When Woody Allen is at his best, which he frequently is in Manhattan (1979), he is the master of human nature. No one is better at suggesting how we meet each other at the wrong times, fall in love at even worse ones and let our egos keep us from being happy. The reason he’s not accepted as one of our greatest filmmakers is because, as the master of human nature, he realizes that the way we act is pretty funny. That’s why he can make a movie like Manhattan that is one of the great documents about human romance but also about the indignity of finding out the man who used to keep your lover’s bed warm and has been your constant comparison ends up looking like Wallace Shawn.
All of Allen’s best movies deal with the humor in truth and how poignancy and comedy are very close to each other. In many of his movies, such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), he’ll work on his targets from two sides: one tragic, one comic, to expose how close they actually are. In Manhattan he gives us two relationships that are comic and tragic at the same time.
The first is between Isaac (Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a couple who are a quarter–century apart in age (he’s in his early 40s; she’s still in high school) but even further than that when it comes to maturity (he’s the immature one). The other is between Isaac and Mary (Diane Keaton), who should belong together, being cut from the same neurotic, self-important cloth but resist each other for that very reason. By using these two different relationships (Isaac and Tracy seem like their bond should be shallow, but it proves to be otherwise, and Mary and Isaac feel like a mature pairing but somehow isn’t), Allen makes one of his most ambiguous movies, which is a reason Manhattan remains fresh for me, more so than the more celebrated, but more dated and uneven Annie Hall (1977).
There are times when I watch Manhattan and it feels cynical, that Isaac, who ends up with neither Tracy nor Mary, has dodged a bullet. He’s been married two times already; it doesn’t appear that he can stay happy with someone for very long, and it seems even less likely that someone would put up with him, so his desperate pleading to Tracy to take him back in the end feels like a sentimental flight of fancy. Other times I see it, it’s profoundly sad, as if Isaac, by blowing it with Tracy, has let his one chance at happiness slip by him because of a sheepish fealty to social mores. Both readings feel genuine, and unlike Annie’s and Alvy’s relationship in the previous picture, which fails to exist in my imagination after the movie ends, the coupling in Manhattan is ripe for theories. Annie Hall is a perfect movie about a beautiful relationship that will never work; Manhattan is a perfect movie about two beautiful relationships that could but didn’t, and I find that more interesting.
Isaac is a piece of work, a constantly complaining nebbish who has a healthy dislike of himself, people like him, people unlike him and people who are dumb enough to like him. For him, “pseudo-intellectual” is a barb against people whose self-important opinions are different than his. He’s constantly reminding people of all the dangers of everyday life (cancer appears to be a big scare for him), but he’s too lazy to keep himself in shape or truly fortify himself from those dangers. He thinks little of the one thing he’s good at, television comedy writing, always promising his never-finished book, which is in fact, hardly started.
The great opening moment of the movie has Isaac dictating the first lines of his novel, correcting himself and starting over while Gordon Willis’ gorgeous black and white images of the city flash across the screen. This opening salvo is a fairly good primer for the shifting tone of the rest of the movie as Isaac admonishes himself for being too sentimental, too romantic, too angry, all things Isaac will end up being as the movie goes along. He likes Tracy because he thinks she’s uncomplicated. He also is drawn to her because she’s so drawn to him. He likes Mary because he knows she’s complicated, perhaps the two of them could compete. He calls it off with Tracy because he thinks he needs someone like Mary, someone who can go to an art exhibit and shoot her mouth off. He mistakes Tracy’s silence while the adults discuss high-minded issues as a lack of thought or opinions.
He tells her he’s breaking up with her because she’ll be better off with someone her own age (an idea that must not have occurred to him before they started dating), but she quickly sees through that. This is one of the great break-up scenes in the movies because it’s sad and poignant as she points out just how much more mature she is. “You state it like it’s to my advantage, but it’s you that wants to get out of it,” she says of his attempt to drop her. “Don’t be so precocious, OK?” he admonishes her for hitting the nail on the head. But the scene also reminds us just how young Tracy is (“Gee, now I don’t feel so good,” she heartbreakingly sighs).
In the end, it isn’t a question of whether or not Isaac has dodged a bullet with Tracy, but if she has with him. She’s in love with him, that much is true, and she gives him something that he’s rarely had, comfort, but there’s little wonder that a girl as mature beyond her years as Tracy wouldn’t eventually outgrow him. It’s telling that at the end, when she has to go to London and he begs her to stay, he overreacts to how long she’ll be away. “Six months? Are you kidding?” he asks her. “We’ve gone this long, well, what’s six months if we still love each other?” she says, again betraying her wisdom. Only Isaac knows that the idea of him holding onto this feeling for even two months is pretty slim.
Mary has that paradoxical quality that attracts the self-loathers, a preternatural ability to choose the wrong person. That’s why she gets tossed between Isaac and Yale (Michael Murphy), Isaac’s married friend who strings her along. Diane Keaton brings the same devil-may-care whimsy that she did as Annie Hall, but Mary is more substantial, a little rougher around the edges and less perfect, which is fitting considering how imperfect Isaac is. What Allen does best in his romances, especially the doomed ones, is give us people with their flaws but also with great appeal. It’s a great skill of screenwriting to make the audience not question why a couple is together or why they break up.
No less great a skill is humor, which Manhattan has in spades. Not only are there Allen’s signature one-liners (there’s a great scene at a pompous party where Isaac punches holes in the bombastic conversation with pearls of wisdom such as, “Oh, no, physical force is always better with Nazis” and, when the discussion turns surreally to orgasms and a woman discloses that her doctor tells her she’s having the wrong kind: “You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”). But there are also jokes that are organic and sometimes turn sad as when Isaac makes a ludicrous list of the things that make life worth living, beginning with things like Groucho Marx and the crabs at a favorite restaurant then stopping cold when he realizes Tracy’s face is worthy of the list. There are also sly visual gags centered around Allen’s love of movies, my favorite being a wordless scene when Mary and Isaac leave a movie theater while the jumpy strains of Gershwin indicate that they’re falling in love. This is a common sight in romances, the couple leaving the movies with arms around each other, but here Mary and Isaac are clearly in the middle of an impassioned discussion and the movie they’ve just seen is Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), the ever–romantic Soviet collectivization parable.
Of course, Manhattan is also Allen’s love poem to the city he loves, and Gordon Willis’ camera lovingly highlights the city’s natural and architectural features (this is the best work of Willis’ career, wonderfully living up to his nickname of The Prince of Darkness, using shadow and light impeccably), while the aforementioned Gershwin is well used, particularly at the beginning and end. Perhaps Allen named the greatest movie he ever made after the greatest city in the world because it’s the city that taught him that human nature is tough, romantic, angry, resilient and beautiful.