Chapter One – I adored Woody Allen. I idolized him all out of proportion. Then he spent the last twelve or so years making crap films and I got over him. Revisiting Manhattan showed me that, unlike the characters in this film, I was not suffering from delusions, but was watching one of the great directors in his prime.
It’s one of the unforgettable openings in film. Stunning black and white images of New York City, while the soundtrack plays Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, combined with Allen’s narration commenting on what he perceives as his ideal self in his ideal locale. We will soon find out that Allen’s character Isaac, as well as the rest of his flawed entourage, idealizes relationships as well. Here’s what’s brilliant about the opening. By showing NYC in such a magical light, we are being primed to buy into these ideals. Because Isaac is played by Woody Allen, the lovable loser, we may not register that he’s no longer the underdog, but a successful, somewhat selfish man very capable of hurting others.
Isaac spends much of the film trying to justify, continue or end his affair with a 17 year-old high school student. Normally, this would alienate us from him, but it doesn’t, because he’s self aware enough to feel guilt and Mariel Hemmingway’s understated portrayal of Tracy, who she invests with such maturity and smarts, that the relationship seems somewhat less inappropriate. We kind of have to keep reminding ourselves that an affair between a man of 42 and a girl of 17 is wrong. (Yes, this brings us some issues in Woody Allen’s personal life, but I don’t give damn about that. I’m only interested in his films.)
The Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy characters are not much better off. Despite their charm and likeability, they are serial adulterers, smart enough to know better AND to care, but not so smart as to commit to any kind of mature relationship. All this is after the fact analysis that doesn’t take into account how much Manhattan lures us into identifying with these flawed characters. I also haven’t mentioned how damn laugh out loud funny this film is. It contains possibly the sharpest writing of any Allen script, combining humor with a wistful sense of romance and the best looking cinematography Allen’s ever been associated with.