Tuesday, December 31, 2013


I've had a kind of love/hate relationship with the films of Woody Allen since my teens. The love affair originated in the early 1970s, when Allen’s films were largely comedic and he was at the height of his popularity as the mainstream darling of the campus arthouse set. Things started tilting toward the hate end of the spectrum when, in the latter part of the decade, pretentiousness began to seep into his work to the degree that a film like Interiors (1978) had me seriously wondering if all that WASP solemnity was meant to be taken as an intentionally poor parody Bergman. When I realized he was in earnest, my mind flew to Alvy Singer’s line in Annie Hall: “What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!” 

As a director whose work tends to vary most significantly in terms of quality, not content (theres a good reason no one ever asks "What's it about?" when you say you're going to see a Woody Allen movie), Allen is perhaps one of the most safely reliable directors around. I’ve seen virtually every film Woody Allen has ever made, struggling through his sometimes grueling attempts at significance (Stardust Memories - 1980), and reveling in his deliriously inspired comedies (Love and Death - 1975). Although my admiration for Allen palled considerably after his very public, more-than-I-wanted-to-know, full-tilt-disclosure breakup with Mia Farrow (try as I might, I can’t enjoy the icky May-December “romance” of Manhattan anymore); I find I still can’t help but be impressed by how he has managed, lo these many decades, to remain the last of the true auteur filmmakers of the '70s. An independent director/writer/actor, whose amazingly prolific output has kept me, if not always entertained, most certainly intrigued for over 40 years. 
Murder, She Read
Of course, the problem inherent in absorbing so much of a single director’s work (especially one as fond of covering the same territory, film after film, as Woody Allen) is the gradual over-familiarity one develops with said director’s favored themes and tropes. In Woody Allen’s case, this invariably means: the city of Manhattan—Allen's all-white version of it, anyway—as a participating character in the narrative; flimsy philosophical theorizing; rampant psychoanalysis; labored homages to personal idols Ingmar Bergman and Charlie Chaplin; and stories centered around affluent, neurotic, Jewish/Anglo pseudo-intellectuals occupying a New York curiously underpopulated with people of color, but with an overabundance of “brilliant” men, and “beautiful” women insecure about not being “smart enough” for elfin, elderly, serial-worriers.

When Allen uses these recurring leitmotifs as fodder for satire, no one can touch him. But when he dons his “Woody Allen: Deep Thinker” cap and tries for wisdom and tortured insight into the human condition (and BOY does the effort show), he can come off as woefully out of his depth—his insights are often shallow and self-serving—the results, frequently insufferable.
House Party
Elderly couple,Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen,l.) get chummy with their neighbors, the Liptons (Allen & Keaton)

Happily, in what was initially intended as another Allen/Farrow onscreen pairing, Woody Allen followed up 1992's squirmingly autobiographical Husbands and Wives (which plays much better now, thanks to the healing distance of time) with the hilarious Manhattan Murder Mystery; a splendid return to the Woody Allen I discovered in the '70s: the funny Woody Allen.
But as happy as audiences were for the return of Woody-lite, Farrow’s departure and the ugly reasons behind it almost proved an insurmountable PR roadblock for the film before the very engaging Diane Keaton stepped in to take Farrow’s place. Keaton and Allen, last paired in 1987s Manhattan (she had a lovely cameo in Radio Days - 1987), co-starred in just four films (Farrow and Allen appeared in seven films together, but not always as a couple), but to many, they were the beloved Bogart and Bacall of contemporary comedy. The unofficial reuniting of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer engendered so much nostalgic goodwill that the recent damage to Woody Allen’s image was temporarily eclipsed (and softened) by the welcome return of Diane Keaton, the actress with whom Woody Allen arguably shares the best onscreen chemistry.
Woody Allen as Larry Lipton
Diane Keaton as Carol Lipton
Alan Alda as Ted
Anjelica Huston as Marcia Fox

The plot of Manhattan Murder Mystery is playfully simple. When the wife of an elderly neighbor dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, a middle-aged couple worried that their marriage has settled into a comfortable routine (Allen & Keaton) soon find themselves caught in circumstances where life imitates art. That is, if the art in question is Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo. Reluctantly donning the cloak of amateur sleuths, our neurotic Nick & Nora of the '90s embark on a comic investigation into a possible murder which winds up unearthing more than a clue or two about their own marriage.  
Like the best of those old Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello comedies which successfully combine mystery with outlandish slapstick, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a consistently funny comedy—laugh out loud funny, at times—that still manages to sustain a satisfyingly puzzling and suspenseful (if implausible) murder mystery at its core.
Mystery Incorporated
Looking like the cast of an AARP-funded version of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, Carol and Larry enlist the help of friends/rivals Ted and Marcia (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston) in unraveling a mystery.

