Read

Why Manhattan is the definitive Woody Allen film

Scroll to content

Writer Nick Bugeja explains why Manhattan is Woody Allen at his best.

Woody Allen has crafted a long, successful career as a writer-director-actor. He's directed 47 films so far, and that number looks to increase at one per year until he dies. It could be said that Allen is an embodiment of the cinema, and his name forever tied to its successes. His 70s and 80s films in particular carried an unshakeably confident sense of authorship that has meant his films are as aesthetically and thematically recognisable as those of his idols, Kurosawa and Bergman (in Manhattan, Allen’s Isaac Davis is quick to rebuke Diane Keaton’s Mary when she claims Bergman is overrated).

So it's to be expected that there are disputes over what is Allen’s definitive film. By ‘definitive’, I don’t mean best, or most entertaining. I mean the film that is most quintessentially Allenian. Some might say Annie Hall while other make the case for Crimes and Misdemeanours. For me it's Manhattan, Woody Allen’s romantic but pensive take on love and relationships in his city, New York.

Manhattan opens in breathtaking style: we are immediately blessed with shots of the finest sights of New York- the city skyline, the Queensboro bridge, the interior of the Guggenheim. Allen’s voiceover as Isaac embeds itself into the images, and we get the sense that it is Allen speaking, not Isaac. Or perhaps that Isaac and Allen are indivisible from one another. Allen’s nasally voice labours over each word it emits, constantly revising itself in order to find the right words to describe his relationship to New York City. He begins swept up in his love for it (‘He adored New York City, he idolised it all out of proportion’) and finds his way to a bitter encapsulation of it (‘He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary society’). Allen’s final summation of the city is a more circumspect, balanced one: ‘He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved’. Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ rhythmically plays alongside Allen’s ramblings, which contributes another layer to the image that is being conjured. It is clear that we are seeing and hearing New York through Allen’s perspective.

The cinematography of the opening scene sets Manhattan up well, establishing the immersive portrait that Allen so obviously desires. Importantly, Gordon Willis’ cinematography maintains that assured handle over the images he presents, both in the grandiose shots of the city and in the more intimate, closed-off spaces of bedrooms, apartment lobbies and cramped restaurants. Willis’ ability to shift from capturing the bigness of the city to the microcosms of Isaac and his companions talking in confined rooms is remarkable. This is best evidenced in the fact that the opening sequence of New York landmarks is followed by a scene with Isaac, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne) having dinner together in a small restaurant. Without having uttered a word, Willis’ cinematography is able to convey one of Allen’s foremost ideas: that New York is a melting pot for human encounters and romantic relationships.

It would be remiss not to mention the rich black-and-white image of Manhattan itself. It seems to both harken back to the golden days of New York, while also affording it a prominence and timelessness that no other film has done.

Isaac and Tracy looking at groceries in a store

Though the themes inherent within Manhattan feel specifically Allenian, they are also timeless and ubiquitous. It's just that Allen has been the best at dealing with them. Allen has always thrived in exploring the fraught yet compelling nature of romantic relationships, and Manhattan is the most layered manifestation of this.

At the beginning of the film Isaac is with 17-year-old Tracy. Yale is married to Emily but having an affair with Mary. Isaac is unsure about whether he should be in a relationship with a girl that age at all, but sure the relationship will soon expire. During his verbal squabbles about Tracy and him, we cannot escape the thought that Isaac is trying to tarnish the relationship. Perhaps, he's scared of Tracy leaving him for a younger, more vital man. Isaac is constantly telling Tracy not to get too attached to him, but it could be a kind of defense mechanism. If Tracy leaves him, he can chalk it up to his own encouragement. After all, women have left him before. Isaac’s ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman.

Two lovers in a room angry at each other

Like Isaac, both Yale and Mary are uncertain about their relationship. Both profess to love each other, but remain sceptical about the longevity of their connection. It is only after Yale and Mary parting ways that Yale realises that she is an indispensable part of his life. This is of course a problem, because in the interim, Isaac and Mary have begun dating. For Allen, this mess is the defining feature of relationships. Humans cannot repress what they feel for others, even if it means discarding all sense of order in the process.

At the same time, Manhattan is more critical of the retrospectivity and petulance of the relationships in the film. It seems that both Isaac and Yale only wake up to their romantic realities once they have ended. Their tendencies to remember and idealise the past is damaging, and destined to lead down a path of loss and dysfunction. Similarly, Isaac’s attempt to win back Tracy is embellished with a childish insecurity. He wants her back because he has lost Mary. Tracy is only an adolescent, and Isaac sees her as a resort where he can have power. What Yale and Isaac both share in common is a desire for control, something they cannot have with Mary, an intelligent, extroverted and volatile woman.

Manhattan, though, is far from bleak. It is laced with Allen’s acerbic wit, and constantly remembers to satirise the turbulence of modern relationships. Even though Isaac’s attempts to drive Jill’s lover over come from a place of emotion, Allen’s execution of the line ‘I tried to run her off the road’ could not be funnier. Even in the most inappropriate of moments, Allen’s Isaac cannot help but take refuge in comedy. It is as though smart one-liners and jokes are Isaac’s default state, a place in which he is protected from the harshness of the endeavours of love.

Manhattan represents Allen at his most self-examining and romantic. It melds three of his greatest fascinations: Jazz, New York, and romance. It is very rare in film that a director can explore the spectrum of love and romance, but Allen does and in the process augments Manhattan’s truthfulness. Its ending is focused on the undying optimism we must have if we are to continue search for completeness, and what better place to find that than in New York City.

Our screenings of Manhattan run from 21 January to 6 February.