FILM (1979)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway
Director: Woody Allen

'Chapter One: He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. Ah, corny, too corny for, you know, my taste. Let me, let me try and make it more profound ...'

And so Woody Allen's character, Isaac Davis, stumbles on trying desperately to find the right beginning to his novel, one he hopes will do justice to the city he adores. Allen's narration over striking black-and-white images of New York, as George Gershwin plays thunderously in the background, is one of the best openings to a film you'll see.

It is Allen's love letter to the Big Apple, one he starred in, directed and co-wrote with Marshall Brickman. Ironically, the one person who didn't speak about it affectionately afterwards was Allen himself. After finishing the film, he was so unhappy with it that he asked United Artists not to release it, and offered to make a film for free instead. To this day, he has never explained why, but when you're dealing with a subject so close to your heart maybe only perfection will do.

The film revolves around the tangled love lives of New York's intelligentsia. Allen plays a dejected television writer whose married best friend (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with the tightly wound Mary (Diane Keaton). Allen ends up falling for Keaton, a move that is made more complicated as he's already in a relationship with the much younger Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Throughout, Allen's wit sparkles, most notably when lampooning the New York intellectuals he knows so well.

'Hey, you call that guy that you talk to a doctor? I mean, you don't get suspicious when your analyst calls you at home at three in the morning and weeps into the telephone?' he says to the high-maintenance Keaton. When he argues that the same analyst did a great job on Keaton because her self esteem is 'a notch below Kafka's', it really doesn't get much better.

One thing doesn't add up though. Allen's character is 42 years old, while his girlfriend is 17. Even in this masterpiece his relationship with the much younger, beautiful woman seems out of place. Was he, even at the height of his powers, a bit of a dirty old man? The relationship doesn't seem that odd in the film. It's more of what's happened in the intervening years that hurts the movie today - his controversial marriage to the adopted daughter of former lover Mia Farrow, and over the past 10 years, the voyeuristic casting of some of the most beautiful young women in the world in his films.

But this aside, there's no doubting that Manhattan is a classic. Say what you like about Allen. New York is his town, and always will be.