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MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Jesus. Claustrophobia and a dead body. This is a neurotics jackpot.”

Allen fans and Annie Hall-ites of all descriptions have been clamoring for a modern day peek into what became of those luffable, loavable and lurvable characters. Woody has repeatedly toyed with the idea of showing them young and old, having saved unused footage from the original shooting that was used in Anhedonia; the sprawling three hour original version of Annie Hall. Yet Manhattan Murder Mystery is likely the closest we, and he, will get to this holy grail as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman rework an unused murder mystery subplot from their initial story of Annie Hall. The premise was that Alvy and Annie miss the film where Alvy refuses to go in 5 minutes after it’s begun, go home and find out their neighbour had died. Allen purportedly  tried to use a similar subplot in Hannah and Her Sisters. Given a full length feature to breathe, this concept becomes a very fun and funny caper. It’s a light and bubbly comedy first and foremost, and a great one at that, but it’s also a creative murder mystery story indebted to The Thin Man that keeps you guessing.

Outside the confines of the erratic relationship of Annie and Alvy, this story of excitement and adventure flourished in the lives of middle-aged couple Carol and Larry Lipton. The same basic notion remains, with their elderly neighbour Lillian House (Lynn Cohen) dying from a hert attack the day after they meet her. Carol cannot shake a feeling that Lillian’s husband Paul (Jerry Adler) is somehow involved in the death and becomes absorbed with fascination at solving things, with enthusiastic help from her friend Ted (Alan Alda) and unwilling help from her husband. Allen’s kvetching is perfect foil for Keaton’s detective devotion, and who else could be their lovechild than Zach Braff (in his film debut). When Anjelica Huston isn’t playing the victim of the perfect murder, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors, she’s helping to solve one here as the slightly too clever novelist. Her partial role in the plotting is to serve as an alleged sexual interest for Larry to destabilize the harmony of his marriage. But her real value to Allen comes in her overview of the sequence of events, which feels a little too expository for the audience to get in on the act.

You can’t have material originally envisaged for Diane Keaton performed by someone else. Although this reworking was originally written with Mia Farrow in mind, Keaton coming on board provided a comedic performance that Allen admits outdoes his own writing. The script was too tightly plotted to make significant changes that played to Keaton’s sensibilities, rather than Farrow’s. But the “greatest screen comedienne we’ve ever had next to Judy Holliday” changed the comic center of the piece and thus the tone of the picture. Working with her was “great therapy…a great palliative” for Allen in the wake of his irrevocable personal and professional separation from Farrow and boy oh boy if she isn’t the same for the audience. Making her first proper appearance since 1979’s Manhattan (overlooking a minor cameo in Radio Days), she sizzles and dazzles. Keaton has represented a missed figure in Woody Allen’s work during the Farrow era. Allen’s formal structure of writing parts specifically for her to perform altered the kind of films he would write. There’s no need to complain when that results in the quality of work that is Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days and Husbands and Wives, but sometimes you just long for Keaton to call Allen a fuddy dud.

This is another classic fish out of water scenario that shaped the success of Allen and Keaton’s collaborations in the 70s. Allen really embraces this, throwing back to physical comedy of his early funny ones. Fighting with a phone cord on his face and struggling to put on his shoe having been woken up sleep deprived are two amusing examples of how Allen is still maturing as a comedian. He doesn’t need to destroy himself in a Buster Keaton slapstick sequence like the Execu-ciser from Bananas to get a laugh. He’s refined his comedic performance to get the most out of the little and apply them to the everyday. It’s funny because it’s happened to us and we relate. This level of comedy peaks in the hysterical scene where the team make a blackmail phone call to Paul House made up of recordings of his mistress taken from a fake audition. But what actually makes it so brilliant is Keaton’s reactions, as her tepid enthusiasm for engaging in the plan turns to expected exasperation at Allen naturally almost fumbling it all up.

The handheld camerawork from Carlo Di Palma follows on from Husbands and Wives. It takes on a different meaning here, changing from an intimate faux-documentary about marriage to a fast paced murder mystery etching a comedic guidebook of how to reinvigorate a marriage. What the camera focuses on, where it pans to and from all act as tense clues and play off serious conventions in the genre. But it also develops classic conceits of Allen’s cinematography in interesting ways: shifting viewpoints around a dinner table and among ensemble discussions in rooms; both gliding and jarring the camera among the surroundings at the appropriate times; dialogue being delivered out of shot for over 10 seconds when Carol and Larry walk around a water fountain in a park. A confrontation and shoot out in the back of an old cinema surrounded by mirrors also showcases Di Palma’s obvious talent in composure, composition and style. It messes with your perspectives in a very Hitchcockian way, yet it’s a blatant homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai as that very film is playing in the background. Allen’s “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again” line seals its place in history – at least it’s not imitating bad television for once.

Huston describes the shooting as “oddly free of anxiety, introspection and pain”, qualities which ironically embody his previous film Husbands and Wives. “It’s just a lark for me. A vacation…It’s sort of like giving myself a personal reward. Just an indulgence.” Allen said. In the year that he was having, he evidently felt that he needed it. What a gift it is to us too. He’s not been this fun and entertaining since the charming Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. As Allen describes it, it’s “just the kind of picture I loved to get lost in as a kid…a very pleasurable experience”. It’s remarkable that Allen could make a film this enjoyable while going through the adversity of a very public trial in the court and in the media though a prolonged custody battle and allegations of child molestation.

