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With: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Michael Murphy, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne Hoffman, Karen Ludwig, Michael O'Donoghue
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 96
Date: 25/04/1979

Manhattan (1979)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Tracy's Face

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For a long time, I was unable to choose a favorite Woody Allen film. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) had been a life-changing experience for me, and Annie Hall (1977) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) are clearly masterworks. Not to mention Radio Days (1987), Husbands and Wives (1992), and many others. But I recently saw Manhattan again, for perhaps the fifth time, and my absolute joy as I sat there surpassed any other Allen film in recent memory.

However, I am unable to come up with a definitive reason why I think Manhattan is the best Allen. Maybe the best reason is in its presentation -- the beautiful widescreen black-and-white cinematography by Gordon Willis and the music by George Gershwin. From its opening shots I feel a dizzy euphoria. Clearly the movie is a love poem to New York City. I love New York City, but I've only been there twice for a few short days. No, something in the movie resonates on an even deeper level. The clue to that is something that David Thomson says in his Biographical Dictionary of Film -- that Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan is the "purest piece of acting" in all of Allen.

I thought that over a good deal. Allen has directed many great comic actors, and many of them were nominated for or won Oscars: Diane Keaton, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Hemingway, Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Martin Landau, Judy Davis, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly, and Mira Sorvino. I enjoy watching all these actors, but something about the way Hemingway's hair falls over her eyes, or the way she says, "I do not" when Allen tells her she has a squeaky voice, make her the most human of the bunch. It makes perfect sense that Allen would go running all through the streets of Manhattan to see her once more before she leaves the country.

The plot of Manhattan has Woody Allen as a 40-something writer who is dating 18-year-old Tracy (Hemingway). His best friend is having an affair with a kook (Diane Keaton). Feeling guilty about dating a younger woman, Allen begins dating Keaton. At the same time, Allen's former wife (Meryl Streep) who is now in a lesbian relationship, has written a tell-all book about their marriage.

(I try not to think about the fact that Allen's May-December romances continued in other movies, not to mention in his real life. In Manhattan it's still innocent and lovely.)

Allen has always been a wonderful screenwriter, combining his great wit and one-liners with coherent structure, emotional resonance, and perfect timing. On this level, Manhattan works just as well as any of his other screenplays (except for perhaps Annie Hall, which, on paper, is his best screenplay). But I have to think back to three other films, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974). These comedies were no better or no worse than other comedies of their day, but they were filmed in black-and-white, which made them feel classic. Viewing them today, they seem fresher than other comedies made in color around the same time. Maybe this is why Allen has always been a proponent for black-and-white. Every few years, almost indiscriminately, he shoots in black-and-white: Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998). Maybe he feels that these are his most personal projects -- the ones he'd like to last the longest. (Even though Allen has documented that he's never happy with his final products and never watches them again.)

But I'm nowhere closer to solving the mystery of why Manhattan makes me giddy. Perhaps the clues are enough -- the work of Hemingway, Willis, and Gershwin, and not to mention Allen himself. These are enough to make it rise slightly above the others and make it Allen's masterpiece. Perhaps that's enough.

Fox/MGM released Allen's greatest film on a new Blu-Ray edition in 2012. It boasts an amazing black-and-white transfer that highlights the texture of film grain, like a projected film. It's truly the best way to see this movie so far (aside from an actual screening). Extras include a trailer.

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