I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery when it premiered in Los Angeles in 1993. And although the film opened with a rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” by society supper-club crooner Bobby Short that nearly had me running for the nearest exit before the film had even begun; my fortitude was rewarded by being treated to one of the funniest, most entertaining Woody Allen films I'd seen in a long while. Following the uneven Alice (1990) and the largely terrible Shadows and Fog (1991), Manhattan Murder Mystery proved to be the kind of silly character-comedy I had begun to doubt Allen was still capable of producing. 
Manhattan Murder Mystery is a genuine throwback to the Woody Allen of old, and is, at least as far as I’m concerned, his last really funny film to date. What works for me is that it’s one of those comedies wherein a significant part of the humor is derived from seeing characters associated with one kind of film (a Woody Allen neurotic comedy) forced to contend with the plot-driven constraints of a specific genre (the stylized film noir or suspense thriller). Peter Bogdanovich achieved something like this with What’s Up, Doc?, when he dropped laid-back '70s actors into the center of the controlled anarchy of a '30s screwball comedy; but it's perhaps Love and Death (my absolute favorite Woody Allen film) that best exemplifies this kind of anachronism-derived humor. 
Manhattan Murder Mystery takes two of cinema’s most famously jittery individuals and posits them within the cool-as-a-cucumber universe of the suspense thriller. Instead of hard-boiled heroes unfazed by danger, or fearless femme fatales impervious to menace; we’re given a talky, excitable, slightly dowdy middle-aged couple unable to stop analyzing their lives and emotional insecurities, even in the face of impending danger. No one does high-strung hysteria like Keaton and Allen, and Manhattan Murder Mystery gets funnier in direct proportion to the degree of jeopardy they face. Comic high points: the malfunctioning elevator scene, and the telephone sequence with the synchronized tape recorders.
Woody Allen pays tribute to the classic "hall of mirrors" scene from Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai

I really adore Mia Farrow, and under Woody Allen’s direction, she gave some of the best screen performances of her career. That being said, outside of the total character transformation she affected in Broadway Danny Rose which revealed a heretofore-unexplored brassiness in the preternaturally waifish actress that contrasted nicely with Allen’s sweet-natured talent agent; I can’t say I’ve ever much cared for Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s onscreen chemistry.
In that transference that seems to happen with any actor appearing in an Allen film more than once, Mia Farrow began to adapt Woody Allen’s patterns and rhythms of speech so thoroughly that (compounded by their shared pale and thin countenances) she became more like his female doppelganger than costar. In their scenes together, there was no contrast for either to play off of…it was just Woody Allen whining in stereo.
Diane Keaton, on the other hand, is perfection. While she still strikes me as being too pretty for him (although not in that stomach-turning, Julia Roberts way of 1996's Everyone Says I Love You), Keaton is so innately likeable that she sufficiently softens Allen’s sometimes-annoying persona enough to make him and his overarching self-involvement bearable. They blend together seamlessly and have an easy rapport that radiates from the screen. As good an actress as she is, I have to say that, outside of the unsurpassed work she did in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), I've rarely enjoyed Keaton in any of her films to the degree I've liked her in the ones she has made with Allen. Keaton seems to bring out the best in Allen as no other co-star has before or since.
The ceaselessly stylish Anjelica Huston is always a pleasure to watch. Disregarding the scenes where she's called upon to make blunt overtures to the grandfatherly Allen (they play out like a science fiction movie), I get a real kick out of the way Huston's self-assured cool is contrasted with Keaton's diffidence. Far left, that's 18-yr-old Zach Braff making his film debut.

Murder mysteries aren't easy to pull off under the best of circumstances, a comedic murder mystery-cum-homage to The Greats of the genre…even less likely. But in Manhattan Murder Mystery, Allen’s comic detour into Agatha Christie territory manages to be a first-rate mystery of considerable twists and surprises. And, mercifully, none of it is the least bit Scandinavian or Bergmanesque. In fitting with the tone of the genre, Allen keeps the dialogue witty and the plotting brisk, most of it serving to support its sweet subtext regarding growing older and the fear of losing one’s taste for adventure. 
In this, the second of three films he made with Woody Allen (Crimes & Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You), Alan Alda plays a divorced playwright harboring an infatuation with Diane Keaton

No matter what names they go by, the characters Keaton and Allen play in Manhattan Murder Mystery are Annie Hall and Alvy Singer. And that's fine by me. As someone who fell in love with Diane Keaton in his teens and laughed through the "nervous romance" of Annie Hall more times than I can count; seeing these characters 16 years later (albeit in the guise of Larry Lipton, publishing editor, and Carol Lipton, wannabe restaurateur), looking all rumpled and lived-in, yet still relating to one another with the same spark of undeniable affection and magnetism...well, it just takes me down a nostalgic road I can't help but feel is entirely the film's point.

