The opinion that Woody Allen should’ve stuck to comedy was one that had picked up a lot of momentum by 1993. Back then, memories of his wildly popular slapstick movies, comedy albums and talk-show appearances of the 1970s would’ve been relatively fresh, and the man Allen had turned into was challenging, aloof and capable of shocking moral bankruptcy. This opinion is one that I’ve condescendingly dismissed in the past, but, after having seen all of his most serious movies in a row, I’ve become a little more sympathetic towards it. Prior to the release of Manhattan Murder Mystery, there was little reason to think Allen would return to comedy, but it would have been perfectly understandable to hope for another reminder of why he was once called America’s greatest comic mind.
Allen is not someone who would ever admit to bowing to pressure, but Manhattan Murder Mystery must have looked uncannily like a concession. If he were, theoretically, to throw up his hands and say “okay, I’ll give you what you want!” there would be no better way than to try and recapture the magic of his most beloved and popular film, Annie Hall, and this movie reunites Allen with Annie Hall’s star (Diane Keaton), its co-writer (Marshall Brickman), and even uses bits and pieces of its screenplay that never made it into the original incarnation.
Annie Hall was initially conceived as a murder mystery. If that seems bizarre, keep in mind that, at the time, Allen’s two previous screenplays had taken place in 19th century Russia and two hundred years in the future. Had the murder plot remained, Annie Hall likely would’ve been another one of Woody Allen’s early, funny films, as opposed to his first serious, Oscar-winning venture.
While the end result is incredibly entertaining, it might not have been exactly what people were hoping for. It’s not a return to pure comedy the way Oedipus Wrecks was — it has the same jokey dialogue of the ‘70s comedies, but MMM also revisits the big-hearted adventurism of Broadway Danny Rose, the mature relationship drama of Allen’s late ‘80s movies, the cramped corridor suspense of Another Woman, and the shaky-cam intensity of Husbands and Wives. It feels a little bit like Woody Allen’s Greatest Hits, but it somehow comes together for a surprisingly cohesive, funny and surprisingly exciting movie.
The two protagonists are a married couple played by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Their names are Larry and Carol Lipton, although I’m sure many people pretended that their names were Alvy Singer and Annie Hall, and responded to Manhattan Murder Mystery as if it was a Saraband-style revisiting of beloved characters much later in their lives. The performances, Keaton’s especially, make it easy to believe that. Keaton’s character is a version of Annie Hall who has calmed into middle-age but retains hints of the flighty impulses and neuroses that made her famous. She even makes a seeming allusion to her most famous character by discussing whether ties go better with skirts or pants, before claiming she’s sick of ties altogether.
The movie opens with Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” playing over a classy pan through Manhattan’s skyline, only to then suddenly cut to a hockey game and the Liptons bickering a few rows from the ice.
It’s definitely a thrill to see Allen and Keaton together again. They have a comic chemistry Allen never matched in their 14 years apart since Manhattan. Mia Farrow’s funniest moments were alone or with Jeff Daniels, while her moments on-screen with Allen were rarely even aiming for laughs.
After the hockey game, the Liptons are invited to coffee with Mr. and Mrs. House, their neighbors that they’d previously never met (Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen). The perpetually bleeding heart Carol enjoys their cute stories, but Larry is less thrilled. Partly because he gets stuck looking at Mr. House’s stamp collection.
The next morning, the Liptons arrive home to discover that Mrs. House has died of a heart attack. Soon after, a few suspicious details lead Carol to believe that Mrs. House had actually been killed by her husband.
Carol begins sleuthing around, even breaking into Mr. House’s apartment and going through his mail. She describes it as one of the most exciting adventures in her life, but Larry is indifferent at best and terrified at worst. Night after night she abruptly awakes with a new revelation and Larry tries insistently to convince her to ignore it and back to sleep.
After she grows frustrated with Larry’s lack of interest, Carol turns to her friend Ted (Alan Alda), who obviously has feelings for her and uses the murder mystery as a way of bringing them closer. The two of them go on stakeouts, follow suspects and check out phone numbers and shifty hotels until they’ve actually built up a pretty solid case.
Despite initially acting simply as a back-drop to yet more Allenesque relationship intrigue, the murder mystery turns out to be surprisingly taut. It’s more in the tradition of Murder She Wrote than Alfred Hitchcock, though, meaning that it’s implausible, overly neat & tidy, and incredibly light-hearted considering that it involves the murdering of human beings, but it unfolds in a pulpy, exciting fashion. There is a lurid, edge-of-your-seat feel that I don’t recall experiencing in a Woody Allen movie before.[*spoilers from here on*]
Sensing that Ted is getting too close to his wife, Larry decides, against his better judgement, that he’s going to get involved in the investigation. The two Liptons stakeout a hotel that Carol swore she saw the allegedly murdered Mrs. House entering. They go up to her room and find her dead body, but by the time the police arrive the body has disappeared.
