I think I love Manhattan as much as Woody Allen does. Maybe more, because I’ve never lived there, never had a chance to grow even a little bit accustomed to it. Every trip to Manhattan (the Bronx, and Staten Island, too!) is a magical moment for me. So when this love poem to Manhattan began unreeling on the screen for the first time in glorious black and white to the sounds of one of my Top Ten pieces of music of all time, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I actually choked up. This time, too.
It is filmed in many of the greatest places on the island. Zabar’s, Elaine’s (now gone), the Hayden Planetarium. Bloomie’s, the Village, Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim, the Russian Tea Room, the Whitney, the Temple of Dendur, and the iconic scene of Woody and Diane Keaton sitting on the bench at sunrise with their backs to the camera and the 59th Street Bridge looming in the mist before them. It was all filmed by Gordon Willis, known as “The Prince of Darkness” because of his penchant for using shadows, dim lighting, back-lighting, or lighting only part of the frame … and never making it look too “arty” or inappropriate.
If that’s all this movie was, just an ode to Manhattan and the music of George Gershwin, I would have been happy. But it is so much more than that. It is not only one of Woody Allen’s best love stories, it is one of the best romantic films of all time.
Although all the performances are first-rate (and it’s one of Woody’s best), the astonishing one is by Mariel Hemingway, who really was seventeen going on eighteen when this was filmed. The contrast between her innocent simplicity and the choking neuroses and intemperate swings of emotion, getting together and breaking up of the other four principles is heartbreaking. She is by far the most grown-up of the characters, and the only one who can really be hurt. All the others are tied up in ego, instant gratification, self-congratulation, and their deeply screwed-up emotional entanglements and intellectual masturbation that they seem more than a little repulsive to me. All she knows is that she is in love, and Woody treats her like a disposable paper towel. When he wants to get it on with Diane Keaton, he tells Mariel to go off to school in London. When Diane ditches him, he runs all the way across town to stop her on the way to the airport and tell her not to go. This is so monstrous I wanted to yank him out of the screen and slap him around a little. Hell, a lot.
Woody has made a hell of a lot of good films since this one, and Annie Hall, but he’s never made me cry before or since. I should watch this film at least once a year, it’s that good.