#3 — Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I can say with some certainty that Manhattan is home to my favorite film opening. Over cinematographer Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black-and-white shots of the borough that gives the film its title and accompanied by George Gershwin’s resplendent “Rhapsody in Blue,” Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, takes a crack at the opening passage of a novel. He announces, “Chapter One,” and proceeds to try and describe the apparent lead character’s abounding affection for New York City. Several false starts later–rejected for reasons like “too corny” and “too angry”–Isaac finally finds his way to prose he likes, perhaps in part because of some “jungle cat” sexual potency attributed to this figure very much like himself, but more likely because of the succinct perfection of the final sentence he crafts before fireworks illuminate the sky: “New York was his town, and it always would be.”
The opening sequences may be the purest, most inspiring tribute to his defining city that Allen ever created, but the film is far more complex than a mere love letter. It is about the challenges of modern life, the merciless tangling of human relationships and the tense tug-of-war between sharply differing instincts. It is also Allen’s first, sharpest presentation of his career-long thesis–which would eventually come to haunt him when evidence of its power crept into his real life years later–arguing, “The heart wants what it wants.” Manhattan is satiric and deft, but also serious-minded and as emotionally honest as any film Allen ever made (and there is stiff competition in that final category). It’s as funny as any Allen film, while also leaving room for moving elements. Allen was in his early forties when he made the film, and the maturity shows. The whole thing feels like its developing wisdom frame by frame.
In the case of the similarly-aged character Allen plays in Manhattan, what the heart seems to want is a teenager named Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway. The two are dating as the film begins, although Isaac continually expresses misgivings about it, noting that she should be with someone closer to her own age instead of someone actually older than her father. His opportunity to develop a more age-appropriate relationship comes when he meets a woman who typifies big city snobbery, taking great pleasure in sharing her cultural knowledge, even when it’s a little shaky. Initially put off by her, Isaac finds himself warming to the idea of a romance with her, perhaps because she represents a vision of who he’s supposed to be, someone in touch with the more refined corners of the urban mindscape. This is Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in a turn that’s the polar opposite of Annie Hall two years earlier: mentally probing where Annie was daffy, prickly where the earlier character was warm. This is a version of the city that Isaac feels he should have grown into, finding pleasure in pointed political magazine articles rather than the bygone accomplishments of Groucho Marx and Willie Mays. If this sort of emotional aspiration proves to be as false as Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows, well, realizing that sort of thing is part of growing up too.
Everything Allen does here is absolutely pitch perfect. He began and is in the long process of ending his career with films that are somewhat tossed off from a directing standpoint, Allen’s conviction that he is a writer first and foremost occasionally causing even him to undervalue his skills as a visual artist. Manhattan, however, is made by someone with a marvelous eye and a brilliant sense of visual storytelling, knowing when to plant the camera at a distance to watch an emotional tableau reveal itself and when to press it, finding the heartbreak and shaky hope that can only be found in the mystery of a person’s eyes. Allen has other films that are funnier, bleaker, bolder, more inspiring and more devastating. I might even admit to designating a completely different effort as my favorite. Not a one of the others, though, is as perfectly calibrated as this. Manhattan is my pick for Woody Allen’s best movie, and it always will be.