Manhattan: Rhapsody in Black and White

manhattanAfter finishing Manhattan, Woody Allen was desperately unhappy with the results. It went so far that Allen begged United Artists not to release it, offering to make another movie for free as long as Manhattan didn’t see the light of day. Fortunately, the studio refused the offer and released what has become one of the movies that most frequently tops lists of the director’s best. An irresistible blend of the styles Allen explored in Annie Hall (1977) and Interiors (1978), it has also become one of his most controversial.

Isaac Davis (Allen) is a 42-year-old comedy writer for TV who’s been married twice. His most recent ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is now dating a woman and has written a book about their marriage, a fact that is very unnerving for Isaac. He’s currently dating a 17-year-old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), whom he is introducing to the world of fine arts in Manhattan. One of his best friends is college professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) who’s married but seeing another woman, Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), whom Isaac considers an unattractive cultural snob.

Later, he meets Mary again at a fundraising event and spends the night talking with her and getting to know her. Things are about to change when Yale breaks up with Mary and Isaac tells Tracy that she’s too young for him…

Wonderful shots of New York
The film’s opening is a stunner. We get a series of wonderful shots of New York City to the tunes of George Gershwin’s ”Rhapsody in Blue”, ending majestically with fireworks lighting up the skyline. It’s a moving and astonishing tribute to a city that really was in decline at the time thanks to economic problems and rising crime.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis, ”the prince of darkness”, captures the city from its best angles and has helped cement how we think of the Big Apple. Shooting the film in widescreen black-and-white is a bold move, but the big canvas helps turn the city into a character and the old-fashioned play between light and darkness emphasizes an aura that is both romantic and melancholic. It’s not just the opening that has become classic. There’s a very cool scene at the Hayden Planetarium that is shot in almost complete darkness, and then there’s the early-morning sequence at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, now an iconic part of cinema history. The script, which was written by Annie Hall collaborators Allen and Marshall Brickman, ditches the playfulness of that movie and goes for a more traditionally told story about love affairs in the big city. Focus lies on a man who is always dating but perpetually unhappy with everyone he’s seeing. In the final encounter between Isaac and Tracy, it’s up to a teenage girl to make this grown man understand the errors of his ways. Looking back at how he’s handled his romances during the course of the movie, it is easy to judge Isaac, but going back to individual scenes it’s not hard to sympathize with his doubts and see how things turn out the way they do.

Meant to be ironic and comical, the romance between Isaac and Tracy has become a bit too much to take for those who no longer can enjoy some of Allen’s work, in light of persistent accusations against him that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan. Personally, I’m trying to distance myself from all of that, simply for the sake of this film that deserves to be lauded as it is.

The director finds a marvelous balance between comedy and sadness. Keaton’s role is very different from Annie Hall, but she’s just as convincing here. And Hemingway gets a terrific breakthrough as the girl who deserves better than Isaac.

Manhattan 1979-U.S. 96 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Charles H. Joffe. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Cast: Woody Allen (Isaac Davis), Diane Keaton (Mary Wilkie), Michael Murphy (Yale Pollack), Mariel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne… Wallace Shawn, Karen Allen.

BAFTA: Best Film, Screenplay.

Last word: “I wanted to make a film that was more serious than ‘Annie Hall’, a serious picture that had laughs in it. I felt decent about ‘Manhattan’ at the time I did it; it does go farther than ‘Annie Hall’. But I think now I could do better. Of course, if my film makes one more person feel miserable, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.” (Allen, “Woody Allen: Interviews”)

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