Saturday Editor’s Pick: Manhattan (1979)

by on January 22, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Jan 27 & Sat Jan 28 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


For the regularly recurring “See It Big!” series, MOMI continues to scout out “the best available versions” of big screen essentials, “from beautifully restored 35mm and 70mm prints to new digital restorations. ”


We’re proud to announce that among the many tantalizing donor rewards offered in our upcoming Kickstarter campaign is an original Manhattan one-sheet autographed by Allen himself (plus others including Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman, and Martin Scorsese). Woody, Wes, and Marty support Alt Screen, and you should too! Stay tuned for details.


Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

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.


Bilge Ebiri for New York Magazine:

Annie Hall is great, but Manhattan is the most refined distillation of Woody Allen’s sensibility and his best film. I’ve always believed that it was Woody’s response to 2001: A Space Odyssey: The scene in the planetarium, and the scene framing Woody next to a skeleton suggest that it’s a very human and ground-level reply to those who would seek to find the meaning of life from Olympian heights (or expensive sci-fi epics). Even the celebrated shots of Manhattan emerging to “Rhapsody in Blue” evoke the Monolith emerging to “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The whole film is Woody saying, “If you can’t find meaning on the city blocks around you, you’re not going to find it.” It’s an absolutely perfect film, one of the few that, a hundred, two hundred years from now, they’ll still be watching, [AFI Top 100] list or not.


Time Out New York:

This is a deeply self-critical film about immaturity and the gift of real love. Many films can be said to put an epitaph on the decade, but few remain as relevant.
Despite—or perhaps because of—a ridiculously romanticized portrait of the borough after which the film was named, this stunningly beautiful, erotic-as-hell roundelay remains Woody Allen’s finest overall achievement. Everything from Gordon Willis’s marvelous black-and-white cinematography to the Woodman’s opening narration (“Chapter one: He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.”) to Mariel Hemingway’s wiser-than-her-meager-years romantic interest makes this a peerless portrait of a time, a place and a certain type of Upper West Side neurosis circa the late ’70s. See it with someone you love, in a city you both idolize all out of proportion.



Vincent Canby gushes for the New York Times:

“Manhattan” moves on from both “Interiors” and “Annie Hall,” being more effectively critical and more compassionate than the first and more witty and clear-eyed than the second. There is a sense of applied romance here, especially in the soundtrack use of some of the lushest melodies ever written by George Gershwin, as well as in Mr. Allen’s decision to have Gordon Willis photograph “Manhattan” in the kind of velvety black-and-white I associate with old M-G-M films like “East Side, West Side” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” The movie looks so good that it looks unreal, which, in this day and age of film and fashion, is to go so far out that you’re back in.
What happens is not the substance of “Manhattan” as much as how it happens. The movie is full of moments that are uproariously funny and others that are sometimes shattering for the degree in which they evoke civilized desolation.
The screenplay is so vivid you may feel as if you’ve met characters who are only references in the dialogue. One of these is Mary Wilke’s psychiatrist, Donny, who calls her up at 3 A.M. and weeps. The on-screen characters are beautifully played by, among others, Mr. Murphy and Miss Streep. Miss Keaton and Miss Hemingway are superb — the effect of Miss Hemingway’s performance being directly responsible for the unexpected impact of Mr. Allen’s penultimate moment in the film, which should not be described here. I suspect there will be much more to say about “Manhattan” in the future. Mr. Allen’s progress as one of our major film makers is proceeding so rapidly that we who watch him have to pause occasionally to catch our breath.


Andrew Sarris gets deliriously giddy too, for the Village Voice:

Woody Allen’s Manhattan has materialized out of the void as the one truly great American film of the ’70s. It tops Annie Hall in brilliance, wit, feeling, and articulation, though it is less of a throbbing valentine to a lost love, and more of a meditation on an overexamined life. As a carnival of the sexes, it can be mentioned in the same breath with such previous masterpieces as Max Ophuls’s Madame de …, Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, and Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story….
Manhattan is comparable to such epiphanies of my movie-reviewing career as Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana in 1962, Richard Lester’s and the Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, and Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s in 1970. At a time when even the most discerning film critics seem to be mesmerized by gaudy, growly, weepy, inarticulate firework displays masquerading as movies, Allen has returned us to square one with an authentic talking picture about recognizably motivated human beings. I now suspect that Interiors, far from being a detour, was a necessary step in Allen’s artistic progression from Annie Hall to Manhattan. Never in Manhattan does Allen compromise his mise-en-scene by enslaving it to a transient and thus ultimately disorienting sight gag. Instead, an ironic counterpoint is established from the outset between the verbal and the visual, between the satire and the romance, between the intellectual perception and the emotional projection. For once, Allen’s jokes do not jump off the screen so much as they remain embedded in the mise-en-scene. And yet the jokes are funnier than ever, though the loud guffaws of the past may be replaced by a rippling merriment now that the intervals of nonjokes are so much more engrossing psychologically and dramatically.


