Manhattan (Blu-ray Review)

Forty-two-year-old Manhattan native Isaac Davis (Allen) has a job he hates, a seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), he doesn’t love, and a lesbian ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), who’s writing a tell-all book about their marriage…and whom he’d like to strangle. But when he meets his best friend’s sexy intellectual mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton), Isaac falls head over heels in lust! Leaving Tracy, bedding Mary and quitting his job are just the beginnings of Isaac’s quest for romance and fulfillment in a city where sex is as intimate as a handshake – and the gateway to true love…is a revolving door.  Nominated for two Academy Awards, Manhattan is a wry, touching and finely rendered portrait of modern relationships set against the backdrop of urban alienation.  Sumptuously photographed in black and white and accompanied by a magnificent Gershwin score, Manhatten is one of Woody Allen’s finest movies.


After the huge success of Annie Hall (read my review here), Woody Allen went a new dramatic direction with Interiors which wasn’t received as well but it’s pretty hard to top Annie Hall.  Allen’s next movie would bridge both movies as it would have the comedic one-lines like Annie Hall but it would be grounded as well much like Interiors.  Manhattan is another one of Allen’s relationship movies, a concept that seems to have fascinated him throughout his long prolific career.  Instead of focusing on just one relationship like in Annie Hall, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman expanded it to two couples, each with their own issues.

The movie opens sans titles to black and white images of New York City accompanied by “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  By the time the song is over, Allen has already set the mood for the movie and did it without a single bit of dialogue.  Even the title of the movie is only given to us through a neon sign outside a building that flashes “Manhattan.”  In this movie, Allen is still playing the same character he usually plays but this time he’s called Isaac Davis and he’s an unhappy writer for television.  Isaac is currently dating a seventeen year old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) which is somewhat unsettling to see for many reasons but the two seem happy.  Isaac’s best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is happily married to a woman named Emily (Anne Byrne) but later confides to Isaac that he’s not only a serial cheater, but that he’s currently cheating on her with a journalist named Mary (Diane Keaton).

Ironically, while Isaac has no problem having sex with seventeen year old girls at his age, he does draw the line on cheating on your wife and he tells Yale he should break it off.  Yale doesn’t listen and even introduces Mary to Isaac and Tracy at an art exhibition.  Right away the opinionated Mary drives Isaac crazy as she insults the art he likes, but when she badmouths Ingmar Bergman, it’s the last straw for Isaac who wants nothing to do with her.  After his divorce from Jill (Meryl Streep), Isaac unconsciously avoids strong experienced women (which is partly why he’s comfortable with Tracy) because Jill crushed him when she decided she was a lesbian and got involved with another woman named Connie (Karen Ludwig).  It doesn’t help that Jill is writing a tell-all book about her relationship with Isaac which he knows will reveal every personal thing that happened between him which makes him angry and anxious.

Issac accidentally runs back into Mary at a fund-raising event and this time they hit it off better.  He accompanies her back to her place and goes on a walk with her that culminates in a sublime shot of the two of them on a bench near the Queensboro Bridge as night shifts to early morning.  Despite his growing attraction and interest in Mary, he doesn’t act on it because he want to be a loyal friend to Yale.  So he continues to see Tracy but keeps telling her not to get too serious about him since she is too young to worry about that at this point in her life.  He advises her to go to London to study acting.  When Yale finally decides the risk isn’t worth his marriage, he breaks up with Mary and then later tells Isaac to ask her out.  Now that he can see Mary without feeling like he was betraying Yale, Isaac breaks up with a heartbroken Tracy and starts up a relationship with Mary.

Time passes and Yale tries to get Mary back even though she’s dating Isaac and Mary confesses to Isaac that she still loves Yale.  When Yale separates with Emily to be free for Mary, Mary decides to join him which leaves Isaac feeling betrayed by both of them.  At this point, the film abandons any effort at comedy and becomes a pure drama as Isaac confronts Yale for his treachery and later realizes that he misses Tracy who is about to take his advice and fly to London to study acting.  I won’t go into any further details about the ending other than to say that it’s a lot more ambiguous than Annie Halls and leaves many plot threads dangling with no resolution at all.

