There hasn’t been a new Woody Allen film in cinemas since Café Society last September – a long gap for the prolific director who makes at least one film every year. Until his latest, Wonder Wheel, gets a release date, we can fill the gap with the 4K re-release of one of his classics.
Manhattan dates back to 1979 and has a regular slot in all those “best films” – as does its predecessor, Annie Hall (1977). It was the earlier movie that won Oscars, while Manhattan had to make do with just two nominations, yet there’s many who would argue it’s his best work.
Allen is on his favourite and most familiar territory – his beloved New York and Manhattan in particular. This time he’s Isaac, a comedy scriptwriter in his 40s, whose girlfriend, Tracy (Merial Hemingway) is 17 years old. At the same time, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with journalist Mary (Diane Keaton). Initially, she and Isaac don’t get on but, over time, an attraction develops and he breaks up with his girlfriend to be with her. But the complications don’t end there, as Mary slowly discovers that she’s still in love with Yale after all ……
Bubbling away underneath all that amorous angst are a couple of sub-plots. Isaac impulsively throwing in the towel as a comedy scriptwriter so that he can write a novel. And his second ex-wife’s (Meryl Streep) plans to write a book about the acrimonious break up of their marriage. While the two make interesting little diversions from the main storyline, their real purpose is to deepen the portrait of Isaac’s character. Sure, he’s the neurotic, middle aged man that we associate with Allen, but now he has that book to worry about along with everything else: he’s frantic at the thought that the world will find out about all his inadequacies.
Manhattan is a rom-com in the truest sense of the word – decidedly romantic and brilliantly comedic in equal measure. The romance doesn’t just begin and end with the film’s tangled relationships, it runs throughout the film, which has often been described as Allen’s love letter to New York, exquisitely photographed in black and white. That Brooklyn Bridge shot that everybody remembers not only looks beautiful, but it also exemplifies the film’s quirky cinematic style, positioning the main characters in a scene on either the extreme right or extreme left, allowing the audience to absorb everything in the carefully composed frame.
On the comedy side, just about every single line is laden with crisp, finger-snapping wit and there are so many good, if not great, lines that it’s impossible to remember many of them afterwards. If that’s a fault, it’s a good one to have. But the occasional one will stick. Such as when Mary reveals that her first husband was her university lecturer but that he didn’t show her any favour when it came to her grades. “You were sleeping with him and he gave you an F?” exclaims Isaac, eyebrows going through the roof. There’s some great visual gags as well: watch out for a certain skeleton looking over Allen’s shoulder in silent comment.
In a group of people, each with their fair share – or more – of neuroses, there is just one adult. And she’s the youngest of them all, teenager Tracy, delicately played by Mariel Hemingway. Tears trickling down her face have never been photographed more lovingly. She’s the only member of the group with any semblance of maturity, even though she frequently complains about not being taken seriously, and we miss her simple, common sense for the large section of the film where she is missing.
Watching the film with the benefit of hindsight, we’re watching a time that was supposed to be simpler. No mobile phones, just landlines. No computers, just manual typewriters. No music apps, cassette recorders. Yet this small group of people still manage to get themselves into terrible emotional tangles. How they would fare with today’s technology doesn’t bear thinking about. One reason – if we need one – why Manhattan shouldn’t follow the current bad habit of being re-made, or re-booted. Heaven forbid!
Manhattan is in cinemas now.