J. Hoberman, considers Sarris’s response and more, in an essential piece for for The Village Voice:

Manhattan is not just Woody Allen’s dream movie. Wistful as it is witty, it’s his dream of the movies. Forty-four when he made Manhattan (1979), Allen was never more vividly himself than as the self-absorbed, Nazi-obsessed, horny TV wri ter and babe magnet Isaac. Manhattan is famously a movie about relating to “relationships,” but the key relationship is to oneself. All the characters, save the sublimely innocent Tracy, are in analysis and/or working on a book—most provocatively, Isaac’s second ex-wife (a scary Meryl Streep), who has written a hostile memoir of their marriage. With this character, Allen acknowledges the Other.
Solipsism reigns supreme. No less than Quentin Tarantino, Allen can be the sum of his references; this is the movie where he offers his checklist of what makes life worth living, beginning with Groucho Marx. You are what you dig. Mary is defined by her snotty dismissal of Ingmar Bergman and Tracy by her incongruous enthusiasm for W.C. Fields. Fetishes abound, but art is what makes a fetish potent beyond its cult, and Manhattan is the Woody Allen movie where it all came together. The city is gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Gordon Willis; the apartments are lovingly cluttered with cultural detritus; the mainly East Side locations have been fastidiously selected. Every line is a one-liner, but the dialogue flows—it’s not only funny but also seamless. “You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eye on the meter,” Isaac exclaims as he takes Mary home from their first date.
What’s most authentic about Manhattan is its fantasy. The New York City that Woody so tediously defended in Annie Hall was in crisis. And so he imagined an improved version. More than that, he cast this shining city in the form of those movies that he might have seen as a child in Coney Island—freeing the visions that he sensed to be locked up in the silver screen. In a way, Manhattan is Allen’s personal Purple Rose of Cairo—the movie in which he successfully projects himself into Hollywood make-believe. It’s his version of an Astaire and Rogers musical, as romantic as Casablanca, as slickly metropolitan as Sweet Smell of Success. It’s also as haunting a celebration of the transitory as a Lumiére actualité.


Interesting read: Joan Didion takes Allen to task on Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Interiors for the New York Review of Books.

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

I had forgotten what perfect pitch Woody Allen brought to ”Manhattan’ ‘– how its tone and timing slip so gracefully between comedy and romance. I hadn’t seen it in years, and remembered mostly the broad outlines, the one-liners, the romance between a middle-aged man and a high school girl. Seeing it again I realize it’s more subtle, more complex, and not about love, but loss. There are a lot of songs on the soundtrack, but the one that speaks for the hero says ”they’re playing songs of love, but not for me.

The movie is not really about love in the present, but love in the past–about the wistful pain when we realize we had a beautiful thing, and screwed it up. In a more conventional movie, Yale and Mary would be the central couple, and Isaac and Tracy would be their best friends; authors since Shakespeare have mirrored their heroic lovers with comedic counterpoints, but Allen’s whole career is based on making the secondary characters heroic. The relationship of Isaac and Mary is not a romantic comedy, then, but complex and tricky, and unforgiving in the way it sees Isaac running in place because he doesn’t know whether to run toward Mary or away from her.

It is at the same time a breathtaking hymn to the idea of being in love in Manhattan, a place Allen loves. The opening shot is a stunner, looking West across Central Park at dawn while Gershwin’s ”Rhapsody in Blue” does what it always does–makes us feel transcendent. The locations are like an anthology of Manhattan shrines. All of these locations and all of these songs would not have the effect they do without the widescreen black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the best-photographed movies ever made.



