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Movie of the Day: Manhattan (1979)

“Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be...”
“Manhattan” does not fit the normal template for a successful film. In 1979, black-and-white photography had been out of favour in the cinema for over a decade. The film has little in the way of action, with more attention paid to dialogue and character development. Although there is humour, and the plot concerns the emotional entanglements of a group of friends, it is not a romantic comedy in the normal sense of the term. All the above points might seem to be weaknesses, and in some films they would have been. In Woody Allen's hands, however, what might have been weaknesses become strengths.
The central character in the film is Isaac Davis, a writer, played by Woody Allen himself. Isaac is divorced from his bisexual wife Jill, who is now involved in a lesbian relationship, and is dating Tracy, a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl. Isaac, however, is also finding himself drawn to Mary, the mistress of his best friend Yale. Yale is married and conducting a secret affair with Mary, who is becoming dissatisfied with the relationship because Yale seems reluctant to leave his wife Emily.
The above outline of the plot might give the impression that it is all very much standard Woody Allen stuff; the emotional difficulties of a bunch of self-centred, neurotic middle-class New Yorkers. Such an impression would be, at most, a half-truth. Although Woody has dealt with similar material in a number of other films (most recently in "Melinda and Melinda"), "Manhattan" represents one of his greatest accomplishments, rising above even his own normal high standards. The main reasons for this are the quality of the acting and the quality of the script. All six of the main roles are played very well. Emily and Jill may be minor characters in terms of on-screen time, but both are important in terms of their contributions to the plot. Anne Byrne's Emily is attractive, but we can sense a certain coolness and reserve about her and understand how her husband might have been drawn to another, more vivacious, woman. Jill (Meryl Streep in one of her earliest film roles) hides her bitterness and vindictiveness beneath a veneer of honesty and truthfulness. She publishes a book which she claims is an honest account of her marriage and divorce but which in reality is merely a device for revenging herself on her ex-husband.
The other four main characters form a sort of eternal quadrilateral instead of the more usual triangle. Isaac is a nervous, insecure intellectual who uses a sort of self-deprecating humour as a cover for his insecurities. This is the sort of part that we have come to associate with Woody Allen, but he has seldom played it as well as he does here. There is perhaps less concentration on humour than in some Allen films, but even so Isaac still manages to deliver some classic lines. ("I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics"). Diane Keaton's Mary is outgoing and lively but also conceited, self-centred and something of a pseudo-intellectual. She and Yale, another self-centred character, probably deserve each other. For me, however, the best and most perfectly-judged contribution came from Mariel Hemingway as Tracy, played here not as a precociously seductive Lolita or as a spoilt brat but as a charming but vulnerable girl next door. Perhaps more important, however, than any individual performance is the way in which the characters relate to one another; it is a film where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A musical analogy might be with a quartet, where a small group play together in harmony, rather than with a concerto which is dominated by one bravura performance.
Like many other lovers of this film, I was particularly impressed by the striking black-and-white photography of New York locations, particularly in the opening scenes. As one might expect from a director who is himself a talented musician, Woody normally pays a lot of attention to his musical scores; here the music of George Gershwin, particularly his "Rhapsody in Blue", seems very appropriate to the mood of the film. These factors contribute greatly to the success of this film, but for me it is perhaps most memorable as Woody's most penetrating analysis of human relationships. It is a film that I find more in every time I see it… 10/10


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