‘Manhattan’ is a glorious celebration of New York, a bitter-sweet love letter from Woody Allen to the Big Apple. It’s also one of my favourite American films of all time.
Finding myself in New York a few weeks ago, I decided to go in search of iconic locations featured in the movie.
The film’s most memorable image is the one from the poster with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench at sunrise on that banks of the East River, silhouetted against the sky. It seemed the obvious place to start my cinematic journey.
Front of house seats
A quick piece of detective work – Google! – took me to Sutton Place Park near Queensboro Bridge on New York’s Upper East Side where much of the film was made.
It’s the type of area that estate agents describe as ‘mixed’ and ‘offering potential’ with smart housing blocks wedged between a grey slab of industry, a busy road and a noisy construction project.
But once around the corner at Sutton Place, the magic begins.
This quiet enclave is a hidden gem where the views of the bridge and river with its bustling boat traffic open up in all their glory.
When Woody Allen shot his bridge scene at 5am in the morning, this must have been a quiet and magical oasis in the beating heart of the city
It’s amazing to find the exact spot where the film’s iconic poster image was created. There are so few people – just a handful of locals having their deli lunches – that this feels like your own slice of the Big Apple.
For many years I thought this scene in the film was shot by the Brooklyn Bridge but I had my bridges back-to-front. I was surprised to discover that Queensboro Bridge is equally impressive as a monument to engineering.
OK, the scene looks very slightly different 36 years after the film was made but it’s instantly recognisable.
The seating benches have been moved around and the layout of the small urban park looks a little different to what I remember from the movie. But there’s enough to recall the ambience of the scene in the film.
The street signs have changed too. The ‘Tow Away’ street furniture from the film have been replaced by notices proclaiming ‘No Dogs’, which every dog walker in the Upper East Side seems to have ignored.
But which one is THE famous seat? It’s hard to tell but the shiny new benches suggest that they aren’t the originals.
After my visit, I found out that there was no original bench. The seat was brought in by the film makers as a prop for that one scene. But who cares? We’re sitting in almost the very place in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chatted into the small hours in 1979.
In reality, the exact spot where they sat on the bench was slightly further back from the seating area today, where I’m standing in the photograph above. It’s still a thrill to enjoy the bridge scene from the film with the sound of ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ playing in the background.
When Woody Allen shot the film, the Queensboro Bridge had two sets of necklace lights on a timer controlled by City Hall . The film makers arranged for them to be left on so they could extend their shoot. But as they were filming the scene, one string of lights went out and Woody was forced to use his single take. It turned out to be a classic movie moment.
Each tram carries up to 110 people and they make around 115 trips each day. I was surprised by their speed – they travel the 940 metres route in just three minutes. At its peak the tram ride climbs to 250 feet above the East River, providing great views of Midtown Manhattan.
Queensboro Bridge isn’t just famous for being in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Also known as the 59th Street Bridge, it features in the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ (known as ‘The 59th Bridge Song’). Billy Joel also filmed his video for “You’re Only Human” on the bridge.
The bridge has a starring cameo in Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ in which Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway cross the bridge on their way from Long Island to Manhattan. “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world,” says Carraway.
‘We’ve got Manhattan’
The film ‘Manhattan’ opens with a fabulous sequence of New York locations shot in striking widescreen black and white cinematography by the great, late Gordon Willis.
He was nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” because of his passion for using dark shadows with minimal lighting. His style had been influenced by German Expressionist films and American film noir thrillers.
Woody Allen wanted him to show New York the way he’d looked at it when he was growing up as a child. “Maybe it’s a reminiscence from old photographs, films, books and all that. But that’s how I remember New York,” Allen commented at the time.
The opening voice-over sets the scene as the music of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody on Blue grows and soars in the background – watch the opening of the film
“He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion.
Better. 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. Uh, no, let me start this over…
He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved.
Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be.”
