Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Manhattan (1979)

Then Manhattan is another film I’ve lived with for so long that it’s difficult for me remember when I first clapped eyes on it, though I like to think it was during Channel 4’s Christmas in New York season in the early nineties, when they were still my favourite television channel and would have seasons like Christmas in New York. My impression is that it was also part of their early experiments with showing films in the widescreen format on broadcast television along with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Which means my first experience was as a small black and white strip across the tiny 14” Matsui portable in my bedroom. Which was still enough to lead me to have the film’s poster on my wall for the next ten years.

Now Though my connection to Manhattan is something approaching devotional it’s quite some time since I sat down to watch the film from opening to closing. At some point, I found myself in a reticence loop, in which, as I grew older I didn’t want to see the film again in case it wasn’t the unimpeachable masterpiece the younger version of me supposed it was. Farewell My Concubine is also a favourite film but I’ve only seen that once, on its original release, because I know that with all the world cinema I’ve seen in the interim, the chances are that there will be elements that I’m not quite as enamoured with, that it won't be as good as the version I have in my head.

But I’m very pleased to report, after passing through again late the other night, that Manhattan remains a remarkable piece of work, visually arresting and beautiful acted and despite its short running time a monumental piece of filmmaking. I can still, to paraphrase somewhat, “idolise it out of all proportion”. From the opening montage sequence investigating the highlights of the city’s landscape and people through to Muriel Hemingway's final reminder “You have to have a little faith in people”, not one section is out of place, not one moment rings untrue.

Of course it’s fantasy, of course it glosses over the problems of any real metropolis, reducing Manhattan to people kissing against architecture and tourist spots to a Gershwin soundtrack, increasing transcontinental, intercontinental and transatlantic travel and a run on vinyl Rhapsody in Blue recordings in the process. But Woody’s trick is to take a relatively simple story of a love triangle (quadrangle) then use Gordon Willis’s photography to paint it in epic terms. In that way it reminds me of a Victorian painting, lush and painterly compositions employed at the service of some fairly obvious melodrama. Robert Hopper too, I suppose.

And Willis’s bold black and white photography is the star. Those opening shots could have been ripped from a photo spread in Time Magazine were they not moving but at no point is he content to let the characters simply sit in rooms expressing their feelings. The first semi-date between Allen and Diane Keaton mostly happens in a planetarium were they’re reduced to silhouettes punctuated by starlight. As with much of his work, quite properly the photography reflects the inner turmoil of the characters even in films that are ostensibly comedies. We can see the progress of Allen’s growing lack of self confidence his the way his apartments are shot changes.

Initially we see Allen and Mariel Hemmingway snuggling up together in bed in extreme longshot in a cavernous apartment, his progress from a winding staircase to the sleeping area beautifully rendered in pools of light as though he’s stepping into her glow. Later, after he quits his job and has to move into what amounts to a bedsit, the camera and so we can barely fit into the room with them, his confidence broken by the dirty water and random noise of his neighbours, the whole thing shot in ugly, bland grey light all subtlety destroyed.

The appearance of Meryl Streep initially seems fairly incongruous and an example of Allen casting outside of his usual repertory of actors. In fact, she was already a veteran of New York's Public Theater (I would have loved to have seen her Isabella in Measure for Measure) and it’s more another example, like Walken, of Allen selecting an actor very early in their career and somehow manage to give them the kind of role which would define that career. Amazing to think this was the same year as Kramer vs. Kramer. Disappointing to note that neither of these films would even be financed at the cinema now.

This was also the final Woody Allen film for Diane Keaton, bar the Radio Days cameo until 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. I’m sure there’s a biography somewhere that enunciates in great detail the reasons why their working relationship broke down, perhaps mentioning Warren Beatty a lot, but in terms of what’s up there on the screen the idiotic part of my brain which likes to trade in tittle-tattle and pop psychology wonders if it’s one of the reasons that Woody didn’t feature a relationship for himself on such an even keel many times during the eighties, even in the Mia films.

He told Stig Bjorkman that once Manhattan was completed, he wanted to stop the studio releasing the film, and has said elsewhere he even considered destroying the print. That would have been an utter tragedy and with due respect to him, an act of cultural vandalism. Artists are the worst judges of their own work, and Woody it seems is usually wrong. We’ll talk some more about this when I reach September (the film, not the month you’ll be pleased to know). Never mind other people, he should have had a little faith in himself.

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