Woody Allen said that when he paired with cinematographer Gordon Willis to work on his new film Manhattan, he wanted to give “a great look at New York City, which is sort of one of the characters in the film” (Gould). The film’s mise-en-scène makes it clear that a lot of Allen’s direction was done to show New York as a leading character in the movie, one that affects the other characters’ lives. The long tracking shots allow the audience to experience the city’s settings. The underexposure of the shots gives it a dark comedy vibe and accentuate the drama that protagonist Isaac struggles with. Throughout the movie he has the idea that people put themselves in situations that make their lives more complicated than they should be. Once Isaac comes to the realization that this is something he does himself, he heroically runs through New York City to see his beloved 17-year-old Tracy and asks for forgiveness for leaving her. This scene exemplifies the techniques that Allen uses to epitomize the city and Isaac’s emotions.
Manhattan was filmed in black and white. Allen said that he made this stylistic choice because he felt that it exhibited the city’s beauty and gave him a sense of nostalgia, since that is how he remembered the city from post cards (Gould). A lot of the imagery in the movie, especially the first and last images, are just shots of the city. This portrays that these characters all live within Manhattan. In the scene where Isaac is running to meet Tracy, he goes through the city but never seems to escape it. He appears to be running around in circles, and it is never clear in which direction he is running; we never see him turn in any particular direction. This also shows that Isaac never really wants to leave Manhattan, and while he does want to have certain things in life, such as a relationship with Tracy, he is unwilling to leave New York to do so. He asks her in their final conversation to stay in New York, rather than leave to London, so that they can be together. This also points to Isaac’s struggle where he enjoys where he is physically (living in Manhattan) but is never satisfied with where he is emotionally, again showing how he creates problems for himself. His struggle is clear in this scene due to the contrast of the beautiful city setting against his anxiety and frustration over the need to reach Tracy.
Manhattan’s mise-en-scène is also affected by Willis’ cinematography. We see the city’s pace is contrasted to Isaac’s with the long tracking shots. And while the focus is wide and we see everything that is happening around his character very clearly, we know exactly where we should be looking. The camera is following Isaac’s motion only; therefore, our eyes are always kept on him. The blocking in the film also allows for the audience to focus their attention because Allen is generally always at either side of the frame rather than in the center. This composition helps the audience keep the tension that Isaac is feeling while focusing on him only. His motion is also contrasted against settings where most people are still or moving slowly, such as a park or stores; and then his lack of motion is contrasted against fast motion such as speeding cars. This juxtaposition between motions also builds the pressure that Isaac feels and builds more tension for the audience, which is rooting for him to get to Tracy. We can also see how successful Allen and Willis are in building this scene because even without us knowing that Tracy will be leaving soon, we are still nervous for Isaac and feel that there is something at risk if he doesn’t get to her right away.
Another aspect of the mise-en-scène that helps give the scene a sense of urgency is the music. Throughout the movie, the music that is composed by George Gershwin adds an entirely different level of emotion. The music is purely instrumental, including jazz and blues. This was not modern music for the time, but Allen’s use of it gives another element of the classic New York that he is trying to portray. In this scene, the music sounds almost militaristic due to the drums and fast rhythm. This enforces the idea that Isaac has a mission to go on and a goal that he needs to reach. It also helps to strengthen Isaac’s pace throughout the scene and shows the need for him to get to Tracy. The music, while dramatic, also gives a slightly comedic effect, showing off Allen’s satirical style. This is represented further through blocking when Isaac is running and he slows down to catch his breath, but the music continues with the up-beat rhythm.
The editing of this scene adds to its unique mise-en-scène. The entire scene, until Isaac finds Tracy, only has four cuts. Normally, when there are so few cuts in a sequence, the scene feels slow; however, this scene feels very fast due to the movement of the camera. The horizontal and rightward movement of the camera helps give the sense that Isaac is working towards a goal, which we know is getting to Tracy. The long shots, where we see the city constantly in the background, help accentuate the vastness of the city. Allen seems to contrast this against his character’s insignificance and the problems that bother him.
The lighting of this scene is distinct from many other parts of Manhattan. Throughout the movie, the lighting is pretty dark and the characters and settings are often underexposed, despite this being set up as a comedy. This underexposure shows that the characters are never truly revealed to themselves or the other characters, probably because they are never truly being honest. In this scene, however, Isaac is well exposed and we see his emotions clearly. This is due to his realization about what he really wants and therefore he sees things much clearer. In the darker shots, the driving force of the plot is the dialogue, which is forcefully highlighted because there is nothing else on the screen we can focus on. The dialogue is often intellectual nonsense rather than having any emotional value. In this scene there is no talking at all, however, it has more sentiment in it than many of the other scenes that are spoken. It seems that Allen uses this as a commentary on how people living in Manhattan, especially the community of intellectuals that he is involved in, are often so concerned with the abstract and unanswerable questions in life that they forget to focus on the more basic things such as their emotions. As Isaac said to Mary in the planetarium, “the brain is the most overrated organ.” It is also curious that this is the one scene in the movie where Isaac is the most expressive of his emotions, yet there is no dialogue.
Allen is known for making social commentaries in his movies, and Manhattan is no exception. The mise-en-scène of the movie is guided towards showing the city’s grandeur. Because of this, the movie has a Classic Hollywood Cinema style to it, which is really only expressed in the imagery. However, the topics and the acting are similar to Neo-realism due to its social commentary. The city’s grandeur is juxtaposed against the characters’ trivial problems, which they seem to concentrate on as a tool for ignoring more consequential matters in their lives. Therefore, Allen wants to focus on the simple beauty of New York and wants to show that the feelings he gets from it don’t have to be explained or analyzed, and they can just be felt.
Image 3: Here we see Isaac running to see Tracy. The whole image is in focus, but because we are following Isaac’s actions, the rest of the city is blurry, allowing the audience to focus on Isaac. He is also at the edge of the screen, allowing for tension and seeing that he still needs to get to his destination.