Saturday, April 16, 2011

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Manhattan Murder Mystery (“MMM”), Woody Allen's 1993 film brings the “Husband & Wife Detectives” concept towards a contemporary time frame, but this being Woody Allen and this being a Golden Age blog (mostly), there’s nostalgia aplenty in this lightweight effort, so it’s just the kind of mystery-comedy we love. Besides, even my dearest enemies know I’m a longtime Woody Allen fan, so reviewing this movie will come as no surprise to anyone.

The Story: Larry and Carol Lipton (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton), a middle-aged New York City couple have recently become “empty nesters” now that their son is away at college. Larry works as a book editor and Carol is a former ad agency executive who’s now thinking of opening her own restaurant. Carol feels that she and Larry have lost the romantic spark in their marriage and she fears that they’re becoming “a pair of comfortable old shoes.” When their neighbor dies from an apparent heart attack, Carol immediately believes that there’s something awry. She proceeds to drag her quite-reluctant husband into her off-the-cuff investigation into the woman’s husband, whom she suspects murdered his wife. There are a few clever twists in the mystery itself, but the more substantial plot is the evolving nature of relationships, but both story elements are well executed and of course, humorously done.

“Save a little craziness for menopause!”

Supporting Actors: Woody and Diane aren’t alone in this mystery, as co-stars Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston, already Allen players in 1989’s Crimes & Misdmeanors return to work for the director here. Alda is Ted, a successful playwright who’s sweet on Carol. Carol likes Ted because he’s enthusiastic and interested in the mystery, as well. Huston is Marcia, an author signed with book editor Larry’s publisher. She’s smart and attractive in her own confident way, and shows some interest in Larry. Larry, trying to keep Ted away from Carol, sets Marcia up with Ted.

“Larry, I think it's time we reevaluated our lives.”

“I've reevaluated our lives; I got a 10, you got a 6.”

What makes Manhattan Murder Mystery different from most Woody Allen fare is the absence of philosophical ruminations that usually inhabit his films. In MMM, an airy buoyancy dominates the proceedings and the film relies on the “earlier, funnier” style of Allen's movies with slapstick and lots of amusing one-liners, which are other Allen trademarks. However, like many other Allen films, MMM examines--with much humor--the state of marriage and how it needs an exciting jolt once in a while. That’s about as far as Allen goes with his examination of relationships in MMM, but other Allen films from that time period chronicle the state of a marriage in considerably serious detail, like 1992’s Husband & Wives. However, MMM is the message heavily-sugar coated, like one of Carol Lipton’s rich desserts.

Originally intended to be a sub plot in Annie Hall (1977), MMM is a fluffy confection that would serve as a fine introduction to the Woodyphyte, but for our purposes here, joins its illustrious predecessors as an entry in the Husband & Wife detective genre. Allen’s screenwriting cohort is Marshall Brickman, who co-authored the duo’s Oscar-winning script for Annie Hall (Best Picture, 1977; take that, Star Wars!). I’ve never been able to determine if MMM was already written back in the ‘70s as it was meant to be a part of Annie Hall or if Brickman worked on the story with Woody anew. Anyone know?

Music: Woody Allen is renowned for his use of music in his films. He has long eschewed a “proper” film composer (though Marvin Hamlisch scored Allen’s earlier effort, Bananas) and instead uses classical, jazz, and show tunes to serve as musical underscore. MMM opens with legendary cabaret singer Bobby Short performing Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York”, which along with the aerial view of New York City, sets the film’s light tone. The “danger” music used is a live version of Benny Goodman Orchestra’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” For Carol’s sneaking around motif, is the Bob Crosby Orchestra’s “Big Noise from Winnetka.”

“Ted has a mind like a steel sieve.”

Use of Handheld Cameras: Like his previous effort, Husbands and Wives, MMM employs the use of shaky cam effects. Woody has gone on record that this film was an “indulgence” in addition to being something he’d always wanted to do, so the artsy camera movement is something akin to hiding the fact that the movie is a lightweight affair, but why not experiment with the camera’s movement?

Claustrophia and a dead body - this is a neurotic's jackpot!

