Manhattan in Black and White

Woody AllenIn order to recover a bit from a recent feeling of exhaustion, I spent a significant amount of this past weekend diligently sitting on my ass, in front of the television. On Saturday night, I popped in my copy of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” which, among other things, is as stunningly designed a movie as I’ve ever seen. This is largely thanks to the work of Gordon Willis, a master cinematographer who, apart from his incredible work on this film, was also responsible for photographing an alarmingly high share of my favorite movies of all time: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “All the President’s Men,” and “The Parallax View,” among others.

If you’ve watched these films, then you know what I mean: they strike an uncanny balance between the naturalism that dominated film discourse during the 1970s and a kind of visual abstraction, an artful sense of framing that treated actors and scenery alike as stark compositional images. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen these films, take a look at these captures to see what I mean…

Scenes from the City

The most enduring shot from “Manhattan,” probably, is this early morning scene with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton looking onto the Queensboro Bridge. This image alone is probably responsible for more tourism and new residents than any number of advertising dollars the city ever spent promoting itself.

Manhattan © MGM

It’s one of my all-time favorite images of New York, to be sure, but I also find something beautiful about Willis’ more modest, almost refractive glimpses of life on the island. This one, also taken near the water’s edge, uses trees and street signs to cut up the composition (in a fashion that is, yes, almost grid-like), creating an unexpectedly effective sense of privacy for Allen and Michael Murphy’s characters, at the far right, to discreetly discuss Murphy’s former mistress.

Manhattan © MGM

Willis uses a similar kind of visual partitioning in this scene in Allen’s apartment, with Mariel Hemingway perched on a couch at far left, and Allen descending the spiral staircase at far right. Physically, it’s the same room, but for all intents and purposes, the characters occupy two separate spaces — almost two separate scenes — at least until Allen crosses over that immense black hole in the middle of the frame to join Hemingway on the couch.

Manhattan © MGM

Willis’ fondness for challengingly lit compositions earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” and it’s completely evident that few others will ever master black and white with quite the same skill. Perhaps what makes his work so singularly stunning was that it never seemed too enraptured with its own beauty; his work in “Manhattan” is sometimes brazenly abstract, but when abstraction and naturalism collided, he managed to find an unexpected, almost impossibly judicious balance between the two.

In this scene shot in the Hayden Planetarium, Allen and Diane Keaton are shown in glorious silhouette. Their profiles are graphically striking, and a lesser cinematographer would have jealously preserved those silhouettes in the frame and allowed nothing to interfere with them. Instead, Willis allows the natural pattern of the planet in the background to cut right through both figures’ shapes quite unceremoniously. The black diagonal utterly destroys the silhouettes but Willis is so confident in the inherent beauty of his work that he allows it to happen without interference; the whole frame is his canvas, not just the profiles of the actors.

Manhattan © MGM

Finally, here’s my favorite shot from the whole film: a plain, almost random view of Allen in his apartment, fiddling aimlessly as he begins to work at the typewriter. For my money, this image is almost perfect; Allen’s human frailties are shown in exact proportion to their real significance: just an eighth of the frame. Fully half of the frame is dedicated to a simple wall — again, an abstraction that᾿s as bold and flat and rich as anything Richard Diebenkorn ever painted. There’s also wonderful depth to the picture; it extends all the way from the front room, where the camera sits, to the back of the apartment, with hints of the building behind just barely visible through the curtains. Modest and absolutely gorgeous at once.

Manhattan © MGM
  1. I’ve always been a keen admirer of beautiful cinematography and have to echo your sentiments here: Manhattan is a brilliantly shot film and you’re quite right to flag the above examples, though (to the cinematographer’s credit) the same skillful attention is evident in virtually every frame. A masterful piece of work.

    btw, I’ve been reading this blog for the better half of a year now and am pleased to finally break my posting duck. Keep up the good work, Khoi.

  2. Khoi, I was surprised at your subhead, Scenes from the City. I thought you were going to reference the book, Scenes from the City which, not to self-promote, Michael and I designed last year and as you can see, features the shot from Manhattan on the cover. It’s a great, great book if you love film AND New York.

  3. Those last three stills are three of my favorites from that film. The shots draw attention to themselves, but in a way that enriches the story in each scene rather than distracts. Thanks for singling them out like this. I have to pop this DVD back in again this weekend.

    (You also set me straight–I mistook the benches near that dog park in DUMBO for that famous shot during my last visit.)

  4. Khoi, I haven’t seen any of these movies pictured, but this article put them on my list. I’m commenting mostly because these screenshots you chose really magnify the elegant design of this blog. Thanks for setting a high standard.

  5. The third image (the one in his apartment) is a scene I often reference as a film maker when describing the power of simplicity and minimalism in crafting scenes. One of my favortites. The scene in the government loby in The Matrix is another one of my favorites but that doesn’t take place in New York.

  6. Cool, insightful post. Willis is on of my favs too. Goddard criticized Manhattan by saying that the film didn’t have to be in B&W and that the choice was simply a matter of style, and, although largely true, this never diminished my love for the film.

    Willis’ approach to lighting is practically dead today. He was a true minimalist who squeezed everything he could from simple setups. I read a recent(ish) interview where he criticized contemporary DP’s who, he said, need lights to light their light.

  7. Thanks for this great post. I took a course in college about Woody Allen films, and Manhattan was my choice for my final paper. When I read the opening paragraph of your post, I immediately thought of the third scene you pictured, with the couch and stairs as islands of light with that black void between them. That image stayed with me more than any other part of that movie.

  8. On the European side of things, I’d recommend Bresson’s ‘L’Argent’ and ‘Pickpocket’ for breathtaking excursions in cinematography. Bresson’s entire process of direction was cinematographic (he called himself a ‘cinematograph’ instead of a director). His use of actors, time and framing are quite unique and really have no parallel in cinema. IT’s far removed from Willis’ style (not painterly at all), but worth checking out for anyone into cinematography as an art form.

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