Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen's Manhattan is book ended by luscious images of New York City. No taxi cab laden traffic jams, no signs of the melting pot, no projects or condemned structures. The City here is depicted as firework lit skylines, boulevards and lights: Allen's idealized Big Apple. And with the perfect addition of Gershwin's bravado score, a Rhapsody in Black and White, the experience is raised to an epic level. The lives that play out within this Manhattan, however, are far from epic.

In Allen fashion, these are middle-aged characters, anxious, unconfident and, as the film progresses, further confused. Mary (Diane Keaton), the object of affection in a love triangle of sorts, indecisively wallows between Isaac (Allen) and his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). Meanwhile Isaac wallows between Mary and his high school aged sweetie, Tracy. (Mariel Hemingway). These tribulations are secondary, though, to the real main character, the strictly composed mise en scene. Instilled, then, is a noir sensibility, but without the standard noir narratives and the overwhelmingly bleak and cynical viewpoint. Allen's film is full of cynicism and depression, sure, but here it is played for humor first: kisses and laughs, not death, are at stake. These players are not blatantly and despairingly beaten down by their urban world, but are subtly reduced by it, rendering their actions and concerns relatively inconsequential.

In classic noir fashion, characters are often placed in shadow, hidden (overcome) by their natural surroundings. But this, along with the film's prevalent lighting preference for contrast over shades of gray, is where the noir aspect of Manhattan's visual style ends. There is no implementation of compositional diagonals or oblique camera angles; every frame is controlled and void of randomness. And source lit interiors are preferred to the formalized patterns of artificial studio lighting. Manhattan's is a style-as- lack-of-style, a modern interpretation, responding to noir's post-war visual rantings.

It can be said that the strongest themes winding through Manhattan concern how people create facades and identities, attempting to convince themselves and others of their worth and stature. (Classic noir characters babble tough-talk and manipulate, here they intellectualize and manipulate.) The film's narrative systematically erodes these fronts; it concludes as Isaac, realizing that his most comfortable relationship had been with the young and unassuming Tracy, rushes to her apartment in an attempt to convince her to cancel a six month schooling trip to London. Tracy, in turn, explains that she will not be gone for long, and will return to resume her life with him. In the film's final moments, Tracy, in a role reversal of partners, takes the position of the life-experienced elder. Following Isaac's Allenesque rambling of cynicism and nerves, and in a tone of both innocence and confidence (two traits void in any true noir tale), she tells Isaac to "have a little faith in people." And his reaction, long, silent and with skeptical acknowledgment, paired with Tracy's wisdom, is the perfect conclusive moment, negating the perceived importance of the films revolving emotional charade.

Text by Kirk Hostetter