New York is definitely Woody’s ‘town’. He was born in Brooklyn in 1935, grew up in the city and studied at New York University. Many of his films are set in New York, from ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ to ‘Radio Days’ and ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’.
For ‘Manhattan’ Woody Allen shot the film within the 20 blocks of the Upper East Side where he lived at the time.
The camera moves over the city’s buildings and lingers on the East River with its bridges and walkways whilst its skyscrapers sparkle as the sun rises over the city. This is Woody’s ‘symphony for the city’ and he captures New York in all its many guises.
The opening shots were taken from the terrace of his apartment – or so movie legend says. No wonder it feels so personal and poetic.
The character of Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway, was also rooted in real life. When he was filming Annie Hall in New York in 1977, Allen met a 17-year-old actress called Stacey Nelkin and began a two-year relationship with her. Although she confessed to having a huge crush on him, he never acknowledged the relationship in public.
Manhattan’s movie locations
‘Manhattan’ is a must-watch movie for lovers of New York. The list of New York locations is never-ending with landmarks such as Bloomingdale’s department store, the Chelsea Hotel, The American Museum of Natural History, Greenwich Village, the Lincoln Centre, Madison Avenue, the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island ferry. The list goes on and on.
Art galleries and museums are an important backdrop to many scenes in ‘Manhattan’ with The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, and the Whitney Museum taking on starring roles.
The MoMA Sculpture Garden was the setting for one of my favourite Woody Allen scenes in which his character, Isaac, hears a woman saying that she had the “wrong kind” of orgasm.
Central Park also features strongly, providing the location for a charming boating scene with Diane Keaton and a romantic carriage ride with Mariel Hemingway.
I also love the scene in the park when Woody Allen’s Isaac and Diane Keaton’s Mary are caught in a thunderstorm, causing them to seek refuge in the nearby Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History
The scene in the planetarium when Isaac and Mary are submerged in darkness with their silhouettes highlighted against the planet Saturn is movie gold.
The original Hayden Planetarium was demolished and replaced by the new Planetarium in 1999 but the lasting memory of it lingers in Woody’s gorgeous, romantic scene.
Dozens of movies and TV shows are shot on the streets of New York every year. Film buffs will enjoy finding the iconic locations from classic movies like Taxi Driver, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Seven Year Itch, The Godfather and West Side Story. The famous Marilyn Monroe air vent is at 52nd and Lexington, in case you’re wondering.
There are well-known landmarks from films on every other street corner. But Woody Allen’s films personify New York – in his films the city becomes one of the characters on-screen.
Film lovers will fall in love with New York and its movie locations. But I’m still wondering whatever happened to the real bench from ‘Manhattan? That’s the real puzzle!
Tammy Tour Guide – Woody Allen’s New York
If you fancy sitting on the ‘Manhattan bench’ overlooking Queensboro Bridge, head to Riverview Terrace which is located at Sutton Place Park in the Upper East Side where much of ‘Manhattan’ was made. The tiny pocket park is at the very end of 58th Street after it crosses Sutton Place in midtown Manhattan, overlooking the East River.
Keep your eyes open as it’s easy to miss. It’s so small that the architecture critic Paul Goldberger once described it as “an enclave of an enclave”.
Once you’ve visited the Sutton Place Park, head down to Greenwich Village where you can pop into John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street where Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway dined in the film.
Another good place to start your Woody Allen movie trail is in Central Park from where you can head to the Lincoln Centre (pictured below) and Museum of Natural History on the west side or The Metropolitan Museum and The Guggenheim on the east.
After your trip to Central Park, eat out at the Russian Tea Room on nearby 57th Street, another film location from ‘Manhattan’. The famous restaurant also featured in the film ‘Tootsie’ starring Dustin Hoffman.
Finally, take a walk down to the Staten Island Ferry, jump on the boat and take the trip back to get the best views of the New York skyline at dusk which will remind you of the opening sequence from ‘Manhattan’. Best of all, it’s free.