“The worst thing that can happen is you’ll learn something about yourself.”—Yale
There’s a kind of romantic splendor that opens Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a kind of boyish awe and wonder; in Kubrick’s work, this feeling was turned towards the cosmos and a God’s-eye point-of-view of man, but in Allen’s it’s turned towards a single city, and an all-too painfully human, inside-out view of people. Some artists need the entire universe to find the universe, but Allen could see it all from his city and his persona and all the others who inhabited it. It’s not just the opening musical montage—brilliantly staged to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—that sets Manhattan apart from any Allen film up to that point, there’s also the gorgeously textured black-and-white, widescreen photography, courtesy of Gordon Willis. Allen’s voice-over is familiar and so is the humor, the self-doubt and the self-reflexivity, but it’s set in a more somber key than we’re used to from Woody, even as the imagery is flamboyantly celebratory.
The plot really doesn’t involve anything unique for an Allen film. Here, Allen’s persona is Isaac, a successful comedy TV writer who is dating a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac is also friends with an English teacher named Yale (Michael Murphy) and his wife, Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman). Early on, Yale reveals to Isaac that he’s having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), a high-strung, opinionated writer who has recently moved to the city. Mary and Isaac certainly don’t hit it off as their first meeting involves her insulting his taste in art and committing the unpardonable sin of claiming that Ingmar Bergman is overrated. To make matters worse, Isaac’s ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) is writing a book all about their relationship, which ended when she became a lesbian and married Connie (Karen Ludwig).
Certainly, Allen’s persona here isn’t so different from what it had been in the past; he’s still playing the lovable, intellectual, nervous, geeky, yet somehow attractive to the ladies loser. Yet, there’s a palpable change. Perhaps not by leaps and bounds but by many subtle steps and degrees. There’s a world-weariness in Manhattan that’s difficult to pin down. Even the funniest dialogue seems to consistently carry a cynical, regretful undertone. Words not so much delivered in witty, spirited quips, but in sighs and whispers. If Allen has always been accused of playing the same character, Manhattan is where we get closest to the real person. Here, more than ever, Allen seems acutely aware of the masks people wear, and here, more than ever, it seems so fragile, always on the verge of breaking and revealing the deep, likely dark truths underneath.
There’s a constant tension in the film between the characters’ personas and their real feelings. As Allen scolds Yale for near the end of the film: “You rationalize everything; you’re not honest with yourself”. The same accusation could be applied to everyone here. These are characters that have played the game of “I should be” for so long they’ve truly lost the “I am”. The film is nothing if not ruthless in its subversions of these rationalizations. In one scene, Isaac tells Mary that he tried to run over his ex-wife and her girlfriend with a car, then he spends the rest of the film denying it happened, claiming it was an accident. Mary tells Isaac: “Oh, what is pretty anyway? I hate being pretty. It’s all so subjective anyway,” only to later proclaim to Yale, as they’re breaking up, “I’m a beautiful woman. I’m young, highly intelligent. I got everything going for me.”
It’s truly Mary’s next line that perfectly encapsulates the film and its characters: “The point is that… I don’t know, I’m all fucked up. I’m just… Shit!” In a film where its characters are always so knowing, it’s only when they finally admit their flaws and failings that that dark grain of truth emerges. The problem is that the self-deception is so deeply entrenched that even when the characters’ hearts are in the right place, they still manage to get everything utterly wrong. From the beginning, Isaac insists that he can’t take Tracy seriously because she’s 17. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you… you’ll think of me always as a fond memory,” he says, completely ignorant of his own feelings for her, much less her deep feelings for him. Yale insists he can’t leave Emily, more out of custom than any real passion, so he dumps Mary, only to beg her to come back after she and Isaac get together.
But these elements mostly reside in the realm of writing where Allen has always been a master. In Manhattan his authorial strengths have just been refined to their sharpest point, but it’s truly in the visual language where he’s made the grandest improvements. Although, Manhattan doesn’t deserve all the credit, as Interiors, the film Allen released the year prior, was quite accomplished in its own right. That film also found Allen dealing with damaged characters who were suffering because of their lack of understanding of themselves and others. But Interiors was set almost entirely in a tragic, dramatic, grave mood, while Manhattan certainly tempers its dramatic heaviness with comedy, sometimes to the point they seamlessly fuse into one entity that’s as hilarious as it is poignant.
But, to the visuals. This was Allen’s first film in widescreen and black & white, and he seems to have taken the change seriously. He consistently shoots farther back, composing his characters as subjects in a wider context. That context is most frequently the city itself, and just as Allen’s writing attempts to dig into the psyches of his characters, his camera attempts to dig into the city. There are some stunning frames, perhaps most noticeably the shot of Mary and Isaac staring out over the water towards a bridge, as well as the interior of Isaac’s apartment, with its spiral staircase on the far right and the couch on the far left, separated by a sea of blackness. The planetarium scene is another highlight that has Allen and Willis masterfully tracing these shadow characters in thin light.
