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Deconstructing Manhattan

Movies have long had flashy and impressive opening title sequences. In the 1950s, graphic designer Saul Bass lashed up motion graphics and modernist stylings to movie credits for such classic Alfred Hitchcock films as Northwest by Northwest and Psycho and revolutionized the industry. Following his lead, Maurice Binder made the opening titles of the James Bond movies into their own miniature productions, filled with silhouetted scantily-clad girls moving in hypnotic slow motion across the giant Panavision screen. And Star Wars’ opening crawl, inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of a generation earlier, but  created using then-bleeding-edge Industrial Light & Magic technology, combined with John Williams’ stirring music and ending with a giant Star Destroyer spacecraft swooping in from atop the screen blew audiences out of their seats, and raised the bar for a generation of movie makers and completely upended late-‘70s-era Hollywood.

But is it possible for an opening title sequence to be so powerful, it completely distorts the meaning of the film that follows? The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Manhattan certainly qualifies, mixing Woody’s very funny opening narration, (“Chapter One, he adored New York”), George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gordon Willis’ knockout black and white cinematography, and, of course, the carefully selected and rhythmically edited underlying images of New York itself. It’s absolutely stirring stuff, which must have been doubly so seen on the big screen, and I suspect that sequence alone left a lot of 1979-era moviegoers thinking Manhattan would be like the sequel to 1977’s warm, ingratiating Annie Hall.

Beyond the title sequence, in a way, the rest of Allen’s Manhattan is as much of a triumph of production design and background music as such stylized high-‘80s movies as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Tim Burton’s Batman movies. With the exception of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, who’s clearly having lots of fun receiving an six million dollar paycheck (ultimately at least $60 mil once ticket grosses were counted) for rehashing his deranged but beloved Jack Torrance character from The Shining, these films are stuffed with dark, unsympathetic characters, behaving immorally, but surrounded by brilliant music and production design.

Similarly, Manhattan is no Annie Hall. Manhattan’s characters are much crueler than Alvy Singer and the eponymous Annie. Michael Murphy’s sidekick character in Manhattan is cheating on his wife with Diane Keaton’s coarse f-bomb-dropping wannabe critic. There’s a cameo appearance from Michael O'Donoghue, at the height of his lecherous “Mr. Mike” phase on the first iteration of Saturday Night Live. And of course, Woody’s 42-year old character is dating a 17-year old student played by Mariel Hemingway, foreshadowing Woody’s own fall from grace a decade later with Soon Yi; and then goes on to betray his best friend by cheating on the teenager with the best friend’s cheatee/mistress. His character has a young son being raised by his passive-aggressive and vindictive divorced wife (played by Meryl Streep in an early role) and her lesbian partner. For a film in which Woody’s character says he’s writing a novel “about decaying values,” the characters in his film seem to display them in Weimer-sized abundance.

Perhaps the best example occurs near the climax of the film, when Woody’s character, dictating ideas for his novel into a tape recorder, asks “what makes life worth living?”

Notice who’s missing? Merely his son.