlights though belong to Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway both who give inspired performances. A word about Woody, he is always accused of playing the same character and to an extent that is true, the mannerisms and nerdiness are always there. However, in the final scene of the film between Woody and Hemingway there is a underlying depth to his character, a restrained realization; he knows he missed his opportunity at true love yet he is desperately, selfishly, attempts to hold on to a time that has passed. Woody does this without any overly histrionic behavior, it low key and a thing of beauty.

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27 comments on “Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen

  1. Mary: “When you climb into the sack,
    if you’re a bit giving, they’re so grateful.”

    Isaac: “Yeah, I know I am.”
    ————-

    Astute observations about Woody’s fine performance. I always loved his realization about Tracy when he clears his throat during the “Things That make Life Worth Living” list. The break up scene with her is still tough for me to watch, because mariel does such a wonderful job of conveying hurt.

    Despite these things and all the other reasons you mention, there’s just something about this film I can’t warm to. Maybe it is the break up scene and how much it bothers me, or the fact that Yale is such a dirtbag, but I cannot rank it among my own top ten of Allen’s works. I do enjoy it as a snapshot of NYC, circa 1978-79. Another Michael Murphy film from the time, “An Unmarried Woman”, is another fine view of the city during that period (though my view of the film itself is also less than glowing).

    • John Greco says:

      C.K.,

      That final scene a heartbreaker, both characters are at a impasse, there is no way they can recapture the past. It’s really sad for both. Yale is a dirtbag and Michael Murphy plays him so convincingly. I have seen AN UNMARRIED WOMAN a few times but not in a very long time. The snapshot views of 70’s NYC are excellent also. I have to reserve comment on the film though I remember liking it quite a bite back then.

  2. vinnieh says:

    This is an excellent and well-written review. I can’t believe I haven’t seen Manhattan I really need to watch more of Woody Allen’s movies after reading your interesting review.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Vinnieh,

      IMHO one of his best, though admittedly I have a long list of best Woody Allen films, still it would rank high in the order. Hope you get to catch this soon.

  3. Another film I first saw as a New York City kid, at the old Olympia on 110th and Broadway, that made me realize how cool my city was; it was also the movie that introduced me to the music of Gershwin. This was a wonderful post and I am forever indebted to Woody for helping to shape the horny, neurotic artist in all of us.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much Michael! Yes, for many New Yorkers, including myself, Woody shaped our view of the city as a neurotic hub for the creative arts. I am pretty sure I saw this this at the Baronet on 3rd and 58th. In those days when a new Woody film came out I run up there right after work and catch it.

  4. vinnieh says:

    I will definately watch it soon. Just wondering if you have ever seen Interiors? I have heard conflicting opinions on it.

    • John Greco says:

      I did see INTERIORS but it was many years ago when it was first released. Very much in the Bergman mode. I really need to see it again to make a judgement.

  5. I have always had trouble thinking that Annie Hall was such a great movie. People have said how wonderful it was, and somehow I just never understood the allure. The first time I saw Manhattan I was blown away by how amazing it was. I think this is Allen’s best movie and I enjoy watching it on a regular basis. There is something about the love between Isaac and Tracy that seems real to me. Allen gives such a great performance as Isaac, and yet this movie has gone without proper attention for years. Perhaps it is the ending that I enjoy so much. The sense of hope, as well as my own faith in humanity being restored when Isaac goes back to Tracy. Without a doubt this is the Woody Allen movie that I always recommend for people to watch if they are looking for Allen’s best movies. Thanks for the post.

    • John Greco says:

      Paul,

      I love both ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. In a recent comedy I participated in I ranked number five so I guess we are are opposite ends of the pole here while i ranked MANHATTAN #12 on the list. I definitely agree on Woody’s performance, its excellent. The final scene is wonderflly human, almost heartbreaking. You feel for both characters. A great, great film.

      Thanks for sharing you thoughts here, Paul.

  6. This has and always will be my favorite Allen film. Wonderful write -up, makes me want to revisit again. God, I love this movie!

  7. FlickChick says:

    Wonderful review. I adore Woody – I believe he is a genius – and this is probably my favorite Woody film. The look, the music, the cast, all are things that make this film so perfect. One of the things I really love about Woody is that his love of film always shines through. That last scene with Mariel (who ends up being the most grown up in the end) is a tip of the hat to “City Lights.” So touching, yet you know how it must end.

    • John Greco says:

      FlickChick,

      Yep, the ending is one of the great endings in film. As you say, “So touching, yet you know how it must end.” Woody is one of my favorite fimmakers and as his most recent film, Midnight in Paris, proved he still has it in him.

  8. R. D. Finch says:

    John, as I read your post on “Manhattan” I kept recognizing my own reactions to the film in the things I was reading. I came late to an appreciation of Allen, and this was the film that really made me believe his talent wasn’t being overstated. I’ve always considered it my favorite of his films but like you didn’t rewatch it again for many years, wondering if I would like it as much the second time around. I did, and this was after seeing many other Allen movies in the meantime. I still think it’s his best movie and like a couple of others who left comments here prefer it to “Annie Hall.” Although I like Woody Allen and especially Diane Keaton (her performance is a classic) very much in “Annie Hall,” I think the acting, direction, and especially the writing are stronger in “Manhattan.” Woody’s perennial insecurity seems more than just a cute character quirk, here actually driving the outcome, and the concept of having the city (and the fabulous music of Gershwin) be such a big part of the movie gives it a depth and unity I don’t find in “Annie Hall.”