Of the Woody Allen films I number among my favorites: Annie Hall, Love and Death, Radio DaysThe Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, Cassandra’s Dream, Broadway Danny Rose, Everyone Says I Love YouSeptemberBlue JasmineManhattan Murder Mystery ranks somewhere near the top. I know many of his films are tighter, smarter, and funnier, but this is the closest Allen has come to making a comfort food kind of movie for me. In deference to the plot-driven machinations of the suspense genre, Allen's darker obsessions take a back seat to his lighter anxieties (avoidance of physical pain, losing sleep, etc.), and the entire enterprise just leaves me smiling and satisfied. It's Woody Allen at his most accessible (meaning tolerable), with Diane Keaton the perfect sardonic foil. They create a kind of movie magic together, the kind that keeps me returning to rewatch Manhattan Murder Mystery long after the mystery of the murder has been solved.

I got Diane Keaton's autograph back in 1981 when I working at Crown Books on Sunset Blvd. Given how much I adore her, it puzzles me how little I remember of this encounter. All I recall is that I was standing behind the cash register and there was Annie Hall standing in front of me with a pile of books. I have no memory of asking for her autograph or even gushing "Gee, Miss Keaton, I just love all your movies..." or some such nonsense. I must have passed out and woke up with this pinned to my shirt.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013


  1. 'Comfort food' is a perfect description. I've watched this one many times and it seems to get better with age.
    Of course Woody & Diane are great but I love watching Huston & Alda too (the latter is especially funny when he's killing time with that ambitious actress in the restaurant - I wonder what happened to that actress? I don't recall ever seeing her again).
    The tape recording scene never fails to make me laugh.
    It's funny how my response to Allen's movies has evolved over the years. I hated "Another Woman" when it came out but now savor some of the acting - especially Sandy Dennis as Gena Rowlands' angry old friend.
    Your post makes me want to pull out 'MMM' for yet another look.

    1. Alan Alda has sort of grown on me in his post"MASH" years. His Walter Matthau slouch and that voice that sounds like he is perpetually smiling, ages him in the most charming way. He never registered much for me before, but when I see him in this movie I find I like him a lot.
      Curious you mentioned the actress he plays that scene with. I kept looking at her wondering if I remembered ever seeing her in anything, and here you tell me that you have no knowledge of what became of her as well.
      Oh, and turnabout is fair play: your bringing up Sandy Dennis in "Another Woman" makes ME want to dig out my DVD copy of it.
      That's a GREAT scene!

  2. The reteaming of Keaton and Allen really does make this film a total delight; I remember when seeing it (after years and years of Allen and Farrow) thinking that Mia's character would not have been right for this; Keaton can do "breezy" better than anyone, and that's not Ms. Farrow's forte. Allen needs a strong female character to bounce off of in a comedy such as this, and Diane Keaton is so perfect!

    That said, my all-time favorite Woody film is Hannah and Her Sisters, which, as you pointed out, costars Mia Farrow, but their characters are friendly exes, not a couple who drive the action of the film. In fact, I think the reason their couple chemistry doesn't work quite as well as Allen's and Keaton's is that Mia's and Woody's personas are far too much ALIKE. They're both so deeply neurotic and mannered...amusing together, yes, but no opposites to play off of.

    I always thought Mia's most fascinating Woody Allen role was Alice, because she was totally the surrogate Woody in the film...every word that came out of her mouth was pure Woody. I heard him in my head every time she kvetched, moaned and complained...

    I'm looking forward to seeing this one again--thanks for the reminder, Ken, and best to you and Le Cinema Dreams in the new year!!

    1. Hi Chris
      I always find it interesting to know what Woody Allen film is a person's favorite. They are all so similar, yet different, so it fascinates me that two Woody Allen fans can have diametrically opposed tastes.
      I own copies of both "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Alice", and enjoy watching them from time to time. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Allen's films is that even when they are not your favorites, the casts or individual performances can still keep you interested.
      I obviously agree with about the Woody/Mia similarities. There are old paparazzi pics of them together where they look like fraternal twins.
      Keaton though, brings out something in Allen I really like. She has a way of putting him in his place while still seeming to have so much affection for him. She makes him seem like a nicer guy.
      Thanks for the stop by, as always. I always appreciate that you take the time to read so many of my posts. All the best to you in the New year, too!

