Sceneplay: Manhattan

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by Adam BurrowsWoody Allen’s Manhattan has produced one of film’s most memorable and iconographic love scenes. Mary (Diane Keaton) and Ike (Woody Allen) meet at a party and ride home in a cab together. At first Mary plays coy to Ike’s subtle and sharp wit. But soon, his humour wins her over, and their midnight stroll takes them to a bench by the 59th Street Bridge, looking over the river and watching the sunrise. Douglas Brode thinks this scene perhaps the movie’s strongest moment: “In the film’s most unforgettable image, Mary and Isaac grow deeply involved with one another on a wistful New York late-night interlude.” Accompanied by Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”, sumptuously photographed in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the scene is irresistibly romantic.
But behind Ike and Mary’s blossoming relationship, like all other attachments in Manhattan, is a dysfunction which will cause future upset. As the couple come to rest for the scene’s final shot on the river bank, Allen shows his genius for composing a single image which both romanticises and disrupts the moment. The wide-screen format used by Allen in the film allows for the positioning of Mary and Ike to the extreme right of the frame. The industrial towers to the extreme left of the frame disrupt the visual harmony and contribute to the feeling of disjunction about the couple.They appear dwarfed by the magnificent and imposing bridge which dominates the shot.

The characters even comment on the beauty of the city as Ike says “This city is really a great city, I don’t care what anyone says.” But his enthusiasm is met with a harsh rebuke from Mary, who reminds Ike that she has a lunch date with another man later that day.

Mary’s sudden realisation of other personal engagements occurs in the context of what we already know about the characters themselves. Ike is dating a 17-year old schoolgirl, perhaps to overcome the depression of his failed marriage. Mary is the dutiful mistress to Yale, a married man and Ike’s best friend. As characters, they can both be forgiven for wanting to indulge in the romantic sunset, but they must face the reality of their own romantic failures to begin with.

The bridge itself plays a part in Allen’s visual genius. It is not the Brooklyn Bridge of 8mm or the Verrazano of Saturday Night Fever, this is the little known 59th Street Bridge which links NYC to the district of Queens. It is also better known in literary terms as the bridge which links Manhattan to the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. These may be facts of local and literary knowledge, but they prove that director Woody Allen was not simply placing his tripod in front of any old bridge in Manhattan. Nor was cinematographer Gordon Willis clumsily aligning his shot so that it looked nice and romantic. In the modern contemporary culture of one of the world’s biggest cities, Woody Allen teaches us that romance is a transient thing. Like the New York sunrise, it can be breathtaking, but it also signifies the onset of new problems.

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