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Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’

When I write about a film, one of the things at the back of my mind is that I’m only supposed to be writing about the film, not the situation in which I saw it, my opinion in general of the genre or people involved, or anything I might know about the circumstances in which the film was made. Sometimes this is very easy, but sometimes…

Woody Allen’s 1993 movie Manhattan Murder Mystery doesn’t so much sit easily in the director’s comfort zone as occupy it, close the borders, erect fortifications and refuse to countenance any attempts to persuade it to move. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but we’ll come to that.) There may be good real-world reasons for this, but the effect is still a little disconcerting.

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It opens with titles in the familiar Allen font and a classic standard, leading to a series of beautiful panoramas of New York City by night. We then meet a middle-aged couple returning home after a night out – they are played by Allen himself and Diane Keaton, and while the characters are named Larry and Carol Lipton, they could just as easily be slightly older versions of Alvy and Annie from Annie Hall, or Isaac and Mary from Manhattan, so familiar are their personalities and the dynamic of their relationship. Their grown-up son has left home and one gets a sense they are still coming to terms with how this is impacting their marriage.

In short, this is a barrage of familiar Allen characters, themes, locations and images, all following on one another so closely that it’s quite disconcerting – almost as if the director is frenetically pastiching himself. The film continues in a very similar vein, on one level at least – Carol worries that their marriage has grown too stale and comfortable, and is looking for a new adventure. Will this be opening a restaurant, or perhaps indulging in a mild fling with their friend Ted (Alan Alda)? (Allen, typically, is equally unhappy about both ideas.) Larry, on the other hand, finds temptation of a sort in poker-playing work acquaintance Marcia (Anjelica Huston). All this unfolds through the usual scenes of affluent Manhattanites hanging out in restaurants, bars, and each others’ apartments, with a running soundtrack of finely-honed Allen one-liners (complaining after a trip to the opera – ‘I can’t listen to that much Wagner, I start getting the urge to conquer Poland’ – and many more).

There is, of course, slightly more to the film than this, as the title Manhattan Murder Mystery might suggest. The only thing that really makes this film distinctive within the Allen canon (other than, perhaps, the use of a slightly annoying roving handheld camera in a number of scenes) is the way in which it blends Allen’s usual quasi-naturalistic comedy-drama with a full-on genre storyline – in this case, an amateur (and in Allen’s case, highly amateurish) investigation of the possible murder of one of Allen and Keaton’s elderly neighbours.

You may be thinking that these two elements would never sit comfortably together in the same film – and Allen seems to have been thinking the same thing, because the murder mystery plotline feels almost intentionally underpowered and soft-edged – two people get killed and someone else gets kidnapped, but it never feels completely serious and certainly never grips or thrills (although the climax, a gunfight in a hall of mirrors, gives Allen the opportunity for the priceless ‘We need to call the police!’ – ‘Yes, and a glazier!’). It is almost as if Allen was aware that the rest of the film is really doing nothing new at all and inserted the murder plotline in an attempt to give the film the appearance of novelty (although I understand this script started life many years earlier, as the intended follow-up to Love and Death, its place eventually being taken by Annie Hall).

On this occasion, can one really begrudge Allen the chance to do something comfortable and familiar? This is the film which immediately followed his much-publicised and hugely acrimonious split with Mia Farrow – Farrow was originally intended to play the Keaton part – and bearing this in mind it’s sort of understandable he was reluctant to push the boat out too far creatively. That said, I’m not sure that serious personal problems are really an excuse for mediocre film-making, and even less sure that being a film-maker would be a good enough excuse for some of the things Farrow publicly accused Allen of at the time.

Is this an actively bad film? Arguably not: by this point Allen could do affluent Manhattanite comedy-drama in his sleep, and while the genre element is hardly sparkling stuff, it hangs together and is actually grafted on to the rest of the story reasonably skillfully. But it’s a very ordinary one, nevertheless – I originally saw it many years ago, but other than the odd one liner had no memory whatsoever of what it was actually about. I doubt this second viewing will change that much, which is a rarity as far as Woody Allen movies go. It’s not without its charms and points of interest, but it shares all of these with other, considerably more accomplished movies. Probably for Allen completists and nostalgists only.

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