Did you know that Woody Allen so disliked his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan that he offered United Artists to direct a subsequent movie for free if they shelved it? Perhaps he felt that he put too much of himself on screen, or perhaps he thought the next film after his 1977 Best-Picture-winning Annie Hall would not be as well-received or as artistic. But thankfully for us, UA didn't listen to him.
I was quite surprised when I learned that this was an historical fact. And after watching this nearly flawless film again recently, I decided it was worth revisiting on its 25th birthday and assessing its urban properties as compared to the Manhattan landscape of 2004. What I discovered when I looked through this lens was that the film was able to freeze the city. Manhattan became timeless in Manhattan.
The last sentences of the film's opening voiceover (spoken by Woody, as TV writer Isaac Davis) are uttered with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the soundtrack and while we see New York City through the breathtaking black-and-white lens of Gordon Willis; as it was then and now-bustling and beautiful. After failed attempts to properly begin his book and introduce the city to us, Isaac comes up with this: "Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be..." And then the crescendo of Gershwin erupts. However, before we actually meet Isaac and the film's cast, we know its title (the only Woody film whose title is uniquely presented-as a vertically flashing parking sign), we hear these words, and we know that the movie will introduce us to an assemblage of characters, but what we see here is that the setting is just as important as these characters-where they say it will be just as important as what they say.
In his review for The New York Times, published the day the film opened, Vincent Canby wrote: "I suspect there will be much more to say about Manhattan in the future. Mr. Allen's progress as one of our major filmmakers is proceeding so rapidly that we who watch him have to pause occasionally to catch our breath." Canby may have been a Woody Allen devotee, but I doubt there is a true Manhattanite that does not watch Woody, or at least seek him out along the paths of Central Park (where I once passed him). Because so many of his movies are based in Manhattan, to be a consummate New Yorker, I would argue, is also to know its movies. Woody belongs in New York, he is the "jungle cat behind the black-rimmed glasses," but he also belongs to New York. And Manhattan is his Ode, his Sonnet, his Treatise on the Greatness of the City. Woody is our tour guide here, ushering us from one landmark to the next-and the irony is that all of the landmarks of 1979 Manhattan have remained:
But he returns
to it. And then the just-turned-eighteen Tracy is wise enough to speak
the film's last line (with "Rhapsody" again in the background):
"Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in
people." Isaac, two decades older, ironically and purposefully ends
his relationship with Tracy at the counter of a soda fountain while she
drinks a juvenile malt and a delicate tear runs down her cheek. And then
months later she tells him that he should have faith in people. Her innocence
is refreshing, and her maturity beyond her years is simultaneously fascinating.
This moment is actually quite like the city itself-overwhelmingly tall
and dark yet filled with many moments and places of intimacy; corrupt
yet filled with an undeniable energy; dirty but massively beautiful. In
a word: Timeless.