Monday, June 9, 2008
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Manhattan Murder Mystery is clearly a film particularly dear to director Woody Allen, for a multitude of reasons. Allen had long nursed the idea of making a comedic murder mystery set in New York City and involving ordinary people stumbling into danger, a plot that had been gestating ever since 1977, when a similar narrative thread was dropped from the already lengthy Annie Hall. And of course the film is notable for marking the return of Diane Keaton to Allen's films, in a starring role for her ex again for the first time since Manhattan. Allen obviously gets a lot of pleasure out of starring opposite Keaton again, falling back into the familiar pattering dialogue that nobody does with Allen quite as well as Keaton, not even Mia Farrow. It's hard to tell what Woody's enjoying more in this film, finally getting to film what was obviously a pet project for him, or finally getting back his best comedic foil.
Ironically, Allen and Keaton play a very comfortable couple who have fallen too deep into familiar routines, and both of them are feeling the onset of dullness and dissatisfaction, even if neither quite realizes it. Woody clearly takes great delight in taking this stock couple, seemingly carbon-copied from any number of his earlier films, and throwing them into the midst of a murder plot ripped straight out of a film noir, though the full contours of the mystery don't become obvious until the very end. On one level, the film deals with some rather typical issues for Allen, namely the discontent and restlessness that often crops up in lengthy monogamous relationships, as Keaton and Allen are drawn away from each other by other people. Keaton gravitates, innocently at first, towards the couple's divorced friend (Alan Alda), who seems far more adventurous than her skittish husband, and who actually takes her seriously when she starts to believe that their next-door neighbor (Jerry Adler) has murdered his wife (Lynn Cohen). Alda even excitedly seizes on the mystery, both for its latent thrills and for the chance to get closer to the woman he not-so-secretly covets. Meanwhile, Allen is similarly tempted by a worldly authoress (Anjelica Huston), who offers him more sedate, cerebral thrills by teaching him how to play poker, in a hilarious scene where Woody captivates all attention simply by the way he holds and continuously reshuffles his hand of cards. These relationship hijinks increasingly take a back seat, though, as the murder mystery itself takes over the film, gently nudging the characters further and further from the familiar territory of a Woody Allen dramatic comedy and into the midst of a noir thriller.
This subtle metafictional playfulness, in which the film and its characters are steadily shifted from one cinematic world to another, is paid off brilliantly in the film's series of cinematic references, culminating in the full-on pastiche of the climactic scene. The Keaton/Allen dynamic in the early scenes, as they spy on their possibly murderous neighbor, definitely recalls Hitchcock's Rear Window, with the distance of spying reduced, in cramped modern Manhattan, from across a courtyard to across the hall. Especially great is the sequence where Keaton gets trapped inside the neighbor's apartment, and her frantic demeanor strikes a delicate balance between playing it for laughs and generating real tension; Allen wants to gently spoof these mysteries even as he revels in their suspense and vicarious thrills. Even more obviously, the world of the 40s and 50s noirs provides the aesthetic building blocks for Allen's mystery caper, and two films in particular stand in as metaphors for the shifting aesthetics of the film as a whole. Early on, the central couple and some friends go to see Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, one of the archetypal masterpieces of the genre and one of the best examples of noir's twisty plotlines, multiple betrayals, and moralistic overtones. It's a true classical noir. But Allen's other cinematic touchstone, cleverly incorporated into his film's dazzling climactic scene, is decidedly less traditional: Orson Welles' bizarre and slapdash The Lady From Shanghai, which makes only token nods towards plotting in a frantic race towards its marvelous funhouse finale. These films represent two extremes of the noir aesthetic, and of film storytelling in general, one in which narrative is everything and the story drives the characters, and another in which narrative exists only as a loose framework, while the real interest lies elsewhere, perhaps with the character psychology and the look of the film. Welles' film gets recycled for the finale of Manhattan Murder Mystery, with Allen's hilarious and ingenious multi-leveled recreation of Welles' infamous funhouse mirror sequence. The characters even parrot lines of dialogue, as images from the black and white film are projected in multiple mirrors that fragment the screen. "I'll never say life doesn't imitate art again," Allen breathlessly mutters when it's all over, and it's a great homage in addition to being a thrilling sequence of its own. It's also a great joke, in that life winds up imitating even the most unlikely and exaggerated of art, the pieces subtly falling into place for a cleverly reconstituted version of Welles' wildly stylized final scene.
