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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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MANHATTAN (1979)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“You’re throwing away an enormous amount of real affection on the wrong person.”

Chapter One. He adored Woody Allen. He idolized him all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he, he romanticised him all out of proportion. And I really do, which is why I’m undertaking this project of watching his canon of work this year. I want to see if my views are justified. I want to know whether Woody Allen really is my favourite filmmaker, and if he always will be. Manhattan suggests so. Yet Allen was so unhappy with the film that offered to make a new one for free if United Artists didn’t release it. Thank goodness they did, because it’s without a doubt something to add to Isaac’s list of things worth living for.

Annie Hall may be the more enduring film in mainstream culture, but Manhattan is his most well realised film to that point. The multiple parallel story arcs progress and overlap with precision, the characters are the richest to that date, the relationships are insightful on the underlying moral hang ups that plague them, its style is impeccable, and it’s Allen’s sharpest written comedy in terms of wit and intelligence – arguably not a single joke falling flat. One in particular sticks with me: “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery”. In the eternal war of Annie Hall vs. Manhattan, both are undeniably brilliant in their unique ways. The former makes me giddier and gives me more raw pleasure, but the latter simply makes me feel more about what’s happening in front of me.

Your instinct is to root for Isaac and Mary purely because of who is portraying them. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are an adorable and endlessly charming on-screen pairing, but that’s matched by Tracy’s endless neurosis and Isaac’s endless inability to compromise. There’s only so much mileage between a pretentious woman who shoots below her all too self-aware standards and a man who “when it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg award”. Keaton marries Annie’s affability with the complicated psychological currents of Renata, giving Allen a great energy to bounce off that creates a love/hate relationship which is always alive. In a way it’s a shame that this doomed couple share one of the most romantic moments in cinema. But it’s very true to life in a film where none of the relationships feel like lasting and love is nothing but transient.

Not that Isaac’s other relationship in the film with teenager Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) gives you much more hope to root for either. You understand Isaac’s placement on their relationship in the first half of the film and, in your best judgement, you have to side with him. But Hemingway’s understated and sensitive performance –  capturing the naivety and integrity of this young girl precocious beyond her tender years – draws you into her emotionally mature 17 year old perception of the world. You know that there’s zero chance of 79 year old Isaac and 55 year old Tracy watching a W.C. Fields film in bed in 2016, and zero chance of them both being fulfilled with that life. But she utterly convinces you to have a little bit of faith in them, even if Isaac doesn’t at the ambiguous close of the film. The irony is that he so badly wants to, just as badly as he doesn’t want that thing about her that he likes to change. It’s a devastatingly straightforward sentiment equaled by Tracy’s own: “I can’t believe you met somebody you like more than me”. Her attempt at rationalising Isaac breaking up with her is absolutely heartbreaking. Hemingway does so little, but it reads immensely.  When her voice softly breaks asking Isaac to “leave me alone”, you want to do anything but that.

Gordon Willis’ close up framing of that shot, and the closing exchange of the film, are just some examples of his breathtaking work that go beyond the obvious showmanship in the opening montage. Manhattan is a titular character unto itself; he captures not only the action happening but its existence in the immediate surroundings (all shot on location, amazingly), inseparably fusing the two together. His compositions and choreography are so striking, playing with exposure and silhouettes in such stimulating fashion. He injects the love that Allen has for New York into the viewer so that we’re not merely peeking in at his magnificent love letter to the city, but experiencing it. Coupled with the stellar Gershwin soundtrack after Woody’s two film experimentation without music, this gives it a gloriously traditional feel that’s reminiscent of a 1940s romance. It’s incredibly immersive and iconic cinema.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Third viewing.

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