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Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan’

Normal service appears to have been resumed at the premises of the company that sends me my rented DVDs: still no sign of Tiptoes, but another Woody Allen movie turned up (the third in the space of two months, for anyone keeping score). Not that I’m complaining; I wouldn’t be signing up to watch these movies if I didn’t like Allen a lot, I just didn’t expect to get them all in a lump (as it were).

This time around the movie they sent was Manhattan, from 1979, one of Allen’s most successful and acclaimed films. The ironic thing about this is that Allen apparently hated the movie when he finished editing it together – one senses that he has a difficult relationship with most of his old work, come to that – and went to the studio, trying to persuade them to let him junk it and make another movie for free to replace it.

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It would interesting to visit the parallel dimension where Manhattan was indeed junked and Woody Allen got to make that mysterious other film instead, because it seems to me that Manhattan is one of the two or three absolutely key films in Allen’s career. Together with Annie Hall, it marks the point of transition between the unrepentantly broad comedy of the Early, Funny films and the more ambitious and harder to categorise work he spent most of the 1980s making. Or, to put it another way, in terms of all those multi-stranded comedy-dramas about the difficult personal lives and relationships of affluent metropolitan types, Manhattan is the Ur-text, recognisably the original of the species.

What makes it somewhat distinctive in narrative terms is that it is focussed on one character, rather than bobbing back and forth between several. Allen plays Isaac, a somewhat-harassed TV comedy writer with a bevy of ex-wives to support and a much younger girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway). She is very much in love with him; he seems guarded and diffident. When he meets a close friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton) there is an obvious chemistry between them, and their relationship slowly develops. He quits his job and attempts to write a novel. Meanwhile one of his ex-wives (Meryl Streep) is writing a warts-and-all account of their failed relationship and divorce, much to his horror.

And so on, and so on, essentially. It seems to me Woody Allen’s ability to pull together a satisfying narrative out of events which are basically the stuff of potboilers and soap operas is much underrated. If I’m honest, Manhattan struggles a bit in the ending department, as it’s a little unclear what the director is trying to say and what response he is looking to evoke from the audience, but on the whole this is a very successful and engaging film, driven along by a great performance from Allen himself and a script bristling with the one-liners you’d expect. That said, the drama has a harder edge to it than you might expect – this genuinely is a comedy-drama, arguably Allen’s first.

Of course, this being a Woody Allen movie where the director stars as a thinly disguised analogue of himself, the temptation to scour it for clues about his real life relationships and attitudes is almost irresistible. Diane Keaton plays a harder, less obviously troubled character than Annie Hall, but there are still obvious parallels between the two. The relationship between Allen and Hemingway was allegedly based on one he had with Stacey Nelkin. The golden thread of most of the early Allen movies – the apparently unironic presentation of Allen as a neurotic nebbish, who nevertheless possesses uncanny ladykilling powers and astonishing sexual prowess – continues, of course. To be honest, given how Allen’s private life eventually turned out, the fact that he’s quite happy to depict himself here engaging in an affair with a besotted 17-year-old (Allen himself was 43 when the movie came out) is, er, fascinating.

If the story takes place firmly in Allen territory, the look of Manhattan is rather different. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, and New York looks lovely throughout. Usually I think that doing a movie in black and white just to give it a bit of art-house gravitas is a sure-fire sign that pretentiousness is afoot, but Manhattan looks so beautiful that I’ll cut it some slack. It also gives the film some of the ‘classic’ quality which I suspect Allen was aiming for when he took this option.

With a body of work as large and varied as Woody Allen’s, you’re on slippery ground if you even start talking in terms of his best film. Even so, I don’t think Manhattan is quite there, for all that it’s better than all the variations on the same theme that Allen has been cranking out on-and-off ever since. It’s intelligently written, solidly performed, and terrifically well-filmed – and yet for me it doesn’t have quite the heart or warmth of some of his other movies. Still a class act, though.

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