Brace yourself! Manhattan might MIGHT be more about the city than Woody Allen. Pinch me!
I enjoy visual onslaughts – and Manhattan is no exception. Two years earlier, Annie Hall (Allen) covered similar narrative territory, but Manhattan structures itself differently. Notably the film offers a linear narrative, but most striking is the choice to use black and white exclusively. No, Manhattan cannot compare to The Matrix or Lord of the Rings for all their visual escapades, but Manhattan offers as much spectacle through subtle nuance as either of those recent blockbusters.
Woody Allen plays television writer Isaac Davies, almost a carbon copy of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer. It’s hard to feel bad for Isaac though. Isaac, divorced from a young and very attractive Meryl Streep (Jill) and now rides a relationship merry-go-round featuring both a precocious albeit mature 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and an older more culturally sophisticated Annie Hal…sorry, Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). In short, if you like Woody Allen being Woody Allen, then Manhattan is for you. If you don’t, then skip it.
Endless comparisons have probably been made between this film and Annie Hall. One of the few negatives of Annie Hall might be in its structure. The non-linear narrative may confuse and distract filmgoers. However, its structure allows a more generalized feeling to surface. Manhattan is Annie Hall, streamlined.
With the writing and narrative components so closely related to Annie Hall, what sets Manhattan apart from its cinematic spouse is the visual element. The black and white choice is significant requiring a vastly different approach from all aspects of the filmmaking process. The costumer designer (Albert Wolsky), cinematographer (Gordon Willis), and production designer (Mel Bourne) and others must work in concert to create the look for the film. In a black and white film, the foremost concern is contrast. A blue and green sweater might look good, but offers little in terms of color contrast. Noticing a simple layering effect requires vastly different and perhaps an unconventional color palette to the naked eye. Some of the best scenes of the film involve Woody Allen dressed in a tuxedo begging the question: Does any other costume design look better in black and white?
A few scenes remind me of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Sometimes these scenes manifest themselves in single shots. One scene early in the film displays one floor of Isaac’s first apartment. Two light sources balance the shot: one illuminating the spiral staircase and the other as a fill or back light for Tracy sitting on a couch. The stationary camera allows the viewer to absorb the entirety of the shot. Recall the scene from Kane when Charles Kane (Orson Welles) finishes Jedediah’s (Joseph Cotton) newspaper article. Think of the depth of the scene: Kane typing in the foreground with Jedediah pleading to his longtime friend, and all in focus. It does not seem unreasonable to see other filmmakers taking a different approach in using tighter angles and shots. Sometimes the simple choice (possibly an easier one?) is the best one.
The camera positions the active portion of the scene deep into the frame. The other option would be to follow Isaac with a handheld camera through the apartment and settle in a stationary position framing Tracy and Isaac together. This illustrates the central point in Manhattan – the influence of locale. With Annie Hall, the reasoning for the title is obvious because the film focuses on Alvy’s relationship with the character. Manhattan’s title leaves room for speculation. Again, scenes featuring Isaac and Mary place them deep in the shot and once again allowing eyes to stray to nearby delis and skyscrapers. But I’m not sure I learned how Isaac and therefore Allen feel about the city. Obviously, they like it. Tell me why? Still, the film opens with a voice-over from Isaac campaigning for New York as the greatest city in the world suggesting that the film is more about the city than Woody Allen. Pinch me again!