The visuals aren’t just for superficial prettiness, though, as there’s also a maturity and sophistication to the language. There’s a motif of characters talking to others off-screen, perhaps a visual metaphor for the lack of connection. There’s a motif of characters walking off-screen leaving empty spaces, perhaps a visual metaphor for the emptiness in the characters’ own lives. There’s also a nuanced touch to the editing. Manhattan is such a fluid film, with scenes practically flowing into scenes. Yet, sometimes, the scenic juxtapositions are abrupt and dramatically potent. One of the most romantic scenes in the film, Isaac’s carriage ride with Tracy through Central Park at night, cuts to a scene of Mary and Yale loudly bickering over their relationship. The former scene finds Allen uttering some of the most memorable lines in the film: “You’re God’s answer to Job. You would have ended all argument between them. He’d have said ‘I do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these’, and Job would’ve said ‘OK, you win’.”
The choice of black & white itself seems to echo the old-time romanticism that Isaac alludes to in the opening voice-over monologue and, indeed, Manhattan surely must be one of the most romantic films of the ’70s. But it’s undoubtedly a modern romanticism, tinged with a darker, psychological and sexual realism that is constantly clashing against the more innocent notions of the term. One gets the feeling that the romanticism is frequently little more than a necessary fantasy to cover the ugliness underneath. For a character so concerned with righteous morality and honesty, we can’t help but marvel at Isaac’s hypocrisy toward his ex-wife’s book, and it’s likely that Allen never more ruthlessly analyzed himself as in that book:
“He was given to fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life, but never solutions. He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissism.”
Indeed, Allen has often been accused of all of these things, and they’re the very things that give his artistry that idiosyncratic personality that audiences either love or loathe. But there’s no denying that Allen saw it in himself, and was willing to expose it to the world when necessary. But that self-analysis was never more penetrating than it was here, perhaps precisely because it’s wrapped up in so much humor and romance. In a recent review for the film, Roger Ebert said that he came to realize the film wasn’t about love, but loss. But what’s been lost? The true sense of self would be one thing. It’s telling that the most honest character in the film is the 17-year-old Tracy, who never has to resort to the self-deluding games the others play. And what does it say about Isaac that he won’t allow himself to be with the one character in the film who is so honest?
The honesty of the character serves as the backbone for two of the most powerful scenes in all of Allen’s cinema. The first involves their initial break-up. Isaac has fallen for Mary, whom he deems more appropriate for him. He takes Tracy to a diner and tells her the news in the same subtly patronizing way he’s talked to her throughout the film. But Tracy breaks down in tears, and here is where Mariel Hemingway’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination, as it is so heartbreakingly genuine that even Allen’s comedic quips can’t salvage the moment. Beyond the performance, the lines themselves are shattering. Hemingway delivers “Gee, now I don’t feel so good” and “You state it like it’s to my advantage when it’s you that wants to get out of it” with such a directness that strips away all of the film’s romanticized emotion to raw pain.
Near the end, after Isaac’s relationship with Mary has bitterly ended, he finally has a chance to pause in reflection. In the film’s most quietly poignant moment Isaac says into a tape recorder:
“An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves ‘cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. Well, all right, why is life worth living? Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.”
He begins by naming his favorite art—Groucho Marx, Swedish films, Cezanne—but ends with “Tracy’s face,” and can’t help but pause, and stop. By the end, Tracy is ready to leave and move on, but Isaac has had the revelation that he was never happier than when he was with her. He rushes to confront her, just catching her in time before she leaves. He pleads with her to stay, surely knowing how selfish and immature his actions have been (and are now).
The film ends with Tracy telling Isaac he must have faith in people, and the camera cuts to Allen’s reaction shot, which moves through so many silent thoughts and emotions with a deep humanity and grace (that was unheard of in Allen’s acting to this point) as the finale of Rhapsody in Blue swells on the soundtrack. Allen’s look is almost reminiscent of the beautiful, complex simplicity of Chaplin’s final look in City Lights. Knowing Allen, the similarity was likely intentional. And what better way to close than with the Gershwin that started at all? Throughout the film, if the camera has captured the tones through images, then Gershwin’s music has done it aurally. In Gershwin, Allen truly found a composer that could capture the American spirit in all its gusto and grandiose classicism, but equally its smaller, more human moments. Even Rhapsody in Blue itself seems to enfold all of those moods into itself.
Manhattan is deserving of its reputation as perhaps Allen’s greatest film. It was certainly his most refined film up until then, perfecting the authorial cleverness while introducing a visual maturity. But the real triumph of the film is in how devastatingly honest it is. Even its lies seem to only exist to highlight their distance from the truth. But only Allen could find that truth without sinking into dour, Bergman-like depths. Manhattan may be his darkest film, but it’s the same darkness found in Renoir and Lubitsch comedies. Allen couldn’t have found a better film to cite that Isaac loved than The Grand Illusion, as Allen’s is a film full of characters wrapped in their grandiose illusions. It is a comedy, and a frequently hilarious one at that, but its target is the farce that is mankind and the relationships therein.