When the two return to the scene of the crime, they find themselves in the most suspenseful sequence in Woody Allen’s filmography. Trapped in an elevator in a power outage, the two try to escape, only to find the missing body on the roof of the elevator (Silence of the Lambs-style). When they do escape, they find themselves in a darkened basement and then an alley — just in time to see the killer loading the body into a trunk.
You should keep in mind that the phrase “the most suspenseful sequence in Woody filmography” is saying very little. Allen does not make thrillers and this is only a partial exception. Manhattan Murder Mystery is still primarily a comedy, and a sharp one at that. Allen is more hilarious than usual, perhaps thanks to his chemistry with Keaton, and he revitalizes the the “Memorable Woodyisms” section, which has been pretty dry for the last decade.
The rest of the cast is strong as well. Alan Alda is as sincere here as he was smarmy in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and emerges as genuinely charming. He’s joined by his co-star in Crimes, Anjelica Huston, who plays Marcia Fox, a novelist and client of Larry’s (he’s an editor). Larry is trying to set her up with Ted, but she’s more interested in Larry. Her purpose is unclear in the beginning, but soon she proves useful to the investigation.
As an ex-poker player with a colorful past, Marcia has insights into the criminal mind sorely lacked by the Lipton family. She teams up with them, plus Ted, who is surprisingly resourceful himself, to create a plan that will blackmail the killer for $200,000 and get him to admit to the crime in the process.
One of the movie’s obvious inspirations is The Thin Man series, about Nick and Norah, another wise-cracking husband-and-wife detective team. The biggest difference being that Nick and Norah were actually quite clever detectives, whereas the Liptons are mostly terrible at it, and just have the good luck to stumble into clues. Larry, in particular, mostly tries to actively avoid discovering any clues for fear of knowing too much and making himself a target.
The movie’s other inspiration is Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Marcia’s plan goes well at first, but soon backfires, and Carol finds herself kidnapped, and only Larry can save her. The big showdown involves a confusing gunfight in a hall of mirrors, as does the ending of The Lady From Shanghai. This time, in a meta-twist, the mirrors are also reflecting a screening of The Lady From Shanghai. Afterwards, Larry astutely notes “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again.”
In the tradition of TV serials and paperback adventure novels, the mystery wraps up neatly into a nice little package. Mr. House (the killer) ends up dead at the hands of his angry mistress, Carol and Larry escape, and Marcia and Ted fall in love. Allen uncharacteristically side-steps infidelity sub-plots and the Liptons not only stay faithful, but, through the adventure and displays of bravery, actually strengthen their marriage.
Manhattan Murder Mystery is not fast and wacky enough to be considered a return to Allen’s slapstick movies, nor is it a real sequel to Annie Hall. I don’t think Manhattan Murder Mystery is a concession on Allen’s part, despite how it might appear. Instead, it combines a variety of his skills and trademarks into something new, and incredibly entertaining.
- “I can’t sit through that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”
- “I can’t get ‘The Flying Dutchman’ theme out of my head. Remind me to buy a bunch of Wagner records and rent a chainsaw.”
- “Helen’s wrong for Ted. She’s too... mousey.”
“Well, he’s mousey too. They can have their little rodent time and eat cheese together.”
- “Can you believe this guy in Indiana? Killed twelve people, dismembered them and ate them.”
“Well, that’s an alternative lifestyle.”
- “I’d fix Ted up with Helen Dubin, but they’d probably get into an argument over penis envy; the poor guy suffers from it so.”
- “I exercise twice a week.”
“Really? I prefer to atrophy.”
- “This guy gets his jollies from licking the back of postage stamps.”
“I can see that, depending on who’s on the stamp.”
- “You think I made it up?”
“I think it’s a reasonable assumption that if you’re dead you don’t suddenly turn up in the New York City Transit System.”
- “I think it’s time we reevaluated our lives.”
“I have reevaluated our lives — I got a 10, you got a 6.”
- “You are with police?”
“Yes, I’m a detective. They lowered the height requirement.”
- “I’m a world renowned claustrophobic.”
- “Claustrophobia AND a dead body — this is a neurotic’s jackpot!”
- “You don’t have to see your shrink, there’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be cured with a little Prozac and a polo mallet.”
- “We could be living next door to a murderer, Larry.”
“New York is a melting pot! I’m used to it!”
- “You don’t understand what I’m going through...”
“I do, actually, it’s called a ‘total psychotic break.’”
- This was one of two movies in 1993 that co-starred Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston. They also both played doctors in And the Band Played On, the controversial “AIDS movie” that was eventually overshadowed by Philadelphia.
- This also wasn’t Diane Keaton’s only acting role in 1993 — she played Daphne the talking poodle in Look Who’s Talking Now.
- IMDb incorrectly claims that the murder mystery subplot was originally intended for Hannah and her Sisters.
- This managed to be the #1 movie for a week in Great Britain.
- Diane Keaton was nominated for a Golden Globe. Anjelica Huston was nominated for a BAFTA.
- The View co-host Joy Behar, Scrubs star Zach Braff and The Wire/Treme co-star Wendell Pierce all have small roles. One is the Liptons’ loud-mouthed friend, one is their smug-looking son, and one is a surly black cop. Guess who plays which!