Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Manhattan (1979)

We close out a troubled decade with an untroubled film.

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 21:19


Goodbye, 1970s. We loved your political violence, your ghastly trouser bottoms, your spluttering East Asian wars, your permanent financial meltdowns and your awful post-sixties embrace of sexual experiment. As that era winds down we wanted to pick a film that summed it all up in one 90-minute package. But we decided to pick Manhattan instead. A few weeks ago, when writing about Allen’s current Blue Jasmine, I noted that the film seemed almost absurdly out of touch with the present. In truth, that has always been the case with Woody. (One interesting exception might be Diane Keaton’s “look” in Annie Hall. But, actually, the film created those fashions rather than plucking them from the streets. The more upmarket streets soon caught up.) Manhattan is very definitely a case in point. The characters give no impression that New York City was still collapsing as the film was being shot. Compare the New York of Allen’s film with that in Taxi Driver. The pictures may as well have been films on different galaxies.

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None of this is meant as criticism. Many great musicals from the 1930s depicted a fantasy version of New York while the real city struggled with the Great Depression. Allen’s world of endlessly witty folk wandering through endlessly tasteful apartments is a wonderful amalgam of reality and escapism. The hero says as much in that brilliant opening monologue.

“He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion. No, make that: he romanticised it all out of proportion. Yes. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

Well quite. Forget escalating financial crisis and rising crime. This is a city that allows you to walk your daschund to its favourite bridge at midnight without risk of violence. It’s more beautiful than Paris and everybody (well, nearly everybody) speaks English.

There is, of course, a worrying aspect to Manhattan. In Allen’s films, the key Woody character often works largely imaginary worries into unnecessary traumas. He doesn’t like lobsters. He fears a spot is a tumour. And so on. Here, Isaac Davis worries about dating a teenager and his friends are encouraged to reassure him that it’s all fine and that everybody does it and that nobody should fret about such things. Well, there are some things worth fretting about. Aren’t there? Just ask that woman who once dallied in Roman Polanski’s house.

Anyway, that slightly uncomfortable point aside, the film works like a dream. The Gershwin music is used beautifully. Gordon Willis’s monochrome photography is gorgeous. The humour is much less insistent than in any earlier Allen comedy. Oddly, the director couldn’t see it at first. He was so unsure about the movie’s tone that he offered to bin it and make United Artists another one for free. Happily, — as Steven Bach explains in Final Cut — the moguls, for once, knew they had a real gem on their hands. It is not just the best cinematic tribute to New York; it is probably the best cinematic tribute to any city. Now, there’s a subject for another “blog” post.

Also considered for 1979 were Stalker, Apocalypse Now, Alien, The Tin Drum, Life of Brian and The Jerk. Onwards to a new decade.