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Home Reviews BFI Woody Allen Season Woody at the BFI: Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan
Woody at the BFI: Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 13:16

Manhattan review, opening scene - Woody Allen BFI season 

"Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. No, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over."

It's impossible not to quote that monologue when talking about Woody Allen movies - and the BFI Woody Allen season doesn't disappoint. And so we turn to Manhattan, a location so adored by the director that it gave its name to the title of his movies. Twice.


Manhattan (1979)

It's hard to think of a better opening to a film than Allen's 1979 masterpiece. At the height of his abilities, he put together a breathtaking montage full of post-modern wit, fireworks and - of course - George Gershwin. When you see those fireworks exploding over the New York skyline in photographic black-and-white, it's impossible not to fall a little in love with the city yourself.

Manhattan is full of falling in love - and not knowing what to do about it. Allen's middle-aged Isaac (divorced from a brilliant Meryl Streep) is dating a 17 year old schoolgirl (the heartbreakingly innocent Mariel Hemingway - deservedly nominated for an Oscar) but keeps telling himself he should break it off. His best friend is in a similar spot, sleeping with Diane Keaton despite his happy marriage.

As each man fails to commit, Keaton and Allen inevitably wind up together, strolling through Manhattan's hotspots. It all looks gorgeous (Manhattan is surely one of the most beautiful films of all time), with cinematographer Gordon Willis and Allen working to keep the black-and-white contrast high and framing seductive. One evening, the couple walk through an observatory, disappearing into the darkness with just a fragment of light to pick out their faces.

That moment alone is worth the price of admission - and it's testament to Allen's skill as a visual storyteller.

Ultimately, just as you start to have a little faith in Isaac, the film breaks it off with you, leaving you to look back, smiling, with that postcard mentality that attaches events in your life to the landmarks around you. Manhattan is a subtle, accomplished study of romance, cynicism and maturity, and that's what makes it such a memorable tribute to an iconic location - not as a tourist, but in the most personal sense.



Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

It's 1993. Mia Farrow and Woody Allen have split amid controversy involving his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Left without a leading lady, Allen turned to (who else?) Diane Keaton. What followed was a reunion of two kindred talents that tackled both marital problems and crime fiction with an endearing wit.

For many, Carol and Larry are essentially the older Alvie and Annie from Annie Hall - indeed, the script for the former started with the latter - and the world-weary couple match like a pair of old shoes, right down to the leather wrinkles. But something in their married life sticks out like a sore thumb: their neighbour, the brilliantly named Mr. House. One day, they see him carry his wife's dead body out of the flat. He says it was a heart attack, but Carol is convinced otherwise.

Running around like a crazed Miss Marple, Carol dominates the screen, pushing her nose into everyone's business until she can prove her suspicions. An exasperated Larry tries to assert his manly authority and take charge of the situation. "I'm your husband, I'm commanding you to sleep," he squawks. "Sleep! I command it!" 

It's a neat subversion of gumshoe conventions that Allen is toying with - the ending shootout, for example, is a play upon the climax of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai. Her brain warped by noir expectations, Carol's obsession leads to Rear Window-esque snooping around their neighbours' homes and a ludicrous attempt at a blackmailing phone call.

Why is Carol so fascinated by Mr. House? Is it a way to keep her and Larry's relationship going? "This is the most exciting thing that's happened in our marriage," she observes at one point. Or is it an inherent part of living in a Manhattan apartment block? Boxed in by other people's lives, stacked against secrets, the cramped city life is a hive of potential serial killers.

For Larry, this isn't a problem. "New York is a melting pot! I'm used to it!" he says. He enjoys living there, murderer or no murderer. The same seems true of Alan Alda's best friend and Angelica Huston's eager onlooker. 

14 years on from Manhattan, Allen's Murder Mystery was a string of crowd-pleasing partnerships. Firstly, between the director and his leading lady. Secondly, between the author and his co-writer Marshall Brickman. But mostly, between Woody and his titular home town.

Whether the city is informing his plot, influencing his characters, inspiring his visuals or defining his relationships, Allen really does have a thing for Manhattan. He opens with a swooping helicopter shot over the skyline. A loud lounge singer bellows: "I happen to love New York!" And he doesn't care if the neighbours hear it.



Manhattan Murder Mystery is showing tonight at the BFI. Manhattan is screening on Sunday 22nd January. For more reviews, read the rest of our Woody Allen retrospective. For more information and to book tickets, head to the official BFI site.


  • alan alda
  • angelica huston
  • annie hall
  • diane keaton
  • film noir
  • george gershwin
  • gordon willis
  • manhattan
  • manhattan murder mystery
  • mariel hemingway
  • meryl streep
  • mia farrow