By Alan Hurst
This one really isn’t that high up on any list of Woody Allen’s best films, or for that matter a list of the great comedies of the 1990’s. But a recent re-viewing – a couple decades away from the behind the scenes personal dramas that were playing out in real time during filming – proved that Manhattan Murder Mystery is a really good time if you simply take it for what it is: an updated but still stylish throwback to the Nick and Nora Charles comic mysteries of the 1930’s, filtered through a repairing of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton quite a few years after their seventies prime.
Allen had originally written the female lead for Mia Farrow, but with their personal lives playing out in the tabloids that wasn’t going to happen. This allowed for the logical and welcome reteaming of the Allen and Keaton – past lovers and still friends. Their familiarity and ease with one other are the film’s biggest assets; it’s almost like we’re getting a peek at Alvy and Annie Hall 17 years later (assuming, of course, they had worked things out and stayed together).
Manhattan Murder Mystery opens with an aerial shot of Manhattan, over the music of Bobby Short singing Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” which lets you know you’re in for something funny and elegant. Allen has always been a master at setting the tone for his films with vintage recordings of the American songbook and this is one of his most effective.
As the music ends, we’re in Madison Square Garden where Larry (Allen) and Carol (Keaton) are watching a hockey game. He’s enjoying it, she not so much. After the game they return to their apartment where they encounter their neighbours – the Houses – an older couple who invite them in for coffee. There’s some polite and inconsequential conversation and the evening ends. The next evening Larry and Carol arrive home only to find a buzz of activity as Mrs. House has passed away of an apparent heart attack. After running into Mr. House a few days later and offering condolences, something feels a little off to Carol and the murder mystery spark is ignited.
Carol’s excitement at the prospect of solving a real-life mystery is in direct proportion to Larry’s timidity and desire to mind their own business. Carol is clearly looking for something to kick start her (their) life. Their son is now in college, she’s passively thinking about opening a restaurant, but she has a lot of time on her hands. So does Ted (Alan Alda), a divorced friend who carries a bit of a torch for Carol and who shares her enthusiasm for playing detective. Rounding out the relatively innocent romantic quartet is Marcia (Anjelica Huston), a writer who Larry meets through his work as a book editor.
The film is set on Manhattan’s upper east side so naturally Larry and Carol have a beautiful apartment. In addition to hockey at the Gardens, their leisure activity includes opera at the Met, Broadway musicals, late night dinners in Jersey, and lunch at 21. This is all familiar territory for Allen and there’s a certain comfort in these surroundings serving as a backdrop for murder mystery, however loosely constructed that mystery is. Manhattan Murder Mystery is definitely more about comic possibilities of working towards solving the crime, rather than the actual crime. Don’t look to closely or you’ll see the holes.
The film was written by Allen and Marshall Brickman and if the plotting of the mystery is a little light, the one-liners and exploration of the film’s various relationships are crisp, funny and totally in sync with the characters. When Carol discovers the ashes of the deceased woman in her neighbour’s kitchen (after having been told the woman was buried in a cemetery plot), Larry’s reaction when he finds out is perfect: “Ashes? Funeral ashes? Did you wash your hands?” When they later see the deceased alive at a hotel, their shock is palpable and Larry’s comment “My blood just rushed to my brother” feels like a throwaway line, but in situ it’s hysterical. And the life imitating art climax – juxtaposing the action with a screening of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is very smart and nicely executed.
Early in the film Allen’s character is anxious to get home to watch an old Bob Hope movie on television, officially acknowledging Hope’s influence on Allen’s film persona. The nervousness, the wisecracks, the cowardly jitteriness – all Hope’s stock in trade before it became rote for him – are perfect for Allen here. Once he gets the double hit of Keaton’s Carol possibly showing interest in Alan Alda’s character as well as realizing that the death of his neighbour is, in fact, murder he’s in full comic mode.
Keaton brings her traditionally flaky persona to the character of Carol who desperately wants to get things moving again in her marriage and her life. Carol proves to be an insightful, if sloppy, detective – a little jealous of Allen’s relationship with Huston and also a little flattered by Alda’s attention. Keaton is a delight and it’s a treat to see her in a pure comedic leading role. It’s also major fun watching her and Allen spar with and spark each other, particularly once they’re seriously on the killer’s trail (Keaton received a Golden Globe nomination that year for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical).
Both Alda and Huston offer strong comic support. The confidence that Huston gives her character is very attractive, and you see immediately why both Allen and Alda’s characters are drawn to her (and why Keaton is decidedly jealous). Alda makes Ted a charming and funny sidekick for Keaton. His attraction to her could be a little icky, but Alda makes it very sweet.
And then there’s the vintage recordings on the soundtrack – the marriage of those great recordings with Allen’s directorial choices are definitely worth a couple viewings.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.