Sunday, August 21, 2011
Story goes that once Woody finished Manhattan, he disliked it so much that he offered to make another film for the producers, United Artists, if they didn't release this movie. As an audience, we ought to thank whoever it was at United Artists, who didn't take up Woody's offer and went ahead with the movie's release. For Manhattan is the best looking movie that Woody ever directed. Years later he would go on to say that he wonders how he still got away with the movie because it also turned out to be one of his most successful movies in an illustrious career spanning over forty years.
Isaac Davies (Woody Allen) is a TV serial writer who quits his job over creative differences. He now wants to write a book which he has been planning for a while. Isaac is an idealistic, twice-divorced 42-year old in a city that he thinks is suffering from decadence. 'Moral decay' is something that is mentioned more than once by Isaac and it is something that he wants to get away from. For instance, in his own life, he doesn't think it is right on his part to date a 17-year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is in high school. He wants to keep his moral integrity intact and to absolve himself from this moral decadence, he keeps exhorting Tracy to move on to better and younger men. Ironically though, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an extra-marital affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), an independent and a strongly opinionated lady. Written by Woody Allen and Marshal Brickman, Manhattan traverses the lives of these relationships over the course of a neatly stitched 96 minutes.
Before I come to the other elements of the movie let me say this, if ever a cinematographer's work shone in a movie, it is this one. Gordon Willis should've got an Oscar for this one- no questions asked. The minimalism at times was a throwback to the Swedish and French movies of the 60s, maybe an inspiration in themselves for that soulful look Manhattan thrives on. The famous bridge scene advertised on the poster above was just one of the many breathtaking moments in the movie. Willis' black and white photography gives a fresh visual dimension to the famous Keaton-Allen chemistry. In terms of performances, Michael Murphy is very much relatable as the fickle-minded husband of the attractive Anne Byrne and full marks to Mariel Hemingway for a performance that would go on to earn her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Oscars.
Now for the inevitable comparison with Annie Hall. Manhattan is a less-funnier version of Annie Hall spread over a shorter period of time. If you're the kinds who would like more laughs, it is Annie Hall that you should go for. Personally, Manhattan appealed to me more because as far as the theme of romantic relationships go, an area which Woody specializes and dare I say exploits on the silver screen, this comes across as his most mature offering. My guess is Woody didn't like the movie so much because there aren't too many funny moments in the movie. And as a comic writer, Woody saw it as his failing that he couldn't get those funny lines and situations going as much as he would've liked.
In 1980, there was a TV discussion between Ebert and Siskel about who between Mel Brooks and Woody Allen was the better filmmaker. One of the points Ebert mentioned was how Woody was losing his touch in 1979 with movies like Manhattan that weren't anywhere near as funny as some of his previous works. Siskel defended Allen saying that Woody had a better range and that Manhattan was an example of a movie where Woody wasn't playing his go-to character of a neurotic, goofy self. I recently saw that discussion online and with the luxurious benefit of hindsight I can say that they both missed their mark. Woody actually would not experiment beyond his romantic comedies in the years to come and Ebert probably understood Woody wrong because Woody would go on to make even funnier movies.
With Manhattan, I thought Woody took a leap that he wasn't sure of and in his self-effacing manner thought he had come a cropper. Fact is, he had a stunner on his hands.