After the successful release of Husbands and Wives and during the drawn-out public separation Woody Allen was going through with Mia Farrow, the filmmaker purposefully directed some light entertainment to give himself a break. Although he has often dismissed Manhattan Murder Mystery as an insignificant if diverting film, it actually remains one of his most entertaining and enduring.
The film reunites the stars of Annie Hall, with Woody and Diane Keaton playing a middle-aged couple who have lost the spark of their marriage. When Diane Keaton’s character suspects their neighbour may have murdered his wife, she suddenly turns amateur sleuth with the help of a recently divorced friend, played by Alan Alda. Woody’s character, meanwhile, is less suspicious of any wrongdoing, though he eventually gets on board in order to help save his marriage. He enlists the help of one of his author clients, played by Anjelica Huston, and together this bunch of middle-class intellectuals eventually solve the mystery.
Woody has called this film a pure genre picture, the equivalent of airport reading, but I believe that’s underselling it. What elevates the plot above a mere mystery is the way the plot twists are driven by the characters – the opposite of the way a standard mystery movie works. Everyone has a motive for getting involved, and everyone has a journey to go through. Solving the mystery also solves the characters’ own problems.
I’ve seen the film a few times before, but watching it in sequence after Husbands and Wives reminded me that at this time Woody was still favouring a roaming, handheld camera. At the same time, there is an expert and almost Hitchcockian approach to editing as our leads come dangerously close to being caught. Woody’s films aren’t usually notable for their editing – more and more from around this period on he prefers long takes – but Manhattan Murder Mystery proves he is a skilled filmmaker despite his own protestations or pretensions. The film’s finale, which uses the famous hall of mirrors sequence from Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, is both hilarious and ingenious.
It’s serendipitous that Diane Keaton stepped into the role Mia Farrow was to have played, since this film began as an original draft of Annie Hall and was shelved for many years. Keaton gives this film an lightness, and is a natural screen parter to Allen. Alan Alda is charming in this film too, playing a less sleazy character than he did in Crimes and Misdemeanours, while Anjelica Huston’s gets much more comedy to play with here as a brassy crime author.
Speaking of Crimes, its murder carried weighty moral consequences. Here it’s a springboard for a amusing characters and top one-liners, with far more laughs than the comedy/drama Husbands and Wives. As the central bickering couple, Woody and Diane steal the show. But as a mystery, it also works, even after multiple screenings. Lightweight? Maybe. But Manhattan Murder Mystery is still lots of fun.
Next week: Bullets Over Broadway