Friday, May 06, 2016
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Joy Behar, Ron Rifkin, Melanie Norris, Aida Turturro, Wendell Pierce
After making a handful of movies with heavy philosophical themes and the word "and" in the late '80s and early '90s—Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, and Another Woman among them—Woody Allen turned toward lighter fare for a spell. It's possible it was related to his foundering relationship with Mia Farrow and the cloud of scandal descending on him. I see that some of those heavy movies, notably Crimes and Misdemeanors, are considered among his best now, but they looked to me like flailing then and for the most part they still seem to fit his long-term pattern of decline all too well.
But Manhattan Murder Mystery stands as an exception for me—a brief, fleeting, and patchy return to the heights of his comedies, which owes as much to Diane Keaton as anything. I'm not sure Keaton always gets her due in the comedies. She was a huge part of making them work—go take a look at Love and Death again. She's brilliant. She wasn't just Woody Allen's girlfriend, though it might be fair to say she's a protege. However it came about, she became an accomplished comic actress in her own right. And even though, if you think about it too much, there's something kind of funny-peculiar about the way she stepped in to take a role for which Mia Farrow had been cast before the troubles, it's still fair to say she is exactly what makes the movie work—not just her performance, not just her screen presence, but she obviously had an effect on Allen that's only for the better.
It also helps, frankly, that the philosophical pretensions are absent. Manhattan Murder Mystery is basically a Nancy Drew story with obvious references to '40s and '50s mystery / suspense pieces. Double Indemnity, The Lady From Shanghai, Rear Window, and Sorry, Wrong Number are only the most obvious sources. Carol and Larry Lipton (Keaton and Allen) have been married for decades, with a son who turns 21 during the movie—a sad fantasy, never mind, that's just the way it happens to be written. One night their elderly neighbors, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen), invite them over for coffee. They strike up a (typically Woody-Allen-addled) friendship, which soon takes a strange turn when the wife unexpectedly dies of a heart attack.
For reasons as slight as any in a Nancy Drew mystery, Carol is suspicious of Paul. She does zany Nancy Drew things like follow him around, eventually breaking into his apartment and searching it, which produces a wonderful scene when Paul unexpectedly returns while she is still in his place. Alan Alda plays the Liptons' old friend Ted, who has recently been divorced. Ted is Carol's main ally in pursuing the investigation of the sinister widower (there is no Bob or Alice in this movie). Meanwhile, Woody Allen's gallery of implausible roles finds another good example here, where he is an editor at a publishing house. Completely unbelievable, of course. But Angelica Huston is great as a bestselling author, Marcia Fox, who works with Larry.
I think it was Husbands and Wives, or maybe even Crimes and Misdemeanors, when I began to actively wish Allen would stop casting himself in his movies at all, let alone in the debonair, devastatingly witty roles he kept taking for himself well past his shelf date. That's a problem here too, yet there's enough residual chemistry between him and Keaton to overcome it. I have no idea what the shooting schedule for this movie was, but I get a real sense of Allen's increasing comfort with her as the movie goes along. By the halfway point, his gags and throwaways are starting to work in ways I hadn't seen since Hannah and Her Sisters. He genuinely seems to be happy working with her again, which is somehow infectiously heartening.
Interestingly—and again, I have no idea about the actual shooting schedule—Keaton herself seems to wilt a little toward the end. As the screenplay shifts its attention away from her and more toward the complexities of the plot or the various sexual tensions as Ted and Marcia start to date (both Larry and Carol are jealous of the respective attachments), she grows shrill and is increasingly sidelined. That's more a problem of the screenplay, which should have kept her front and center all the way, but she also, unfortunately, seems more and more lost as the story sorts itself out.
I think of Manhattan Murder Mystery still as the last great Woody Allen movie (certainly not Bullets Over Broadway, which is weak by comparison, and though he has also made a few things worth seeing since) and I saw it a few times when it was new. But I hadn't been back since. I still like it, still put it above most of the Mia Farrow titles, and still think it's generally underrated. But with perspective I can also see it's not that much better than the more serious titles people gravitate toward from that period. So maybe it's all just a sentimental reaction after all, but as one last hurrah for the chemistry that powered Annie Hall, Manhattan, and most of the best comedies, I think it's always going to be at least pretty good.