The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) is an ode to the city of New York that works as cinema in it’s purest form, as well as encapsulating the main theme of his career in four beautiful minutes.
It is a black and white montage stripped down to the three elements of photography, narration and music, allowing each to both contradict and enhance the other.
Unusually for Allen there are no opening credits, which have predominantly been in white Windsor Light font on black since Annie Hall (1977). Instead it opens with a crisp shot of the New York skyline as George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ begins on the soundtrack. The actual title of the movie appears as a neon sign as the montage progresses.
Over initial birds eye views of grandiose buildings Woody’s distinctive narration begins. “Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolised it out of all proportion.” Then the nebbish persona kicks in to second guess himself. “Uh, no. Make that ‘he romanticised it out of all proportion’.”
We move from the skyscrapers to ground level. There is a diner. The weather changes from bright summer to snow shrouded streets. The images reflect the narrator’s train of thought. “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
Then people are shown at street level for the first time, with the bustle of a grocery store, lorries unloading, beautiful women, road workers eyeing a passing dame. We are propelled into the throng of street level life. The narrator becomes confused by the excitement of the city, nebbish self doubt at the power of his own words not being good enough to match the power of city life. “Uh, no. Let me start this over.”
The shots increase with the tempo of the music. Night and day. Market, school children, basketball court, commuters, ferries, art galleries, Gucci, rich and poor rubbing shoulders. Boom. Wide shots of the epic NY skyline again. Pure emotion as the score explodes into bombast. Lovers kissing. Flashing neon. Horse drawn carriage. Night life. Then we hold onto a phallic shot of a subway train passing Shea Stadium before an orgasmic eruption of fireworks over Central Park at night.
Thus ends four minutes of pure creative poetry, and the movie begins. For a writer justly lauded for the wit of his dialogue, the sequence is a virtual admittance by Allen that the power of his words cannot match the shimmering radiance of cinematographer Gordon Willis’ images or George Gershwin’s sweeping orchestra, intellect no match for emotion.
Much of Allen’s oeuvre reflects an obsession with the insignificance of Man in the face of God or a world simply too big, complex and beautiful for us to fully understand it. The non-credits opening to Manhattan tells us that sometimes it’s better to just sit back and enjoy the ride.