Thursday, March 31, 2011

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Tri-Star, 1993)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before Charles and I had watched another, quite different sort of movie comedy: Manhattan Murder Mystery, a 1993 film directed and co-written (with Marshall Brickman) by Woody Allen and originally intended for him and Mia Farrow — only just before shooting was to start, Mia caught Woody having a sexual relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and left him in a jealous hissy-fit, starting a scandal that threatened to derail his career and possibly even send him to prison. So Woody went ahead with the film and recast the female lead with his previous girlfriend, Diane Keaton, with whom he’d worked memorably throughout the 1970’s, most famously in Annie Hall and Manhattan.

The plot of this one casts Allen and Keaton as long-time married couple Larry and Carol Lipton, who in the opening scene are invited for coffee and chat by their apartment neighbors Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). Lillian spends the visit boasting about how well she exercises and how healthy she is, while Paul bores Larry out of his wits by showing him his stamp collection while all the while Larry keeps wanting to get home and watch a Bob Hope movie on TV. (Woody Allen has always named Bob Hope as his favorite comedian and the one that most influenced him, even though Allen’s habit of throwing away his punchlines couldn’t be more different from Hope’s sledgehammer delivery of them.) The next day Lillian suddenly dies, ostensibly of a heart attack, only Larry and Carol become convinced that Paul actually murdered his wife for sinister purposes.

Oddly, though Allen and Brickman fill their script with references to old movies, including Double Indemnity, Vertigo and The Lady from Shanghai — they even make Paul the owner and manager of a revival movie theatre (it’s a film that will make one lament for the death of revival theatres at the hands of video, DVD and cable) so they’ll have an excuse to throw in all these old movie references — the one film they don’t mention is Rear Window, from which Allen and Brickman seem to have borrowed a lot of their plot. No, neither of the amateur detectives is wheelchair-bound, and the action of this film extends a lot farther than that of Hitchcock’s classic (including tracking shots of Larry and Carol following a woman who looks exactly like the dead Lillian), but the principal is the same.

It’s hardly on the level of Annie Hall or Manhattan (or the Allen-Farrow masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters) but it’s a quite clever movie, full of the kind of wry humor Allen is good at, and in some ways it’s a follow-up to The Purple Rose of Cairo in that it’s a movie about movies — in particular about how our expectations and views about life have been shaped by what we’ve seen on the silver screen — though the ending is a genuine surprise [spoiler alert]: it turns out that Paul and Lillian actually killed Lillian’s lookalike sister for her money, then passed Lillian off as the sister, and it ends in a shootout in Paul’s theatre while he’s showing the final scene of The Lady from Shanghai that Allen stages to match the action on screen in Welles’ classic. Manhattan Murder Mystery is minor Allen, and Diane Keaton is heavier than she’d been before — not only in physical size but as a screen presence as well — but it’s still engaging, and a welcome reminder of how great an on-screen performer Allen is himself and how much Allen the actor has been missed in the most recent films of Allen the director.