Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Manhattan (1979)
Studio Line: MGM

Nominated for two Academy Awards in 1979, and considered "one of Allen's most enduring accomplishments" (Boxoffice), Manhattan is a wry, touching and finely rendered portrait of modern relationships against the backdrop of urban alienation. Sumptuously photographed in black and white (Allen's first film in that format), and accompanies by a magnificent Gershwin score, Woody Allen's aesthetic triumph is a "prismatic portrait of a time and a place that may be studied decades hence" (Time Magazine). 42-year-old Manhattan native Isaac Davis (Allen) has a job he hates, a seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), he doesn't love, and a lesbian ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), who's writing a tell-all book about their marriage…and whom he'd like to strangle. But when he meets his best friend's sexy intellectual mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton), Isaac falls head over heels in lust! Leaving Tracy, bedding Mary, and quitting his job are just the beginning of Isaac's quest for romance and fulfillment in a city where sex is as intimate as a handshake -- and the gateway to true love…is a revolving door.

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne, Karen Ludwig, Michael O'Donoghue
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress-Mariel Hemingway, Best Screenplay-Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman, 1980.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Digital Mono, Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 24 chapters; rated R; 96 min.; $19.98; 7/5/00.
Supplements: Collectible Booklet; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Geroge & Ira Gershwin | The Unruly Life of Woody Allen: A Biography - Marion Meade

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/D-

Call it a case of foreshadowing: when Woody Allen made Manhattan - part of which relates the romantic relationship of 42-year-old Isaac (Allen) and 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) - who knew the film would so strongly predict his own future? Although his partnership with stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn almost killed his career, at least the guy can say he warned us.

Granted, the romance in Manhattan lacks the pseudo-incestuous aspects of his real-life affair, but the kind of relationship depicted in the film nonetheless seemed pretty tawdry. It didn't quite enter Lolita territory, but it appeared fairly risqué in any case.

Actually, this May-December romance forms a fairly small part of Manhattan. The movie concerns itself with Isaac's relationships - current and past, in the case of his ex-wife - and places all of the events against the "majestic" backdrop on New York City. Two disclaimers need to appear here. First, I never have liked "the Big Apple". In fact, I think it's a stinking cesspool of a city. I spent about a week there last month and could not get over a) how nasty and smelly the place is, and b) how obnoxious so many of the residents are. And despite Mayor Giuliani's reforms, NYC still has more crazy dudes per square mile than any other city in the US. Obviously a lot of people feel a lot of affection for the place, but its charms absolutely escape me; after a week there, I felt ready to kill somebody, mainly due to the misplaced aggressiveness of Apple-dwellers. (Would it kill them to obey a traffic light just once?)

Second disclaimer: I've never felt much fondness for Allen's films either. Actually, that's not completely true, since I liked his stuff when I was a kid. Since then - zippo, or close to it. Ironically, I rather enjoyed the Allen films in which he didn't act; I liked Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days, both of which were charming and witty. However, when the Woodster himself steps before the camera - or when we get a stand-in, such as Mia Farrow in Alice or John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway - I usually feel disinterested in the material, and that's a best case scenario; I loathed Alice, as Farrow made for an Allen who was much more irritating than the real thing.

Ironically, my experiences with Allen on DVD have been surprisingly positive, even though I expected the worst from both occasions. First came Annie Hall last year, which I found to be a very winning and charming movie; it touched on relationships in ways that appeared realistic and rang true. More recently, I viewed 1999's Sweet and Lowdown, which I also thought was entertaining and enjoyable. SAL doesn't approach the heights of AH, but it made for a pleasant experience nonetheless.

Despite my stated dislike of so much of Allen's work, the fact stands that I've actually seen most of his films. Manhattan, however, is one I never took in prior to the arrival of this DVD. I believe this probably occurred because it was rated "R", and I was only 12 when it hit screens in 1979; my parents were willing to take me to some "R"-rated movies at that age, but it remained a fairly rare event, so Manhattan wasn't one of those occasions. By the time our family bought a VCR in 1983, any interest I'd felt in the film had dissipated, and I just never got around to seeing it.

Though my memory is far from perfect, I recall that Manhattan didn't receive terribly strong reviews. It followed the mild debacle that was 1978's Interiors, Allen's first attempt to make a "serious" film. Commercially and critically, Allen had reached his peak with 1977's AH, and Interiors clearly marked his attempt to branch out from the old tried and true.

Apparently it didn't work, as I don't recall a welcome reaction from critics or audiences. Manhattan was a mild retrenching for Allen; he went back to more comedic material, but it definitely seemed more serious than his prior efforts. Annie Hall covers similar territory but appears much lighter in tone and offers broader comedy than the semi-introspective Manhattan.

Annie Hall is also a better-focussed and more interesting film. After I watched Manhattan, I surveyed a number of reviews that discussed it "deep insights" and how it explores human nature, and my reaction was: huh? If anything, Manhattan seems much more shallow than Allen's prior work. I rarely felt the slightest clue as to what made these characters tick. Allen's Isaac is yet another variation on himself: neurotic, funny, smart, insecure. However, he felt like a less-full personality than AH's Alvy and the waffling he displays throughout the film - since he can't decide which romantic path to take - appears baffling to me; I never grasped what concerns influenced him.

