Monday, August 19, 2013


Throughout his long career Woody Allen has had many hits and misses. Some of them are even bad enough that they would have derailed another director's career. Thankfully, he's given us enough brilliant films to make up for his inevitable missteps. One such film is 1979's "Manhattan".

As the title suggests, the film is set in Manhattan and it's easy to see why the film was thus named. A true New Yorker, Woody Allen shows his affection for the city from the second the film opens. Using gorgeous black and white photography, the picturesque shots are like postcards, showcasing Manhattan in its best light. These shots are enough to set the romantic tone, as the camera itself seems to be in love with the locations. Some filmmakers would be content to rely on this visual appeal to convey much of the film's narrative (think David Lean's "Summertime"), but Woody Allen goes one step further. He crafts a charming story within this setting, making this the revered classic that it is.

The plot has comedy, romance and a hit of drama. Allen flexes his considerable acting chops in the lead role as Isaac, a middle-aged man looking for love. He's in a relationship with the strikingly teen-aged Tracy (played by Mariel Hemingway), but becomes interested in the fascinating and more age-appropriate Mary (played by Diane Keaton). To further complicate matters, Mary is the mistress of his best friend. I'm sure you can imagine the comedic, romantic and dramatic situations that would therefore arise.

As Isaac tries to figure out his romantic conundrum, Allen employs his brilliant wit to create some fantastic dialogue. Describing it as brilliant wit is so apt here, as the conversations between the characters are brilliant in their highbrow/intellectual appeal, but miraculously accessible and funny. Even if you aren't familiar with the works of Bergman or F. Scott Fitzgerald, you can understand Isaac's outrage at Mary's dismissal of their worth. All you need is the expressions of the actors (notably Woody Allen himself, with his amusing neurosis) and you'll easily understand the humour. Woody is certainly the master of this brand of comedy, as he never feels the need to dumb it down for his audience. Yet still, he captures the interest of the populace. Not many writers or directors can do this, taking the often languid machinations of a film like "Manhattan" and producing something so thoroughly engaging. It's a sign of this man's genius.

Like many of his best films, "Manhattan" success also has a lot to do with the overall collaborative effort. It's evident here that the entire team (actors, writer-director, composer, cinematographer) has a unified grasp of the material and its intent. It's no wonder that this film works so well. You can really feel the love for this project. From my own perspective a Manhattan lover, it warmed my heart to see this beautiful cinematic ode to a truly remarkable place. Paris, eat your heart out!

This film is part of my List of Shame.

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