Manhattan review: Woody Allen finds a mature harmony of humour and form

In this archive review from 1979, John Pym praises the ensemble performances and sharp script of Allen’s New York-set romantic comedy, now on digital re-release.

John Pym

From Sight & Sound Autumn 1979

Manhattan (1979)

In Take the Money and Run, Virgil Starkwell, a punk from the neighbourhood, is regularly menaced by a larger hoodlum until, in what became one of the early Woody Allen’s characteristic acts of obeisance, he anticipates humiliation, removes his own spectacles and stomps them underfoot. In Manhattan (United Artists), at a black-tie party for supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, Virgil’s lineal if distant descendant, the TV comedy writer Isaac Davis – who has just embarked on a serious book set in New York – declares that when it comes to Nazis marching in New Jersey, satire is useless, what is needed are bricks and baseball bats.

In the past decade, between Take the Money and Manhattan, Woody Allen has smoothed and toughened his jumpy screen persona. The characters he has played (and with whom, to his dismay, he has become personally identified) have, for one thing, moved up market: Fielding Mellish, in Bananas, was a ‘product tester’; Allan Felix, in Play It Again, Sam, a contributor to a movie magazine; Alvy Singer, in Annie Hall, an acclaimed comedian. Their enduring worries have slowly been tamed. Cowardice has given way to a sort of hesitant bravado. Women still cause complications; but while once the too-liberal application of after-shave lotion triggered uncontrollable pre-date jitters, we now find Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) tussling, as befits a man in his forties, with doubts about the meaning of work and the desirability of commitment.

Manhattan (1979)

Success, however, has not spoiled the joshing, half self-confident Isaac: he puffs cigarettes supposedly for effect, but really only to amuse his friends with his patently bogus masculine pose. His tics, gestures, timing and turns of phrase register with gratifying familiarity. He is a peculiarly knowing innocent and, like the most completely realised of his predecessors, a thorough-going New Yorker. Isaac’s film – for one assumes that his book becomes the film Manhattan – opens with a sequence of shots of New York over which Allen’s breathless, unmistakable voice is heard doodling with the first sentence of the first chapter. “He adored New York City, he idolised it out of all proportion… New York was his town, and it always would be.” Imagine a similar sequence celebrating another city, and the result would probably be unwatchable.

With this humorous flourish, capped by a burst of Rhapsody in Blue, Allen expresses his own light-headed affection for his native town, for its movie theatres and department stores, as well as for its cramped, malfunctioning apartments and its wired, egocentric citizens. At the same time, he establishes New York as the palpable background to the action and as such the counterpoint to its hero’s life. His subsequent achievement, however, has been to mesh with unexpected delicacy the background (the recurring landmarks) and the talkative content of his new but in some respects standard episodic narrative. It is as if, having delivered himself of ‘serious’ ambitions in Interiors, partly set in a vacant, over art-directed approximation of Manhattan, Allen the director found himself able to return to the live Manhattan of Annie Hall, freed at last from the necessity of imposing Allen the actor so abruptly on the material of Allen the screenwriter.

Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan, the most relaxed of Allen’s films, skims smoothly over some artfully random moments in the lives of Isaac and his married, intellectual friend Yale (Michael Murphy), whose chief professional worry is an unwritten biography of O’Neill. Yale, it may be noted, is the latest in a line of assured WASP friends in whom our hero regularly confides; in Manhattan, however, the confidant jilts the friend, and Allen gives the definitive last word to Isaac. The film charts – and we have by now seen several variations on this pirouette – the progress of Yale’s adulterous affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a ‘cultural’ journalist with an incongruous streak of Philadelphian propriety; Mary’s subsequent liaison with Isaac; Isaac’s abandonment of his 17-year-old love Tracy (Mariel Hemingway); Mary’s return to Yale and Isaac’s attempt to regain Tracy.

Isaac is trapped between the shadow of his past, his ferocious ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep), and the shadow of the future, the devoted Tracy. He cannot overcome the memory of Jill abandoning him for another woman, or the fear of future difficulties occasioned by Tracy’s youth and his dawning middle age. His romantic pain has a genuine base; and, whereas in Annie Hall one of the hero’s nightmares was of Alvy the Hassid seated uncomfortably at dinner among Annie’s non-Jewish relatives, in Manhattan a related nightmare actually comes true when Jill publishes a lurid and humiliating account of her marriage to Isaac.

Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979)

The script, by Allen and his collaborator Marshall Brickman, probes most tellingly those fraught confrontations – reminiscent of Bergman in the recent past – when lovers part from former loved ones. And it attempts, with a mixture of ingenuousness, poignance and surprisingly gentle humour, to formulate some hazy moral guidelines for Allen’s hedonistic, culturally omnivorous Manhattanites. The players, none of whom can be faulted, behave with relaxed familiarity; and, although Allen and Diane Keaton reaffirm their position as the current American cinema’s premier ensemble (each personifies a different variety of old-world decency), it is perhaps Mariel Hemingway who is most perfectly cast as the film’s touchstone and tabula rasa. Like Pearl, the earthmother in Interiors, Tracy represents, in sharp contrast to the other characters, an inviolate ideal; Tracy, however, unlike Pearl, is untouched by the world (or Manhattan values). She is a truly innocent innocent; and at the end of the film, having reached her majority, she is able – on the edge of ‘corruption’ – to offer Isaac a valedictory command to “have faith in people”. She represents, like many another Allen heroine, cause for hope.

Woody Allen and Meryl Streep in Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen and Meryl Streep in Manhattan (1979)

Isaac is not exactly a positive achiever, but he does find the nerve to resign from a secure job on the TV show Human Beings Wow!. His ex-wife wrote that “he longed to be an artist but baulked at the necessary sacrifice”. In fact, Isaac does not baulk: he accepts his responsibilities (money to two former wives, his son and his parents); adapts his lifestyle (he moves to a less commodious apartment); and actually gets on with his work (four chapters of the book are completed before the film ends).

The film’s slight episodes are knitted together by a series of Gershwin tunes over punctuating establishing shots, and by Allen’s sleek, self-deprecating wit and his proven but still fresh ability to coin startling metaphors and to turn jargon so satisfactorily on its head. The popularity of his talent, a detractor, Joan Didion, has noted, derives in part from the too-ready accessibility of his references. “When it comes to relationships,” Isaac tells Yale, “I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.” (The meaning is clear, even if one has never read a line of Strindberg.) Allen’s humour, it is true, remains self-referential and hermetic, and in the past it tended to work on the saturation, hit-or-miss principle; in Manhattan, however, comic misjudgments have all but been eliminated. The film shines with lines which sound like, but probably aren’t, exhilarating ad-libbed rejoinders.

Manhattan (1979)

Filmed in Panavision on Technicolor stock which was then printed in black and white, Manhattan is decisively unified by the controlling influence of Gordon Willis’ luminous camerawork. The film is intricately patterned with street dolly shots, high angles and static medium shots. While from time to time framing long shots, such as that which catches Mary and Isaac seated at night beside a glimmering 59th Street Bridge, set an almost magical seal on the proceedings. In Interiors, Willis created a curious feeling of stasis; in Manhattan, he manages in one memorable scene by pulling back the camera and framing the screen in black – the scene in which Tracy and Isaac sit in his apartment and then ascend a spiral staircase joking about Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth – to conjure a moment of stasis and harmony. Allen has always had difficulty harmonising his comic talents and the skittering form of his films: Manhattan is a temporary resolution gratefully received.


Also in the Sight & Sound archive

Manhattan reviewed by Richard Combs in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1979 page 179

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