Four Frames: Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

Until the late nineteen-seventies, Woody Allen had only produced farces and slapstick comedies. It was with the release of Annie Hall (1977), a significant turning point in his career, that Allen demonstrated his intent to produce films that were thematically mature, dramatic, and emotionally engaging. What followed broke the mould for the filmmaker. Beautifully photographed by Gordon Willis in timeless monochrome, Manhattan (1979) cemented Woody Allen’s emergence as a serious and incredibly proficient director – a reputation he has upheld ever since.

The second meeting between Isaac (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) demonstrates the hate-at-first-sight tactics employed by Allen. In an earlier scene in the film, whilst visiting a museum with his teenage girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway), Isaac is introduced to Mary by their mutual friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). Following their meeting, Isaac expresses his dislike and disdain for Mary, describing her as a pretentious pseudo-intellectual because of her opinionated and outspoken demeanour. In this scene, Isaac inadvertently meets Mary at a Equal Rights Amendment fund-raising party and, to their surprise, the two form a rapport.

Manhattan 1

The first frame captures Isaac and Mary at a fund-raising party. What is immediately conspicuous is the crowded and populous staging of the characters within the frame. In a very tight and compact medium shot, Allen masterfully positions six characters in the scene, with Isaac and Mary spatially dispersed within the frame, against the bustling background of the Manhattan party.

Manhattan 2

Subsequently, Isaac and Mary are captured getting out of a taxi cab in an extreme wide shot where they are are almost indiscernible; etched against the dominant, encompassing and visibly macroscopic presence and backdrop of the city. With the camera slowly tracking backwards and the characters walking and talking to each other, the scene facilely transforms into a tight, medium shot; the utilisation of black and white and the seamless movement of the camera undoubtedly makes the scene visually entrancing, mesmeric and romantic.

Manhattan 3

The final bridge scene is the visual culmination of the characters’ exploration of not only the city but of each other. Masterfully framed in an extreme wide shot, the utilisation of light and shadow is significant as the characters, who are positioned in the bottom right corner of the frame appear as faceless silhouettes against the incredibly majestic and sumptuous backdrop of Manhattan.

Manhattan 4

Allen presents the characters as almost existing within their own subjective, isolated and fantastical reality. Manhattan is presented as a magical, enchanting and romantic city; it is a result of the character’s exploration of the city that they develop feelings for each other; this is illustrated by their proxemics in this final frame as they are sat close together, marvelling at the magnificence of the city.

Tomisin Adepeju

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