Friday, December 08, 2006

MANHATTAN - that rare thing, a truly, incontrovertibly 'great' movie

Corn beef should not be blue I am soft on MANHATTAN. It's one of my all-time favourite Woody Allen films (I've seen every one more than a couple of times) if not one of the best films of all time period. It's one of those rare films where you wouldn't change a single thing. One of those films that you name, alongside DR STRANGELOVE and AMADEUS, when you play the game, "which movie would you have wanted to direct?"

Why do I love MANHATTAN? First and foremost, the handsome cinematography. The movie is shot in black and white in proper anamorphic widescreen. Woody Allen and Gordon Willis (who also shot THE GODFATHER) reinvented the iconic imagery of Manhatten in wide-screen wide-angled shots, edited by Susan E Morse and choreographed to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The beauty, grandeur and energy of Manhattan is not just captured: it is re-defined on screen.

But MANHATTAN is no mawkish Richard-Curtis-like romanticised plastic image of a famous city. Rather, the radical and subversive message of MANHATTAN is that, while the city looks glamourous and the people in it are cosmpolitan, literary and sensitive to the arts, they are also amoral and narcissistic. The Woody Allen character is a 42 year old man who has been through an acrimonious divorce and feels bitter that the woman (Meryl Streep) who told him she was bisexual eventually left him for another woman. He then casually dates a 17 year old girl played by Mariel Hemingway, before jilting her for a self-involved writer played by Diane Keaton. Oh, did I mention that the Woody Allen character stole the Keaton character from his best friend, Yale, who was cheating on his wife with her, and then steals her back?!

In one sense, MANHATTAN is a deeply bleak film. Behind the glamour of MANHATTAN lies a pool of shallow, cultivated cynics. But while you're watching these unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other, you can't help but luxuriate in the wonderful conversation, the beautiful cinematography and the soundtrack full of Gershwin. And in the final scene, we are asked to still "have a little faith in people" - a whimsical note on which to end a movie that would be lost in later Woody Allen movies like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. For that reason, MANHATTAN will always be one of my favourite Woody Allen movies.

MANHATTAN was originally released in 1979. It is currently on limited re-release in the UK.

is also my favourite case study for why the Academy Awards are never a good guide to great cinema, despite marketers splashing "Oscar winner" across everything. In 1980, KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER swept the board. For sure, this divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep had its finger on the cultural pulse and was well acted, but that it should trump APOCALYPSE NOW?! Well, at least APOCALYPSE NOW was nominated. MANHATTAN was fobbed off with a few minor noms but it didn't get nom'ed from Best Film, Director or, shockingly enough, Cinematrography. One can only assume that the Academy was throwing its toys out of the pram in retaliation for Woody Allen not turning up when ANNIE HALL was nominated.


  1. Manhattan remains my favorite Woody Allen film, though there are many great ones to choose from ... Along with the great cinematography, I just like how it's a valentine to the great city

  2. Bina, this is one of the few times I agree with your reviews...!