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Woody Allen's best film? Gordon Wilis' photography surely makes a solid argument for it....
Fox / 96 Minutes / 1979 / Rated R / Street Date: January 24, 2012
The plot at the center of Manhattan is almost a moot point. Isaac (Woody Allen) and his 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) have a relationship that isn't exactly perfect. Isaac's friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) are also perhaps on the skids, a point that becomes perfectly clear when Yale starts sleeping around with the lovely Mary (Diane Keaton). Isaac becomes enamored with Mary, no one's quite sure exactly which partner they'll end up with, and the love quadrangles spin into infinity.
If you have yet to experience Manhattan, though, don't let my quickie synopsis scare you off. Thanks to the simply unrivaled talents of cinematographer Gordon Willis, Manhattan isn't just one of Allen's most engaging films - it's his most singularly beautiful. The movie's opening sequence immediately counters the pictures admittedly low-rent loveplay with a staggeringly ornate presentation of Manhattan as a city. I hate to be one of those guys, but before the movie really gets going, New York City becomes a veritable character in the film.
It's this love-letter quality to Manhattan that gives it an edge - even over Annie Hall, which was also recently released on Blu-ray Disc. The breeziness and young-love interaction in that Oscar-winner probably trumps any similar intents in Manhattan, but Willis' photography lends an unmistakable, inimitable stamp to Allen's narrative here. As Nestor Almendros did with Days of Heaven, Willis uses his lush, black-and-white photography in this film to not only mirror the intents of his director: He brings the damned thing to life.
Manhattan gets old in spots, and the Woody Allen-ness of Woody Allen grows predictably redundant and obsessive by the picture's end, but even if the movie isn't a bona fide classic, it's nevertheless a bedrock of late-1970s cinema. Allen tells the same story here that he always tells, but in framing the thing with Gordon's sensational camera eye makes his nit-picky melodrama often seem like high theatre.