    Like you and others who commented here, I was quite moved by the ending. In someone else’s hands it might have seemed an obvious melodramatic contrivance. But here it strikes me as an incredibly poignant comment on how hesitation for intellectual reasons can lead to a missed opportunity for emotional happiness–the perils of following your head and not your heart where the emotions are concerned! For me no other Woody Allen film combines sweetness and sadness as effectively as this one does.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      Some fabulous thoughts here. I have always favored “Annie Hall” and that may be because I have not seen “Manhattan” until recently in such a long time, not sure. “Annie Hall” was a waterhshed film in Woody’s career and one of the great romantic comedies ranking up there with some of Tracy and Hepburn’s best. This not to take anything away from “Manhattan” only that I do not see it as much as a romantic comedy, it’s more serious in tone at times. BTW, totally agree with you on Diane Keaton’s performance in “Annie Hall.”

      In our friend Sam Juliano’s comedy countdown I ranked “Annie Hall” at #5 and “Manhattan” #12 which may seem like a big difference but it’s really not considering the titles listed in between. List like that are always flexible and I have toyed with submitting a revised list, which some other voters have done, not just because of “Manhattan but due to some other rankings also. Not sure if I will or not.

      • Sam Juliano says:

        John–

        By all means feel free to hand in a revised list, as it’s far more important to get it exactly right than it is to honor what really amounts to superficial deadlines. Needless to say I completely agree with you and R.D. on the greatness of this Allen masterwork, the one of two films by the director that is named regularly at the top of any Allen listings, along with ANNIE HALL. I can’t agree with you more on Gordon Willis’ gorgeous black and white cinematography, the Big Apple locations and some of the brightest dialogue Allen’s ever written. True be said it’s quintessential Woodman, and you’ve framed it perfectly!

      • John Greco says:

        Sam,- Thanks as always. I still may consider resubmitting a revised list within the next week. have a great one!

    • John, Early in Woody Allen’s directing career it seemed each successive movie of his was funnier than (or at least as funny as) the last. Then came “Annie Hall” and it was obvious he was much more than a purveyor of subversive/zany comedy. Though his work hasn’t been consistent, he’s delivered at least one outright classic per decade ever since. Not many can claim that in a career spanning five decades. He is one of only a few filmmakers who surfaced during the ’70s that can stilled be considered a relevant auteur. Love him. All that said, your review gets to the heart of everything that is marvelous about “Manhattan.” What comes to mind the moment I think of it is first, the gorgeousness of the city as filmed in b&w by Gordon Willis and, second, Gershwin. They are such powerful presences in the film, the introductory elements and the ever-present background to what is not quite a romantic comedy and yet not entirely a drama – that thing Woody does so very well.

      • John Greco says:

        “the ever-present background to what is not quite a romantic comedy and yet not entirely a drama…”

        Eve, I agree with you here totally, today nobody does this kind of film better. I have followed since his early days and in some ways grew with him, if that makes sense. I till love his early work but with as you mention with “Annie Hall” his work began to grow. I think there is only two or three of his films that I still need to find and watch.

  9. Judy says:

    Great piece, John, which has me wanting to watch this again. I haven’t seen it for years either but have always listed it among my favourite Allens too – the black and white photography and use of Gershwin’s music are wonderful. I’d almost forgotten that Meryl Streep was in this – must definitely revisit soon.

    • John Greco says:

      thanks Judy, After watching this time it does make me want to watch it again and again. As an FYI Woooy’s new film “To Rome, With Love” opens in New York this coming Friday. It looks like he is touring Europe in recent years going from England, to Spain to France and now Italy. I know this where most of his financing comes from these days which probably means he is more popular in Europe than he is in the U.S.

      • Judy says:

        Thanks, John, I’m looking forward to that one, especially as Woody is actually stepping back in front of the camera. No UK release date yet, I see – we had been gettiing his movies almost a year late here, but we only had a relatively short delay for ‘Midnight in Paris’, so I hope the distributors haven’t decided to make us wait again!

  10. John says:

    John,

    Very much enjoyed this reminder of one of my all time favorite films. My one difference with almost eveyone else who has seen the films is that from the first time I saw it in 1979 I was sure that Tracy and Issac did get back together, and are still together to this day.

    Obviously I was much younger when I first saw Manhattan, but am probably the same romantic optimist I was back then. I realize in real life the end of the film would have been the end of the relationship, but I always felft that Woody’s smile at the end did not mean “it was great while it lasted”, but “I will wait the six months.”

    • John Greco says:

      John,

      It’s certainly a possibility that they will get back together, we are left with both a poignant and ambiguous ending so we are never really sure. My only thought is Tracy is 17 and six months, for a 17 year old, is long time, then again…
      That is the joy of the ending here we in the audience can have it end anyway we desire.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John

  11. Manhattan | says:

    […] love story, the true romance though, is the one between Woody and his town,” writes John Greco of Twenty-Four Frames. “The opening montage of black and white shots are love letters to the one consistent lover in […]

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