MANHATTAN - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1979

Director: Woody Allen

Production: A Jack Rollins-Charles H. Joffe Production for United Artists; black and white, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 96 minutes. Released 1979. Filmed 1978 in New York City.

Producer: Charles H. Joffe; screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; photography: Gordon Willis; editor: Susan E. Morse; production designer: Mel Bourne; music: George Gershwin; costume designer: Albert Wolsky.

Cast: Woody Allen ( Isaac Davis ); Diane Keaton ( Mary Wilke ); Mariel Hemingway ( Tracy ); Michael Murphy ( Yale ); Meryl Streep ( Jill ); Anne Byrne ( Emily ).

Awards: New York Film Critics Awards for Best Direction (shared with Robert Benton for Kramer vs. Kramer ) and Best Supporting Actress (Streep, award also includes her performances in Kramer vs. Kramer and Seduction of Joe Tynan ), 1979.



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* * *

Manhattan opens with images of New York City over which the voice of Woody Allen, as writer Isaac Davis, begins chapter one of his new book: "He adored New York City. He idolized it out of proportion." The film is an homage to "Allen-town," to the city that spawned him, but unlike Allen's homage to the woman of his dreams ( Annie Hall ), here he idolizes the good while systematically removing the obviously negative. In the prologue he presents us with New York City's most glorious vistas: fireworks over Central Park, the skyline at dawn, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, all to the lush romantic sound of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue . Gone are the messy vistas, the untidy streets, the horrors of the subway system, people of non-white lineage. His book, an expanded version of an article he had written about his mother entitled "The Castrating Zionist," is, one can assume, this movie, and Isaac Davis is its author.

With typical deprecation, Isaac decides that the best way to achieve success is to write an autobiographical novel that is neither preachy nor angry, which focuses on an explication of his desired self-image. That image, like his image of the city, is a castrated one. While dwelling on the city's physical beauty, Isaac proceeds to effect an autopsy on his social set, his ultimate desire being an exposé of the decay of contemporary culture.

That social set consists of writers. Four of the main characters belong to that occupation: Isaac Davis is a television writer who quits his job to write his book; Yale is a teacher who is working on a biography of O'Neill; Mary Wilke is a journalist who writes on art and a variety of other topics; Jill is Isaac's ex-wife who publishes a feminist tract on their marriage entitled Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood . Throughout the film the names of great writers are bandied about, each one cited as if he were a reference point in the psychological development of the character. Thus Isaac refers to Strindberg, Bergman, Fellini, Kafka and Groucho Marx, his strategy being both reverential and referential. As he says to Yale: "I gotta model myself after someone!" The blend of writers cited certifies Isaac's neurotic condition. His problems, like those of the city, are intellectual.

As with other Allen films, this one also dwells on the impossibility of lasting relationships. If Bergman and Fellini were the influences of Interiors and Stardust Memories , Orson Welles seems to be the working model here, most specifically the Welles of The Lady from Shanghai . A reflection of the real-life decay of Welles's marriage to Rita Hayworth, Lady abounds with bitter commentary on relationships. References to Hayworth, the buggy ride in Central Park, the use of the planetarium for a love scene, the romantic voice-over which begins Manhattan , and themes of decay all point to this film as an influence. In fact, the last line of dialogue from Shanghai could have been used to end Manhattan .

Filmed in Panavision on Technicolor stock, then printed in black and white, this film is Allen's most complex reflection on the artist as romantic—his draining of its color the most bitter-sweet stroke.

—Doug Tomlinson

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