Diane Keaton plays one of Isaac's women, the pretentious and annoying Mary. Though I don't like Keaton, she gave an excellent performance as Annie Hall; Keaton created a full-blooded, realistic character, something she fails to do here. Mary is just a batch of insecurity in search of a man. Her early scenes are great, as know-it-all Mary deflates Isaac's ego in a museum. However, after that, Mary became just another generic personality with little life.

As Isaac's other active romantic interest - teenybopper Tracy - Hemingway is a complete disaster. Frankly, I don't find her to be very attractive; from her flat chest to her gruff face, Hemingway is one of the least feminine women around, and she always reminded me of an East German swimmer. However, since beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, I'll ignore my visual preferences and examine her performance: a bottle of steroids downed by any of those Communist-bloc athletes could display more personality and emotion. To call Hemingway "flat" is to insult pancakes. Put bluntly, she stinks, and she causes any and all of her scenes to collapse.

Meryl Streep turns up in a one-note turn as Isaac's ex-wife Jill. Perhaps some omitted scenes fleshed out the character, but Streep simply comes across as hostile and bitter here, and the role seems to largely waste her formidable talents. (By the way, does anyone else suspect Jill inspired the "Carol" character on Friends? Jane Sibbett resembles this film's Streep, and the scenario depicted sure looks a lot like the fate faced by the TV show's Ross.)

Despite my many criticisms, Manhattan is not a bad film, and I didn't mind watching it. However, it's a relatively dull and unfunny one, especially from Allen. No, I'm not his biggest fan, but I can admit when he produces good work. Manhattan has built a strong reputation over the years, but the reasoning for this frankly eludes me. At its best, it provides a moderately witty and interesting view of relationships, but it lacks the truth and honesty of Annie Hall. In Manhattan, we see Woody Allen take himself too seriously, but not consider the subject matter seriously enough.

The DVD:

Manhattan appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Actually, some controversy exists in regard to the aspect ratio of Manhattan, as apparently the old letterboxed laserdisc edition displayed a wider image. I never owned that LD, so I can't compare, but I did think the DVD's picture looked a little cramped on a few occasions. Don't get me wrong; most of it seems adequately framed, but sometimes the sides appeared mildly cropped. Early in the film, we see a sign that reads "Broadway", but the edges are clipped. On other occasions, some actors seem shoved to the side more than they should. Overscan may cause some of this, but since others have mentioned it as well, I think there's a small problem with the framing; it shouldn't have a great affect on your enjoyment of the film, but be aware that it's there.

Manhattan displays some flaws but generally looks pretty good. Sharpness usually appears quite crisp and distinct; occasional wide shots seem mildly fuzzy, but not to an extreme. Moiré effects and jagged edges were pretty much non-existent, and I noticed far fewer artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV; occasional "ropiness" occurred, but very little.

The print itself betrayed a moderate number of faults. I saw mild grain during parts of the film, plus speckles popped up fairly frequently. Other problems included a hair or two, some scratches and nicks, and a small amount of grittiness. The print doesn't seem in bad shape, to be certain, but it could have used a little more cleaning.

Black levels generally seem adequately deep, though they appear somewhat muddy and gray at times; the overall impression is good but it becomes less than stellar on occasion. Shadow detail also seems a little weak, with some overly murky scenes throughout the film. Ultimately, Manhattan looks decent, and can appear very good at times, but the overall presentation rates no higher than a "B-".

Although it's only a monaural mix, I actually found the soundtrack of Manhattan to work fairly well. Of course, part of my relatively-high "B" rating occurs because the movie's 21 years old; mono tracks were much more common - and therefore acceptable - in that time period. As such, although Allen's recent Sweet and Lowdown featured a mono mix that actually sounds a little clearer than that for Manhattan, I gave it a much lower rating because it SAL compares so poorly with its peers from 1999; Manhattan stands up fairly well when compared to other 1979 pictures.

Dialogue seems nicely natural and distinct, with few problems related to intelligibility, and those that exist don't appear related to the recording itself; some of the speech in this film can be a bit rushed or mumbled. Effects are a very minor consideration in such a "chatty" movie, but they seemed clear and realistic. The score only features the songs of George Gershwin, and they appeared very crisp and clean, with a moderate amount of bass at times as well. The track seems mildly restricted, but seems quite good for its era.

Manhattan completely falls apart in only one area: supplemental features. All we find is the film's theatrical trailer. In this case, it appears to be the fault of the filmmaker, not the studio; Allen apparently doesn't like extras because he wants the movies to stand on their own. Whatever, Wood-man. In any case, there are virtually no supplements here, and I don't expect to find any on other Allen DVDs either.

Frankly, I didn't think much of Manhattan. It remained largely watchable and mildly entertaining, but it seemed shallow and lacked characters or events that would interest me. The DVD itself looks and sounds fairly good, but it fails to include any notable supplemental features. Manhattan is Woody Allen for the die-hards; they'll likely enjoy it, but I think more casual fans should go with some of his other efforts.

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