As part of their mild marital inquiry, Carol asks Larry “You don’t think we’re turning into a comfortable old pair of old shoes do you?”. You could well imagine Annie and Alvy evolving into these two 16 years down the road, such is their instantly dazzling chemistry, but you could never imagine their relationship being symbolic of a comfortable old pair of shoes. If this is the last time that we see Allen and Keaton on screen together, they go out in delightful style (“I’ll sit with you through the opera next week. I already bought the earplugs”; “I’m your husband, I command you to sleep. Sleep! I command it. I command it! Sleep!”). But we still keep hoping for an encore, because we need the eggs.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)

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4-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Idea for a farce – a poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.”

There’s certain expectations with most Woody Allen pictures; a New York setting, a large degree of wit, a beautiful woman delivering a great performance, suffocating neurosis, people talking out of frame, jazz. You don’t normally come to one with the intention of having your values and morality tested. Yet with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen distills his cinematic hallmarks and philosophical passions into a meaningful debate on the decency of human impulse. It chews so tenderly on the impact of our every decision in the governance of our conscious; how we are defined by the choices we make and how it affects our position in the universe. It’s a masterful conclusion to a decade of dominance in cinema, with a collection of 10 films that challenge the consistency and quality of any filmmaker from any period.

The title lays it out plainly: what is a crime, what is merely a misdemeanor and how do we rationalise them into these compartments? The loosely connected parallel stories of ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) and fledgling documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) challenge this thesis, as they confront the depths of their values in the pursuit of self-perceived innocence and a clear conscious. Judah’s dramatic arc undoubtedly has more gravity in this regard, as he green lights the ‘perfect murder’ of his strung-along mistress (Anjelica Huston who’s great in her anxiety, neurosis and mental trauma) to save his reputation and marriage. Breaking Bad captivated us with similar commentaries 19 years later, in showcasing the transformation of an ordinary man taken from one sin to deeper sins. The dread in the viewer here comes not only from the suspense of whether Judah will get his comeuppance, but the understanding that he realises his capacity for these stakes, and whether he will revisit it later in life.

Like almost every Allen film since 1977, this deals with the intellectual middle-class of New York. That demographic actually serves a potent purpose here, as Allen shrewdly comments on the inability of intellectuals to properly rationalise their ethical dilemmas. Judah’s struggle before and after the deed leads to questions such as “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is what shes doing to me just?” In this self-centered pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in life,  murder equated to infidelity, and murder resulting from the fear of your infidelity becoming known isn’t the same as any other motivation. The end result of Judah’s moral code is a refusal to let her “destroy his life”.

That Judah is an eye doctor is no coincidence, rather it’s part of some really strong symbolism from Allen – a man who helps other people improve their sight, yet is incapable of clear moral vision. While his Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston, whose little anxious touches resemble a modern day performance by Joaquin Phoenix, though ironically not his in one of Allen’s other morality tales involved murder, Irrational Man) goes physically blind while being metaphorically blinded by his faith to the realities of society. This unjust world is suggestive of Allen that there is no God there to punish the deserving; you can be free of a permanent feeling of guilt and only you can punish yourself. But for how often Allen mocks Judaism, he takes it very seriously here and offers Ben wise words to combat Judah: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel, with all my heart, a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”

The comic side to the film sees Allen’s Cliff selling out by making a documentary on his big shot brother-in-law television producer (Alan Alda) while falling for a producer on the documentary (Mia Farrow’s Halley). The original cut had only one scene with Alda, more of the side story with Cliff’s sister and niece (which does seem to go nowhere in this final edit) and features Mia as a social worker in a nursing home for vaudevillians where Cliff is making a documentary. These changes appear to made valid improvements, even if it did require re-shooting 80 out of 139 scenes, making it his most re-shot film outside of the completely reworked September. It’s profoundly and poetically written, earning multiple nominations and winning a WGA for best screenplay. At times it is overly done though, slipping into expositional monologues. But the cast do a terrific job with the words, Landau in particular who was also nominated for multiple awards in an unconventional headline role.

Originally titled ‘Brothers’, this balance of comedy and drama is something Allen has longed to accomplish and came closest with Hannah and Her Sisters. The philosophical drama and farcical comedy would combine again more rigidly in 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, to much less success. But here the comedy, drama, existentialism and thrills of both stories converge sublimely in such playful construction. For instance, one moment you have the suspense of Judah receiving a call from a detective which transitions into a scene with Allen at the cinema watching a rendition of “Murder He Says” from Happy Go Lucky. As inherently tragic as the film is, there’s still some blistering jokes slotted in:

“He’s interested in producing something of mine.”
“Your first child!”

The flashback device is often used by Allen to good effect. They’re usually there to inform audiences about narrative details: Annie Hall is almost a film of scenes in shuffle mode but the trips that he, Annie and Rob take back to observe his childhood are richly informative and comical; Stardust Memories floats to the past; Broadway Danny Rose gets a lot of comedy out of prior endeavors. But here, Judah’s silent contemplation from the past, in the form of flashbacks for the viewer, not only inform us of this non-present time but act as methods for him to work through his conscience. It’s less artificially inserted for the sake of narrative necessities and more organic from the characters mental dialogues.

Woody, either arrogantly or stubbornly, opines on the tendency for his work to reflect reality rather than the superficial happiness of Hollywood. Judah, as if knowing that Woody Allen himself makes movies in New York, tells Cliff “You want a happy ending, you should see a Hollywood movie”. It’s as downbeat and morbid as he’s become, with Judah left unpunished and at peace with his moral values. While Cliff serves a prison sentence of four months away from Halley (as he did with Tracy in Manhattan) and a broken heart upon her return. It’s a very dark and disturbing ending even for Allen, which leaves you contemplating your own moral balance in the modern world.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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