The twenty-second of February, 2011: he adored New York City

Yet another viewing of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All right, it’s not as funny (or as sweet) as Annie Hall (1977) and as a drama it’s not in the same league as Hannah And Her Sisters (1986). But I love it, mainly because of how it looks.

It’s been pointed out by someone more insightful than me that, at around the same time as Martin Scorsese was painting New York City as hell, Allen was painting it as paradise. I’d really like to know how much of Manhattan‘s mesmerising look – not only the Gershwin-backed cityscapes but also the inventively framed interiors shots, where walls and staircases in cramped apartments intrude on intimate scenes, and the disorienting off-centre long shots (as when Yale is looking over the car) – was down to Allen, and how much was down to the brilliant cinematographer Gordon Willis (who, with The Godfather (the greatest-looking as well as the greatest film ever made) also on his CV, has a good claim to be the most under-appreciated genius in American cinema).

I have a feeling that Allen was responsible for one of Manhattan‘s visual keynotes: the silent-film look of a number of scenes. Apart from the dumbshow sight-gag comedy of Allen and his kid looking in the toyshop window, or Allen overseeing the crew of clumsy removal men, there’s a real pre-talkie melodrama to, say, Allen kissing Mariel Hemingway in the horse-drawn carriage, or brooding over the harmonica, or (particularly) gazing at her through a glass door as she brushes her hair in the climactic scene.  I know that Sleeper (1973) was Allen’s homage to the era of silent comedy, and that he made this, but I’d be interested to know how influential silent melodrama was for him.

Maybe I’m just being misled by the orchestral score: Rhapsody In Blue (1924), after all, places the soul of Manhattan squarely in the golden age of silent film.


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