It's called Manhattan. At once, the title suggests utterly familiar Woody terrain, but its sheer bluntness implies something special, an impression that this is "the one," the film that gets at everything Allen feels about the second greatest love of his life (after himself, though the two can't so easily be pried apart.) It remains his most fawning love letter to the city. An opening line, one of the scrapped "Chapter One" intros, admits that the conception of the city here is romantic, idealized, and personal without apology. Manhattan's Manhattan is a dream, a wish, a memory - that it's the best place on Earth, ever, is made impossible to deny, if only for 96 minutes and however long until the trance wears off, if it does, before you immediately move from wherever else you're wasting your life. The case for this New York is made right out of the gate, in one of the most ravishing opening sequences in all of cinema - Gordon Willis's sublime black and white static shots, some near, some far, scored to "Rhapsody in Blue." Recognizable without being dully iconic, the images should muffle whatever resistance other-city loyalists might raise.
The visuals elsewhere are no less elegant, Allen and Willis having given themselves over to uncorked romanticism. There are the graceful driving scenes, with the camera following various cabs or Yale (Michael Murphy)'s convertible down different city highways, so much in contrast to the madcap stuff on Annie Hall's roads. It doesn't get better than the early dawn shot of Allen's Isaac and Diane Keaton's Mary silhouetted on a bench framed by the 59th Street Bridge (as Isaac talks about the city being a "real knockout.") Standing apart from these is the wonderful scene in the Hayden Planetarium, where Isaac and Mary fall in love in the shadow of Saturn. It's an apt place to set the birth of a sensation as bizarre as love, and key to it is how Willis's photography leaves all of the museum mundanities (ropes, other visitors) in the dark, leaving only space.
Disregarding the look and feel, is Manhattan's central story "business as usual" for Allen? Well, yes. It's a familiar group of four plagued with a familiar bunch of problems, and the dialogue's the same potpourri of one-liners, neurotic insecurities, and dismissals and defenses of Allen's beloved artistic figures. The story is neither as funny nor romantic as Annie Hall, neither as rife with pathos as Husbands and Wives nor as heartbreaking as Sweet and Lowdown. But that's high company, and Manhattan still has all of those things in proportion. It's consistently hilarious, from Mary's "I'm from Philadelphia. We believe in God," to the hilarious sight gag revelation of her "devastating," "brilliant" sexual dynamo ex-husband played by... Wallace Shawn, a "homunculus." When Isaac dumps the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) because of their huge age difference, he protests that she should be hanging out with boys her own age, kids named "Billy, Biff, Scooter, or little Tommy."
What struck me most on a recent viewing is just how cruelly Isaac treats Tracy. He's never unaware how wrong it is that he's 42 and she's a teen, but he's lazy to do anything about it, and loves to talk about how great and "record-breaking" their sex is. He disregards her pleas of affection and love for him as childish dreaming even as it's plain before his eyes. When he dumps her for Mary only to find she's still in love with his married friend Yale, Isaac callously reappears in Tracy's life, begging her not to go to London. (His impetuous race down the street to catch her comes after he's listing his reasons to live and thinks of her face, but only after he checks off Groucho Marx, Swedish films, and Willie Mays.) Worse, he's even self-righteous enough (Yale's words) to excoriate his friend for his waffling on Mary, condemning Yale's snaky "rationalizations" while forgiving his own with Tracy.
All are a little stained in the end except for the young girl, who leaves open the possibility for a future affair with Isaac after her six-month stint. "Not everybody gets corrupted," she tells him. "You have to have a little faith in people." No and yes. Manhattan freely exposes its characters' corruption, but its ultimate devotion is to romance, consciously fogging one's own vision to see people, and a city, in the handsomest light. Manhattan plays January 5th and 6th at Film Forum, and it's definitely better big than small.