Underrated Movie #68: Manhattan Murder Mystery

Title: Manhattan Murder Mystery
Year: 1993
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston

The Story: An middle-aged New York housewife wants something more out of life, so she starts investigating a possible murder mystery to get closer to an old flame. Her husband realizes that he’d better take an interest too if he wants to keep her. They get the excitement they were looking for and more when they realize that the murder might be for real.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie got decent reviews and business, but in the public’s mind it got caught up in the drama of Woody’s personal meltdown. This seemed like another piece of the puzzle: his first movie in years without Mia Farrow, so he goes back to his old co-star Diane Keaton! Now, away from all the drama, (and now that Woody’s movies aren’t reliably great anymore) we can appreciate the movie for its own charms, which are ample.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The movie has an interesting history. Supposedly, this has basically the same story as the first draft of Annie Hall, but Woody and his collaborator, Marshall Brickman, kept expanding the background relationship until it took over the whole movie and the original mystery fell away. Fifteen years later he re-united with Brickman and Keaton to make the movie that they’d originally wanted to make.
  2. What makes it fun is that the movie now allows us to pretend that Annie and Alvy got back together after all and here they are, still in love but still zinging each other and trying to figure it all out. (with a brief appearance by Zach Braff as their son!)
  3. It seems like a simple idea but it’s hard to pull off: take the sort of story that would normally be a genre picture (a murder mystery) but make the realistic version, in which normal people choose to get wrapped up in a mystery for their own neurotic reasons and the demands of plot don’t take precedence over character development. The problem is that “genre characters” get themselves into danger far more easily than realistic characters do. If you’re unwilling to enter that “thriller space” in which people start doing crazy stuff to advance the plot, you’ve got a much harder job to do.
  4. Every time someone comes up with a new theory of the murder, the clockwork of the story moves forward, yes, but the character motivations shift too. The plot is solid but it exists mainly to complicate the sublimated attractions of the married couple and their two would-be paramours, which is a neat trick.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Despite his personal problems (or maybe because of them) Woody was really firing on all cylinders at the time. His previous movie (the last with Farrow) was Husbands and Wives and his next one (his first without a paramour-star) was Bullets Over Broadways. All three hold up well.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Maniaks!


Underrated Movie #1: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Year: 1982
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Jose Farrar (Cyrano de Bergerac), Julie Hagerty (Airplane), Tony Roberts (Annie Hall), Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood)

The Story: Three couples spend a weekend in the country in upstate New York at the beginning of the 20th Century. While there, they debate the existence of the spirit world and clumsily attempt to seduce each other’s partners.

How It Came to be Underrated: The disingenuous title does the movie no favors. This was the period of Allen’s greatest popularity with audiences, but the relationship was an uneasy one. In his previous movie Stardust Memories even aliens from outer space show up to tell Allen that “We preferred your earlier, funnier movies”. But Allen wanted to make intellectual movies like his European heroes, Bergman and Fellini. The title of this one teases the audience by recalling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask), Allen’s last broad comedy, but it wasn’t a return to zaniness. In fact, this may be Allen’s most successful attempt to channel his European sensibilities. (Another factor was that Allen was averaging more than one movie a year at this time. This is a great movie, but it wasn’t even the best movie he released in 1982, since that was the year he also made Zelig, which has overshadowed this movie.)

Why it's Great:

  1. “European” can be a bad word for Allen, as when he too slavishly copies Bergman (see Interiors) or Fellini (see Alice), but this movie feels European in the best sense of the word. “Dramedy” is also always a shaky proposition. Why would someone who can make us laugh out loud choose to go for the soft chuckle instead? Why would a dramatic writer toss in a bunch of half-hearted jokes if they had something serious to say? But when dramedy is done right, it can be so buoyant and effervescent that it makes broad comedy or straight drama feel phony. This feels like real life, only richer.
  2. Although Allen always hires the world’s best cinematographers, his movies aren’t usually beautiful to look at. This is an exception. Cinematographer Willis (of the Godfather movies) adopts a simple style, using natural light to accent the pastoral beauty of the countryside. Gone too is the Dixieland jazz that Allen usually prefers. Instead, the music is all taken from the work of Felix Mendelssohn and it has a light, joyous passion that invigorates the whole movie.
  3. Allen also breaks out of his usual habits by writing a role for himself that is wildly against type. The autobiographical characters that Allen wrote and played in Annie Hall and Manhattan are tortured artists that hate the country (“It’s filled with creepy, crawly things!”) and dread their fate in a godless universe. Allen here plays a stockbroker and crackpot inventor who loves the country and argues vigorously for the existence of the spirit world. (Of course, he’s still a horndog and a wisecracker.) It’s easy to watch Allen’s 80s films and forget how good both he and Mia Farrow are at what they do, but when they get to play different characters, we are reminded of how talented they really are.
  4. At only 88 minutes, this is an incredibly tightly-written movie, but it sacrifices nothing. With effortless speed, Allen establishes six complex and varied characters and sends each one through a unique journey. Too often, in these “weekend in the country” movies, we never understand who everybody is or what they want from each other. Here, no one is merely defined by their relationship to someone else. Each character gets their own introduction and believably states their own philosophy. Once we understand those philosophies, we easily anticipate the conflicts that will arise, yet each encounter has an unexpected outcome.
Underrated Compared To: Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), both of which Allen and Farrow made later in the 80s. I like both movies, but not as much as this one.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Zelig (1982) and Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) are Allen’s best remembered films of this period, and they deserve their lofty reputations. Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer Night (1955), and Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), are three of the great “weekend in the country” films that inspired this one.

Availability: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, Allen never provides a commentary or any other special features.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Big Mamie!