The Wood Man Meets The Thin Man: In the excellent interview book with Stig Björkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Woody states that he likes detective films but feels that there’s never been a good one made. He went on to say that he didn’t think The Thin Man was a very good movie. Whatever the case, Woody’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is well within keeping with the Thin Man tradition, albeit with a heavy dose of Allen’s trademark shtick. Whereas William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora Charles were sophisticated wisecrackers, Larry and Carol Lipton work within the tried-and-true Allen framework: Carol is the bold and brave one, while Larry is the committed coward who gets all the great lines.

“You're suggesting we try to provoke him into murdering us?”

“You have a problem with that?”

“Well, either that, or I suddenly developed Parkinson's.”

Double Indemnity and Lady From Shanghai: This being an Allen film, there’s bound to be movie references. In addition to the suspected murderer restoring an old movie house, MMM has Larry Lipton mentioning how he wants to see a (unnamed) Bob Hope movie on late-night TV--Woody Allen is a self-confessed Bob Hope admirer—as well as the couple going to see Double Indemnity where they can be heard commenting on how they love the Billy Wilder film. In MMM’s conclusion, the twisted finale of the 1948 bizarro Orson Welles-Rita Hayworth monstrosity, Lady From Shanghai on the big screen as the movie’s resolution plays out. Allen always makes movie references in his films, and a murder mystery like Manhattan Murder Mystery is bound to have connections to 1940s Noir pictures. When I saw MMM in the theatre back in 1993, I was completely unfamiliar with those types of movies. Now, eighteen years later (*gasp!*) I can enjoy this movie on its own terms, but my enjoyment is augmented with the knowledge of having seen the movie classics referenced.

This is a worthy entry in the Husband & Wife Detective Team genre, with enough Golden Age references to interest the old Hollywood aficionado, as well as the Woody Allen connoisseur. Factor in Diane Keaton’s return as a Woody Allen leading lady (her cameo in 1987’s Radio Days notwithstanding) after a decade of Mia Farrow hegemony makes for a refreshing change of pace in Manhattan Murder Mystery, an effervescent splash of comedic escapism…hey, this piece has to end somehow, doesn’t it?

Life Imitates Art in Manhattan Murder Mystery


  1. CK,

    I've kept going back to this one. We saw it in SF when it came out, and I did recognize the 'nods' to noir. Saw it within the last 2 or 3 months again. Woody's a gem.


  2. I saw this a few months ago and had pretty much the same reaction as you--a light but enjoyable movie, as you said a message-free entertainment. That Allen and Keaton still have great on-screen rapport was quite evident, and it was a pleasure to see them working together again. I'm glad you mentioned Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston. They added a lot, especially Huston. You didn't mention that a very young Zach Braff (TV's "Scrubs") plays Woody and Diane's son. It's funny you mentioned the hand-held camera. I don't recall this. But I did watch "Husbands and Wives" just recently and found it to be a major distraction. Thank goodness Woody got that out of his system.

  3. Completely off topic here, but I just watched my first episode of The Persuaders. It was pretty amusing and silly. I rather liked it. It was season two, as Netflix no longer has season one.

  4. Robert: There was only one season of the show, but many times the dvd sets are split into two.

    I'm sorry I had to put that blog to bed; the interest level in a forty-year-old TV show just wasn't there out in webland, unfortunately.

  5. Awwwww is that your kitty?? So cute!

    Sorry about your other blog! I commented often :)

  6. Oh I see, they have them as Set 1 and Set 2.

  7. C.K.,

    I love this movie. It's lightweight Woody but who cares. It funny, nostalgic, filled with references to other movies and best of all it reunited Woody with Diane Keaton. They make for a perfect neurotic Nick and Nora. I do sometimes find Allen's handheld camera a bit annoying but in this particular film I though it worked well. In all honesty, this is the Woody Allen film I have watched more times than any other!

  8. Hi John! I didn't notice the handheld camera stuff when I saw the film in the theater, but only when I recently got it on DVD. It's jarring at first, and not nearly as much as in Husbands and Wives' opening scene, and to think the practice is overused to nausea-inducing proportions today!


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