There are two love affairs at play in Woody Allen's brilliant dram-edy Manhattan (1979); the first between two couples with opposing viewpoints about practically everything, and the latter (and more meaningful) between Allen and the isle from whence the film derives its title. Undeniably, this is Woody Allen's most personal masterwork; an intimate celebration of the New York he knows so well and worships at every possible chance he gets. Allen is Isaac, a middle aged, angst ridden TV comedy writer who is currently indulging a May/December whirlwind with 17 year old music protégée Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). Outwardly, Isaac's friends, Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) support his relationship. Inwardly, they feel he is making a terrible mistake - one that can only end in disastrous heartbreak.
The wrinkle here is that even as Yale professes to be in a stable relationship he is having an affair with journalist, Mary (Diane Keaton). Yale confides the affair to Isaac and asks that he check Mary out to garner his approval. But Isaac and Mary's first casual meeting goes hopelessly awry. She's too opinionated, too bold in her criticisms and too grating on his nerves. Or maybe not. An accidental reunion without Yale reveals to Isaac that Mary is just as vulnerable as he is. She just happens to shield her insecurity from the world. Isaac, on the other hand, wears his awkwardly on his sleeve.
Isaac decides to convince Tracy that he is all wrong for her so that he pursue Mary for himself without feeling guilty. But he cannot betray Tracy's naive sweetness, even if it's for her own good. So far, the plot of Manhattan sounds about as close to cliché as the romantic comedy can get. That is, of course, if the movie had been written and directed by anyone other than Woody Allen. The most engaging aspect of any Woody Allen film in general, and this one in particular, is its seemingly effortless use of dialogue; so natural and unassuming that it appears to be happening with a magical spontaneity as the film plays on.
The conversations these characters have with each other are never anything but spot on truthful. Allen is at his most wonderfully sardonic when he suggests to Tracy that he believes in mating for life "like pigeons and Catholics". But the humor peppered throughout this wordy excursion is only part of the dialogue's charm. There is something else at play here - a sort of reality apart from the world of artificially crafted narrative film. It goes without saying that Allen's delivery of each line carries with it a weight of comedic genius. But again, that's only a fragment of the sparkle that Manhattan delivers in spades virtually from its first frame to its last.
One aspect of the film that sets it apart from virtually all others in Woody Allen's canon is its spellbinding B&W cinematography from Gordon Willis. Above all else, Manhattan is a story of that tiny little isle where all of these lives playfully and occasionally self-destructively intersect. The usually introspective Allen makes no apology for creating a character out of this vast cityscape. In fact, he revels in peeling back the layers to get to the heart of what makes New York...well...New York. We are first introduced to 'Manhattan' with a flourish of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and an eclectic series of shots that take us from the Bronx to the Battery and everyplace in between.
Yet these opening images are not presented as a travelogue per say. Rather they are an exaltation of Manhattan as a place where the nostalgia of our collective memories collides with the more sumptuous and imaginative daydreams we all share. Clearly, Woody Allen has imparted his love of the city on Gordon Willis (or perhaps Willis shared it all along). Either way Manhattan - the movie is a visceral journey to the very heart of love and life embodied in the flawed human beings attempting to find their own happiness within its tight borders. Isaac, Mary, Yale and Tracy may be imperfectly matched, but Manhattan - as seen through Woody Allen's eyes, is as close to perfect as cities and motion pictures get.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray easily bests MGM's old SD DVD from 2002. Here at last is Manhattan as we ought to have seen it all along; with its sumptuous deep focus image revealing a startling clarity and multitude of fine details even during its darkest scenes. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered. Blacks are velvety deep. Whites are pristine. Film grain is ideally preserved for a very theatrical experience. There is a razor sharpness to the visuals that reveals more fine detail and background information than ever before. Love, love, LOVE this 1080p transfer! The audio is DTS 2.0 and really does justice to the many orchestral offerings scattered throughout the film. Dialogue sounds crisper than I recall and although obviously manufactured, will impress like never before. The one disappointment is in the extras. There are none. Just a theatrical trailer. But I digress. Manhattan on Blu-ray comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)