For all its mighty stature, Manhattan appeared at a time in Woody Allen’s career when his public image was still somewhat unformed, still idling at the intersection between his early days as a stand-up comedian and television writer, and the still-emergent “Woody Allen, director.” No sooner did he win the Oscar for directing and co-writing Annie Hall than he executed an immediate about-face and created Interiors, as devout and straight-faced an ode to Bergman’s brumal psychodramas as has ever played in U.S. theaters.
Thus did Manhattan fiddle with a wide range of levels, roaming freely between the screwball experimentalism of Annie Hall’s sketch-autobiography and the considerably more subdued oceanfront tragedy that he made in the wake of his Oscar triumph. What results is a kind of photographic negative of the comparably more pastel-hued Annie Hall, a mellow, grayscale romantic melodrama with a liberal dosage of one-liners that would be taken for chemical impurities if the film weren’t also manifestly abstracted by Gordon Willis’s world-class black-and-white cinematography.
It’s undoubtedly occurred to thousands—maybe millions—of artists, writers, and photographers that a city like New York lends itself to a different, magazine-cover-worthy image every few blocks: vistas, street scenes, restaurants, parks, architectural landmarks, intersections, and an infinite wattage of sodium and neon lights. Few have realized it with such studied thoroughness as Willis did when he shot Manhattan, which captures the city’s infinite variety of faces deftly, paying homage not only to the Big Apple’s most notable appearances in still photography, but in the black-and-white films of Allen’s youth. There’s as much Portrait of Jennie as there’s “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” as much Little Fugitive as William Klein.
The same gallery of settings and backdrops provides subtle commentary—and a structuring principle—for Manhattan’s unfolding story, which chronicles neither the first nor the last in a long line of Allen’s emotionally arrested adult males as they juggle romantic dalliances and ephemeral flashes of self-discovery. Both Isaac (Allen) and Yale (Michael Murphy) develop feelings for Philadelphian philistine Mary (Diane Keaton), an attachment that’s a healthy alternative for one man (Isaac is dating the adolescent Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway) and not so much for the other (Yale is married, and his wife relentlessly alludes to her desire for children).
Effectively accenting his image as a trembling comic nebbish, many shots here bring out a more caustic, at times explicitly aggressive side of Allen’s screen presence, not often seen in later films. When he crosses the living room of the home his ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), shares with her lesbian partner, he bears a striking resemblance to Jake La Motta circling the inside of a boxing ring in Raging Bull, and when, in an inebriated state, he brags about how good he looks holding a cigarette, his self-deprecating tone doesn’t entirely contradict his claim. Naturally, a wordless interstitial sequence in which he’s intimidated by a crew of large, impassive movers anticipates the feelings of emasculation and captivity that he suffers from after moving in with Tracy.
A great deal of Manhattan takes place in almost complete darkness, with Willis sewing into the screen only a few, shrewdly chosen dabs of light to suggest a frame of greater detail. In the planetarium, Isaac’s attempts to rebuff Mary’s intimations of follow-up dates are inscribed by blackened figures against a couple of fake stars; Isaac and Tracy communicate to one another in a Manhattan loft that’s scarcely lit on either side of a long, gaping CinemaScope frame. Images such as these are mirrored by the film’s many shots of the urban landscape, in which audiences often only have the lit windows of skyscrapers to provide any certainty of form.
Willis’s too-dark lensing is an ideal match for Allen’s freshly empowered, Scenes from a Marriage-inspired sequences of marital and amorous discord—frazzled shouting and dissonant telephone ringing in tight spaces. The one island of solace is Tracy, and the fact that she’s the one perfect object in the film makes sense, because her withdrawal from the narrative is an absolute necessity, not only for her, but for Isaac as well. The shape-shifting city sets the tone for all that happens in it; it exerts an irresistible draw on our hero, never failing to provide the perfect background image, sidewalk cafe, or lunch counter to enable (but never to judge) his good and bad decisions.