MGM // 1979 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 8th, 2012
"New York was his town, and it always would be."
-- Woody Allen, as Isaac Davis
Few films have captured the essence of New York City like Manhattan. As soon as you hear the first notes of "Rhapsody in Blue" you're transported to a version of New York that doesn't actually exist. It's romanticized, as Allen (or his character, Isaac Davis) explains in the opening narration, and you have no choice but to fall in love with it.
Manhattan is one of Woody Allen's finest moments. The story, about a fortysomething New Yorker trying to find love in a sea of immaturity and selfishness, has all the tropes and twists you've come to expect from the director. Isaac is dating a 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, Deconstructing Harry), but feels that the relationship is inherently temporary. When Isaac's friend (Michael Murphy, Magnolia) breaks up with his mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton, Annie Hall), Isaac's drawn to her instead. But this isn't the Allen and Keaton you saw a few years earlier; things are different.
If Annie Hall is a quintessential romantic comedy, Manhattan is its antithesis. Keaton's Mary is a similar sort of "manic pixie dream girl," like Annie, except she's more pretentious and immature. She's not a lovable riddle, she's a foolish gal who can't plan ahead four weeks in advance, let alone keep a steady relationship. Keaton plays the role wonderfully, subverting expectations and remaining likable. Allen's teen lover, Tracy, is on the other end of the spectrum. While Isaac may dismiss her as a child (quick to remind everyone he is dating a girl that still does homework), Tracy is the one with maturity to spare. Hemingway plays her with precocious innocence and alarming subtly (best exhibited when she and Isaac break up). She's rarely naive, and is constantly asking Isaac to treat their relationship more seriously.
Allen's character is somewhere between the two women. He's nebbish and awkward, of course, but Isaac is also growing into a more mature person. With the usual dash of autobiography, Allen's character quits the broad comedy scene and searches for something with more substance (surprise: he's writing a novel). He yearns to be taken seriously, and to be with someone as mature and romantic as him.
Manhattan puts its characters through a lot of angst and uncertainty, but it never loses sight of the comedy. Devoid of Annie Hall-esque gags or "fourth-wall-moments," the film relies almost solely on Allen's one-liners and character choices. Whether itÕs dropping a Noel Coward reference or mingling with erudite jerks at a gallery opening, Allen knows how to play to an intellectual crowd and jab them at the same time.
Enhancing all of this is the film's incredible cinematography and soundtrack. There was a point in Allen's career where he really started to care about the aesthetics of his movies, and Manhattan is without a doubt his most impressive. Cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) doesn't just capture New York's landscape in gorgeous black and white, he also lights interior scenes with bold minimalism. Every scene could be framed and hung in a gallery. The look of the film is matched by the booming, charismatic music of George Gershwin. While none of the music was actually scored for the film, using Gershwin throughout gives Manhattan a consistent, timeless feel. If there is a Woody Allen movie that deserves a Blu-ray release, it's this one.
The Manhattan Blu-ray features a remastered 1080p transfer that showcases the film's aesthetic in a way I've never seen. The film's high contrast photography is sharp and adequately grainy. The black levels are exceptional, especially during the numerous "interior, apartment, night" scenes. The audio only comes in a DTS Master Mono track, but that proves to be more than enough. Manhattan isn't the kind of film that requires a full-featured surround sound mix -- it's all talking and jazz music. The mono track is solid, especially during the film's musical montages. It's not surprising, considering Allen's DVD track record, that this release is devoid of supplements or special features. It doesn't even have a nice menu.
Manhattan is a classic film. It would have been nice to see it, and Annie Hall, given a more robust treatment on Blu-ray, but just having a transfer in high definition is worth it. Allen's vision of the city he loves has never looked this good.
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R