  3. Argyle here with my two cents. I saw this when it came out but can only remember feeling disappointed, having expected more from the re-teaming. It felt like the moment had really passed. But that was a reaction very much rooted in that present - I can totally imagine feeling differently now. And your choice to cover it is absolutely the best indication to revisit.

    It took me years to enjoy “Annie Hall.” I think I have always had a really pessimistic (knee-jerk) reaction to artists whose work just slightly precedes the forming of my own artistic attitudes. I think it’s mainly jealousy. Maybe this is common. Not that I have ever remotely produced anything to compete with Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, David Byrne, Ron Howard, Cindy Sherman, or any member of Van Halen. This is a hard thing for me to describe: I usually like the album after the really popular album - the one where they overreach and fail.

    Anyway, I was obsessed with “Manhattan” when it came out. I was caught between wanting to be with or be Diane Keaton’s character. Her walking and talking (“You absolutely outgrow it!”) was, for me, some kind of pinnacle. Now I would feel weird watching it. I love nostalgia, but I usually avoid nostalgia for my own past.

    I have lived with someone for 30 years whose top 3 list of all films would include “Love and Death” I’m sure. I have never properly watched it. It’s like I know it will be so perfect I don’t want to screw it up.

    I was off and on during the Mia period. The stars-around-a-kitchen-island films did not grab me. Now people talk about “Purple Rose of Cairo” like it’s “Rashomon.” The film of his that always pops into my head (and that I’ve actually rewatched fairly recently) is “Stardust Memories.” I was pretty miserable when I saw it (on release) and remember being impatient and sort of bummed by it, but the gorgeousness of the photography, Charlotte Rampling, and Laraine Newman always stick with me. And I think it is helped by having an open ended theme. I thought “Match Point” was good. And I remember laughing a lot at “Deconstructing Harry.” I did not understand the popularity of or acclaim for the Paris one or “Blue Jasmine.”

    I totally admire his work ethic and follow-through. I wish he would make a film clearly based on his romantic entanglements. I will arrogantly offer a criticism, or maybe just a description. When I tried to think about what feels like is missing from his films, I immediately thought of “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders and the scenes where the angels are sitting quietly here and there observing and listening to people’s thoughts. I’m not saying that’s the greatest movie ever or even one of my favorites. I’m probably just talking about my own taste.

    Happy 2014, Ken and fellow followers!!

  4. Hi Argyle
    When it comes to Woody Allen, I definitely think one's response to his films can be fueled by when one sees them. I'm certain my initial enjoyment of "Manhattan Murder Mystery" was rooted in how how tired I was at the time of Woody "the artist," and the low expectation I had that he could ever be funny again. Looking at it today, I am amazed by how breezy and effortless it feels. Sure, it's inconsequential, but if I could whisper anything into Mr. Allen's ear, I'd say inconsequential is for him like baby bear's bed was to Goldilocks...just right.

    I suspect I might share some aspect of that thing you describe about being drawn to an artist after their overreaching second effort, but the one thing i do know, it's a tiresome show business cycle that has the "entertainer" longing to be "the artist". Both Madonna and Lady Gaga were a lot more palatable before they grew tired of entertaining people and started to see themselves as artists. I have the same feeling for Allen. It's a natural evolution among creative types, but that doesn't make it less annoying.

    Like you, I was baffled that "Midnight in Paris" was one of his biggest hits. It seemed like a "best of" reel of Woody Allen schtick to me.
    But all of this points to what is so fascinating about his films; even his devoted fans are divided on what they consider to be his best stuff. I don't even have a great familiarity with Russian literature, but "Love and Death" just makes me laugh from beginning to end.

    Loved your description of how "The Purple Rose of Cairo" is received. Honestly, have you ever sat with film enthusiasts and talked about Woody Allen movies? I have, and I tell you, the potential for pretentiousness unleavened by irony rivals a Woody Allen film itself.
    I have never seen "Wings of Desire" but have always wondered if it's as good as its stills make it look.
    Favorite parts of your comment: you had good things to say about both "Deconstructing Harry" and "Stardust Memories." Because they stick in my mind as films I didn't enjoy, your mentioning them makes me want to give them another look-see. it's been ages!
    Good to hear from you Argyle, and a Happy 2014 to you! You've been a longstanding loyal reader and I thank you.

  5. You didn't like Bobby Short?


    1. Hey Thom
      I've always admired him as a person, but his singing voice was just never really my taste.

  6. Like many of us, I first heard him here...