Yes, Manhattan (1979) is Woody Allen’s personal least favorite of his films—and that may be putting it mildly—but artists are not always the best judges of their own work. Looked at from the outside, it may well be Allen’s most essential film. From its magnificent “Rhapsody in Blue” opening to its City Lights-inspired ending, it’s Allen’s most perfect blend of comedy and drama. How could a film called Manhattan by the quintessential New York City filmmaker fail to be otherwise? The film is also Allen’s most visually stunning work. And it’s visually stunning in a way that owes nothing to someone else’s film, which isn’t always the case.
The story is—as is often true with Allen—concerned with relationships. Allen plays Isaac, a successful comedy writer for a TV show that he doesn’t much like and which is constantly censoring him. He’s romantically involved with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a decidedly precocious 17-year-old. His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife with Mary (Diane Keaton), a pretentious woman Isaac instantly detests. Naturally, he falls in love with her and tries to make a go of it with her when she and Yale split up. Shorn of embellishments and the actual catalogue of events, that pretty much is the movie. But the embellishments and events—along with the philosophical questions raised along the way—are what make Manhattan a great film.
People who don’t like the film tend to say that all the characters—except Tracy—are unlikable and self-absorbed, which strikes me as missing the point. It’s true enough as far as it goes, but it’s too simplistic, overlooking the fact that Manhattan functions as a cautionary tale that speaks to our own bouts of self-absorption and the problems we create for ourselves. What Allen is doing is trying to understand why we do these things to ourselves. The fact that he reaches only the most tenuous conclusion that turns into no conclusion when all is said and done matters very little. What matters is that he has raised the question.
As the title indicates, this is also a film about Manhattan, but it’s a film about Allen’s very specific Manhattan more than a film about the real place. This is the Manhattan summed up in the film’s opening four minutes—the town that “exists only in black-and-white and pulsates to the tunes of George Gershwin.” It’s the Manhattan that formed the idea of the place in most of our minds—including Allen’s. It’s the Hollywood version of the place. The genius of Allen’s approach is to present the real Manhattan in such a way that you realize the Hollywood Manhattan is actually there. It just depends on how you look at it. And if you look at it in black-and-white with an all-Gershwin soundtrack—as Allen does—it’s not that hard to find without benefit of a soundstage and an art director. Like the film’s muddled relationships, it’s all in the seeing.