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."


Filmbo said...

Is it just me or is the film's climax the best thing to come from Welles's The Lady from Shanghai?

Ed Howard said...

I don't know, I think the end of Welles' film is quite great on its own, a real visual tour de force that completely justifies the somewhat lackluster material that precedes it. But Woody's recycling of this sequence adds additional layers to it, really having lots of fun with the fragmentation, mirroring (both visual and in terms of the story), and multiplication that's going on here. It's great stuff, though it probably wouldn't work as well for those who hadn't seen the Welles film already.

Ted Pigeon said...

Nice review, Ed. Somehow this movie has been relegated to "minor Allen," but I've been in love with it since I first saw it. It's kind of funny, because for years I had been comparing Allen to Hitchcock and finding a lot of similarities, in terms of thematic content, structure, and preccupations. People often laughed at me since they seem so different on the surface. But I stand by this notion, and Manhattan Murder Mystery is a fun little film that is more visually cunning than it's often credited, and one of the better tributes to Hitchcock I've seen.

Ed Howard said...

Ted, I agree with you totally on this film. I didn't expect to like it nearly as much as I did, mainly because everything I'd heard about it beforehand made it sound like a lightweight romp and nothing more. Even Woody is a bit dismissive of it, describing it as a "dessert" in comparison to what he felt were his more substantial films. It's fun and airy, sure, but you're right that there's also a lot going on visually, in some ways even more than in a few Allen films that are more highly regarded. Then again, I think Allen in general has a lot more going on visually than he's given credit for, by both detractors and fans.

It's interesting that you think of Woody and Hitch as being similar -- I hadn't thought of it before, but it does make some intuitive sense. I'd love to see you tease that idea out a bit more, either here or on your blog. I wonder what Woody would think of the comparison, though. I've been reading the interviews in Allen on Allen as I watch his films, and in the one for Manhattan Murder Mystery he talks about Hitchcock, saying that while he knows people like to read a lot of psychological dimensions and themes into Hitch's films, he does not buy into that approach, and views Hitchcock as solely an entertainer making light, diverting, well-made films, not intending any deeper significance. That's not a view I subscribe to myself -- Hitchcock's films are too rich in subtexts and their visual expression to believe it wasn't intended -- but then Woody has similarly dismissive opinions about some of his own films that I love, too. He's a great filmmaker, but not a very good critic or film analyst, either of his own films or of others.

Filmbo said...

Can't say I agree with you on the Welles.

It's funny you mention Hitch since over the last few weeks I've been seeing a similarity between Allen and Chabrol. Not merely in the prolific nature but in their criticisms of the liberal upper class, their philosophical take on moral dissolution, and general similarities with how they stage a scene.

DavidEhrenstein said...

For me this is the last really enjoyable Wood Allen too. He's delightful playing with both Keaton and Huston and the moment whenh the suppsoedly dead wife is spotted riding a bus is teriffic.

Recently he's been given to remaking Crimes and Misdemeanors over and over again.

Jeremy Richey said...

Terrific look at this film and it's reminded me that I need to revisit it since I haven't seen it since in played in theaters an astounding fifteen years ago.
It's funny, Woody's films are typically ones that I watch over and over again (hell I even seen his worst films at least two or three times) but for some reason this one slipped under my radar even though I remember really loving it when I saw it.

I'm one of a few who finds Woody Allen's films in the past decade to be among his most interesting...if not among his best typically. I think the post DECONSTRUCTING HARRY films will be eventually be remembered as a pivotal point in his career (of course, I am a guy who ranks SCOOP among my favorite comedies of the decade so what do I know?)

Anyway, great look at this film...I'll have to give it another look.

Ed Howard said...

I'm with you on Scoop, Jeremy. I think people were expecting another Match Point, not a goofy little black comedy. But it's really hilarious, certainly on a par with Woody's "early, funny ones," which it reminds me of more than anything else he's done since the 70s. Johansson was very good in it, too, with her awkward nerdiness playing off of Woody's neurotic old geezer really well. It's also a great farewell to Woody's comedic persona.

Jeremy Richey said...

Wow Ed, I thought I was the only one who dug SCOOP but your comments echo my feelings exactly. I was really charmed by it especially after the chilly MATCH POINT. I was especially taken with Scarlett's endearingly goofy performance and the way she and Woody played off each was just great.
I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who admires this overlooked jewel. Thanks for commenting back!

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Great blog. I just blogged about this film; but reading yours; you do it so much more eloquently than me. Great work!

Marco Sparks said...

Great film. Great review.