In addition to being an exceedingly clever metafictional riff on the film noir, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a visually intriguing film in its own right, even when it's not incorporating nods to Welles or Hitchcock. The characters in the film are constantly conspiring, breaking into groups with heads nodded towards each other and plotting, and even the camera gets in on the mood of conspiracy. The darting, swooping camera familiar from many of Allen's films with DP Carlo di Palma here seems even more playful and purposeful than usual, ducking around corners and playing games of hide and seek with people and objects. In true noir fashion, the scene is often set devoid of life, just waiting for the hero or the murderer to creep onto the screen and skulk through the shadows. The joke is that di Palma deploys this trick even in brightly lit apartment interiors or in wide-open public places. In several scenes where Keaton and/or Allen snoop around their neighbor's rooms, the camera stalks between rooms, swinging back and forth to obscure and reveal the spies, the camera peeking around walls to catch just a glimpse of movement or swinging away suddenly as though to reveal a clue that never does appear. The camera's movement frequently plays with expectations, particularly the familiar mystery convention that the snooping detective always gets caught by the suspect. The sweeping arcs of the camera frequently hint at this scenario, teasing the audience by setting up a danger that never comes, that is only suggested by camera movements that we've come to think of in a certain way. It's as though the camera is playing its own metafictional game with the material, adapting the style of the noir even when it's not particularly appropriate to the scene in question, or when the expected noir payoff is not forthcoming.
Such games of visual hide and seek are also frequently a vehicle for the film's humor, and particularly for Woody's verbal tirades of puns and non-sequiturs. In one scene, Keaton and Allen are strolling around a fountain in a public park. The camera swoops in the opposite direction as they walk, with Woody stammering through his usual nervous patter at rapid-fire speed. After a while, the fountain obscures the couple as the camera continues to track around it, and Woody's constant stream of dialogue continues to flow on the soundtrack until the camera dodges around the fountain and reveals the two of them again. Woody even utilizes complete darkness for a few scenes, both bedtime conversations where the lights turning on and off hardly check the couple's banter, and for a madcap dash through a pitch-black basement where a murderer may be lurking, the whole thing more heard than seen, except for brief flashes as Woody frantically lights some matches. This aesthetic of obscuring is carried over more broadly into the film as a whole, most noticeably in the way characters (particularly Woody himself) are frequently filmed with their faces turned away from the camera. Indeed, Woody's character is practically introduced in this way, stammering out jokes as he rides up in an elevator with his wife and the couple from next door, the whole time with his back to the camera. Elsewhere, Woody's turned back represents his anxiety, as he peers nervously around for signs of danger while Diane Keaton makes a phone call, or else his total disinterest in the mystery, signaling his disconnection from his wife and her interests. The fact that Woody is so often offscreen, shrouded in darkness, or turned away when delivering his patented humor suggests that he is stepping back from his movie persona a bit, distancing himself in some way, perhaps only to better serve the noir material.
Manhattan Murder Mystery is a truly charming and hilarious film from Allen, a moving tribute to some of his cinematic favorites, even as it imagines what some of his own stock characters might behave like if thrown into a very different kind of movie. Murder has always been a fascination for Allen, but here he treats it very differently than in his darker ruminations on the subject. There is none of the moral hand-wringing and philosophical inquiry of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Cassandra's Dream, where murder is very real and disarmingly prosaic, with real consequences, both psychological and physical, for the people involved. Here, Allen opts instead for an examination of movie murder, a send-up of Hollywood's accumulated decades of fantasies surrounding murder, detectives, and the "perfect crime."