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Blu-ray Review: Manhattan (1979)

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This past Tuesday, Woody Allen was nominated for two Academy Awards for his latest film, Midnight in Paris (the picture itself also earned a Best Picture nomination, but Allen is not a producer on the film).  Not coincidentally, more than two classic Allen films hit Blu-ray for the first time on Tuesday.  No, it was not a certainty that Allen would be nominated, but the discussion around Midnight in Paris has been largely excellent and its awards’ potential has been high.

To this point in his career (including Midnight in Paris), Woody Allen has been nominated for 23 Oscars and has three wins.  One of the nominations which did not result is for the screenplay for 1979’s Manhattan, one of this past week’s Blu-ray releases.

Vintage Allen, Manhattan stars the comedic legend as Isaac, a divorced Jewish man living in New York, looking for love, and generally finding himself in situations more difficult than they might need to be.  In the case of this particular film, Isaac starts out dating the far younger, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), only to fall in love with his best friend’s mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton).  Isaac makes a good living as a television writer but, naturally, hates what he does because he sees it as too low brow.

For much of the film, while every change he makes may lead to momentary bits of happiness, they are quickly overturned.  As examples, Yale (Michael Murphy), the best friend, decides he doesn’t like Isaac dating his ex-mistress, and Isaac needs to move out of his apartment after leaving his job.  These are obvious complications from before Isaac began to proceed down any of these roads, but he still cannot manage to avoid them and actually seems moderately surprised when facing them.

Anyone who has seen the character Allen has tended to play in general on film will be instantly familiar with Isaac, but certainly not for the worse.  With such a long career as the actor-director-writer of his films, there is a comfort to seeing Allen do his thing both in front of and behind the camera.  Beyond that though,  in Manhattan, Allen delivers the quick, deadpan, wit which has made him so enjoyable, and watching him interact on screen with Diane Keaton absolutely never gets old. 

The film also displays, as is regularly a trademark of Allen’s work, a sense of  intelligence.  Allen’s characters (both those played by him and not) regularly throw around tons of high art concepts along with philosophical notions and a general awareness of literature and film, but they do so in a way that makes it clear that while the concepts inform the film Allen still manages to make them the butt of jokes.

As for the direction, the film is full of long takes, dark streets, and a sense of love of the city in which Isaac lives, even if it doesn’t necessarily appear classically beautiful for much of it.  There is, somewhere, a full discussion that could be had about the ways in which Isaac’s love life parallels the city—much like New York, love isn’t easy, there’s constantly traffic, and it definitely rains, but for all the problems, it’s still worth it—but such a discussion is for wiser minds.

In this day and age when romantic comedies are all too often lazy and predictable, watching a vintage Woody Allen film like Manhattan shows just how much better they can be.  The film is full of heart, full of life, and full of humor; it manages to be both sentimental and absurd at the same time; it is slow-paced without ever being lethargic; and it is a wonderful treat to sit down and watch.

 

What Manhattan doesn’t have, at least in this release, is much in the way of special features.  It only has a theatrical trailer which, while not a surprise, is nonetheless a disappointment.

Shot in black and white with a mono soundtrack, even on Blu-ray the film looks and sounds quite good.  While the print is exceptionally clean both audio-wise and with its visuals, there is loads of grain and many nighttime scenes feature characters lost in the blackness that surrounds them.  These both seem to be intentional choices, although the darkness is a little too all-encompassing at times.  The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack allows all the various verbal thrusts and parries to come through cleanly, as does the wonderful music by George Gershwin. 

In short, Manhattan is a wonderful, beautiful, film that has been delivered to us on Blu-ray in fine fashion.  It is a timeless piece by one of the greatest talents film has ever known.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.