S.T. VanAirsdale interviews cinemtographer Gordon Willis, for The Reeler:

Manhattan hasn’t aged a day; it feels like a film that not only longtime collaborators could have made, but has a purity of expression that you and Woody Allen likely really had to work up to. At what point in your relationship did he propose the idea, particularly that it would be black-and-white?
After the completion of Annie Hall we simply proceeded to shoot Manhattan. Woody felt New York should be in black-and-white… we both did. I pushed for anamorphic (widescreen) because I like the graphics…. thought it would be a very good combination for the picture…….. Widescreen…. black-and-white. I think we talked about shooting it at lunch one day. We both like the same things….. it was an easy decision.
Of course, most of your films haven’t aged much — even the period work in The Godfather Part II looks and feels wholly contemporary. It sounds kind of silly, but is there a specific factor in your approach that adjusts or compensates for something like era? How did it apply in Manhattan?

Aside from doing what I think is appropriate for the movie……. there is no factor. You fit the punishment to the crime….. so to speak. What finally shows up on the screen is something that comes out of you. If I do anything, it’s that I take away…. I don’t add… I don’t embellish. The thing that you want to do is take a sophisticated idea and reduce it to the simplest possible terms…. so that it’s accessible to everyone. Generally the opposite happens, people take a stand-alone idea and tie into knots. Very few people understand the elegance of Simplicity. I hate clutter…. or motion confused with accomplishment. Two people can look at the same thing, they don’t always see the same thing. I think with Woody, we would always see the same thing. We both love New York.



Tony Pellum for Culture Cartel:

Much of Manhattan‘s magnificence is due to the fact that it is seemingly unclassifiable, but unmistakably romantic comedy. Allen knows how romantic comedy works, both thematically and formally. One look at It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby will lie out the framework for the romantic comedy Allen reconstructs. In these classic, quintessential screwball comedies, lovers move from careful one-shot to two-shot compositions, always bringing the couple together in such a way that the audience knows who will end up together before the characters do.
Of the complicated relationships that are manifest throughout Manhattan, the one that works best is no less complex. The relationship between Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is complicated in that she is less than half his age and still in high school. In what would be a typically romantic scene in conventional Hollywood cinema (thought this particular scenario would never manifest itself in traditional Hollywood cinema), Isaac descends the stairs to the right of the frame and moves to sit on the sofa with Tracy at the left of the shot. Yet, though the two are framed together, it would be hard-pressed to call the composition a two-shot. They are seen in extreme long-shot, barely recognizable if not for the voices, and far left of center. This is the least conventional “romantic” two-shot of anything in romantic comedy through the 1970s, as the detached camera work expresses the intrinsic problems of the relationship.

Allen forces the camera to become a recognizable tool that draws attention to itself—almost an omniscient character rather than a subversive apparatus. Yet Manhattan is much greater than the camerawork. The visuals are, quite uncynically, breathtaking. Perhaps a love deeper than any relationship explored throughout the course of the film is Allen’s love for New York City. If Allen deconstructs the idea of the romantic, there is no cynicism in Allen’s directorial eye and Gordon Willis’s cinematography. One need look no further than the cover to see that Allen can make the 59th Street Bridge become a place you’d actually feel safe observing from a park bench at night. Only in the movies.


Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

It seems incredible to think that there could still be things to be discovered in a movie which we’ve all seen so often – and yet I think there are. That enigmatic final encounter between Allen and Yale’s wife, played by Anne Byrne Hoffman, struck me as never before. She is notably relaxed and worldly about the news of Yale’s infidelity, especially considering that it means the end of her marriage – and the scene is arguably symptomatic of Woody Allen’s lenient, male-centred view of extra-marital affairs.
But it’s her final, gentle rebuke to him that made me sit up: that she was a little angry with him for having introduced her husband to Mary. Isaac looks reserved, and for good reason: the truth is the other way around. Yale introduced him to Mary: Yale’s wife is therefore completely unaware of how long the affair has been going on, and will presumably go to her grave in this state of ignorance, in which Isaac will be complicit. I had never realised this before.
Manhattan is a great film about love in and love for New York.


Richard Corliss for Film Comment (May/June 1979):

Annie Hall 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 (Panavision): 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 offscreen 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 comicstrip 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 bigscreen 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 Aliens – actor, writer, director, persona – a lot of faith.


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