I have mixed feelings about the film as I love the comedic moments but I’m not so thrilled with the melodrama that takes over the last half of the film.  I think it’s fairly sad that the most stable and grounded character in this movie is the seventeen year old Tracy.  She knows exactly what she wants, who she loves, and is completely unselfish and more giving than any other character in the movie.  It’s a quiet and understated role and Mariel Hemingway was so good in it that she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Diane Keaton as Mary is a polar opposite of Annie Hall.  Mary is focused, opinionated, pushy, and thinks she’s smarter than she really is.

I didn’t care much for the character of Yale as played by Michael Murphy since he seemed like a scumbag due to how he treated his wife but at least he seemed like a good friend to Isaac until the end revealed the sum total of all of his douchebaggery.  Allen is always good playing Allen and he seems even more assured as an actor and as a director for this movie.   It’s interesting to note that Allen was initially unhappy with it and asked United Artists not to release it.  He even offered to make another movie for free in exchange since as he said later, “I just thought to myself, ‘At this point in my life, if this is the best I can do, they shouldn’t give me money to make movies.”  Fortunately for movie audiences everywhere, United Artists declined his offer and Allen’s tale of troubled love in New York City was shared with the world to much acclaim.


This 1080p (2.35:1) transfer is beautiful to watch as you can see Allen’s love for New York captured in every frame. This transfer is a lot better than the previous home video releases and it’s even better than the recent Blu-ray release of Annie Hall.  The black and white cinematography shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis is gorgeous to look at and Allen really let him do his thing since a good portion of the movie takes place in shadows.  Thankfully, the black levels are suitably inky which is a good thing since several scenes are pitch black in this new transfer.  It’s hard to say if MGM went overboard or if this is how the film was supposed to look but it is a big difference over past releases.


Manhattan’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix isn’t as good as the high definition transfer but it is faithful to the original intentions of Woody Allen.  At this point, most fans should be aware that Allen isn’t that worried about adding a powerful 7.1 mix to his movies which to be honest isn’t as bad as it sounds.  All of his movies are notoriously dialogue driven and this 2.0 mix does a nice job delivering it clearly and without any hissing or other defects.  Even with this being a 2.0 mono mix, the multiple George Gershwin songs sound very good and it’s rare to hear this much music in a Woody Allen movie and it adds a lot to the experience.

Special Features  

While I can live with the 2.0 mono mix, I am not happy at this trend of Woody Allen movies not having any special features other than the trailer for the movie.  There’s been a ton of interviews with the man so how hard would it be to add a couple of those?  It’s also unfortunate because it keeps lowering my final score too.

Final Thoughts  

While I don’t have the same love for Manhattan that I do for Annie Hall and the “earlier, funnier movies” that he referenced later in a line in Stardust Memories.  People seem to be split on Allen’s catalog of films with half usually preferring his early ones, while others like his more somber darker later films.  Yes I am one of those early film supporters but that’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed his later films too.  Woody Allen has such a unique comic voice that I love his early work the most because his sole goal at that point was to make you laugh as much as possible. Manhattan represents the point where he still had one foot in the comedy world as he moved towards more dramatic work.  Fans of all phases of Woody’s career should find something to enjoy in this dramedy!

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2 Responses to “Manhattan (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. Aaron Neuwirth

    I like Annie Hall a lot, it’s a great film. I love Manhattan. The score, the story, the cinematography, all great stuff. Glad to see it on Blu, despite similar issues with Annie Hall (no bonus love)

  2. Sean Ferguson

    I figured you’d like this one more. I agree that it’s sad that there’s no extras on this one either. That’s two strikes!