I have never understood the mindset of people who reject black and white films. These people have a stigma that because a film is shot in black and white it will be dull, uninteresting, or it is too old. They are missing some of the more beautifully composed works of art cinema has to offer. Such is the case with Woody Allen’s love letter to the city of his life, Manhattan. Here is a film which would significantly diminish in quality and impact had it been filmed in color. Cinematographer Gordon Willis paints his black and white canvas of Manhattan with striking imagery and wonderfully sharp contrast. The result is an enchanting ode to the city Allen loves most. The opening montage, voiced over by Allen’s character as he starts and stops narrating, bounces from one Manhattan landmark to the next. We see the Guggenheim, the Carnegie, Greenwich, Central Park, and it is all tied together in a shot of the city under fireworks. All to the tune of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a melody that is seemingly one in the same with New York City. It is a captivating introduction.
The story he tells involves adults acting as adolescents, with the most mature character of all being a seventeen-year old girl. Allen plays Isaac as an overgrown child, content in his own wit and intellect, using it as a shield. Isaac is dating Tracy, a seventeen-year old played by Mariel Hemingway. His last wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), left him for another woman and is writing a tell all about their relationship. And Isaac spends the majority of his time with Tracy telling her they need to break up, that there is no future for a 42-year old and a teen. Meanwhile, Isaac’s friend, Yale (Michael Murphy) is married but has fallen into an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), and is scared he has begun falling for her. These characters occupy the greatest hits of Manhattan. Yale leaves Mary, and Isaac strikes up a relationship after breaking up with Tracy at, with all intended irony, a soda fountain. While Keaton’s Mary is less eccentric and flighty than her Annie Hall, you catch glimpses of her energy in Mary. I especially enjoyed their banter early on, when they are each with their initial lovers at an art exhibit and Isaac and Mary cannot agree on which pieces they enjoyed.
The older characters in Manhattan occupy a sort of reluctant adult world where they hide their emotions behind their intelligence. Yale feels like a hopeless wayward adult, Isaac more of a realist. But neither of them have the maturity of Tracy or even Mary. It has always been a credit to Allen’s writing that he creates wonderfully sharp and detailed female characters. It seems a foregone conclusion that a female actress from his films will get an Oscar nomination, and many have won. Keaton in Annie Hall, Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; here, Marial Hemingway received her only Oscar nomination. Her character carries the most level gaze of all involved.
The star of Manhattan is, as I mentioned, the camera of Gordon Willis. There are a handful of shots that are among the best of all black and white films. They are subtle, as in the shots of Isaac’s sparsely-lit apartment, overt like the scene where Isaac and Mary sit on the park bench under the imposing Brooklyn Bridge. The characters seem secondary to the environment, and their lives feel decidedly defined by the city itself. Allen has been and always will be an acquired taste, but Manhattan is a picture which deserves a look regardless of your opinions on the man himself. Maybe if the naysayers of black and white were to give Gordon Willis’ work a chance, they would change their tune. Maybe to Gershwin.