With recording artists we always talk about their “follow up” albums. If one album is a success then we put a lot of pressure on the next one. It is not exactly the same with film directors. If we were to look at it that way then Woody Allen’s Manhattan is the follow up film to his 1977 Oscar winner as Best Picture. They are completely different films in tone and message.
The first was a film about Allen’s neurotic views of love. Manhattan is, as its title would lead you to believe, an ode to his favourite part of New York City. It still has relationships as its main focus, but in a more serious (though there still are plenty of laughs) kind of way. Plus the fact that it mirrored Allen’s own life in a creepy kind of way made it that much more impactful.
Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is 42-years-old and has already been divorced twice. His latest relationship failure was with Jill (Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady, Doubt), who left him for a woman named Connie (Karen Ludwig – Stanley & Iris, Thirteen Days). Isaac himself has moved on romantically and is in a relationship with a 17-year-old high school student named Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway – Personal Best, Star 80).
Trouble seems to be on every horizon for Isaac. His ex Connie is writing a novel about her life including some intimate details concerning her marriage to Isaac, he is quite upset about this. He also finds himself falling in love with his best friend Yale’s (Michael Murphy – Batman Returns, Magnolia) secret mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton – The Godfather, Part II, Annie Hall). Life is never a smooth ride for Isaac. Or so it seems.
Everything about Allen’s Manhattan harkens back to another time in film history. The score, the cinematography, the way the story is told. The film was shot in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis (Presumed Innocent, All the President’s Men). Visually it is stunning. It is crisp and lends to the romantic nature of the film. Also the black and white suits New York City well. The city itself is the real star of the film and you can tell in every frame how much Woody Allen adores it.
Woody Allen is obsessed with the complexities of male-female relationships. Over his lengthy career most of his films have been centered on love and all its permutations. He seems to have concerned himself over finding the Cadbury secret to love and forging a successful relationship. Allen definitely has not figured it out yet, so the film really shows the uncertainty and irrationality of love. At the conclusion of the film you think that Allen believes love to be excruciatingly complex and temporary, but still worthwhile.
Manhattan goes beyond a simple examination of love and delves into the overall psyche of the liberal middle class in Manhattan in the 1970s. Intellectuals and liberals are put under the microscope. Their morals and culture are examined. They are depicted as all going to see therapists and overmedicating themselves.
Not all films stand the test of time. This is one that was good in 1979 and is still good in 2012. A timeless film. We can debate until the cows come home whether Annie Hall or Manhattan was Allen’s best film, but we can all accept that this was a great film.