Which Husbands and Wives or Crimes and Misdemeanors; it’s a genre film, a mystery, with inexperienced sleuths bumbling their way from clue to clue. Still he manages to pull from the central conceit – a mysterious death, a group of well-to-do friends whose curiosity turns into obsession and pulls them into increasingly dangerous situations – to be an allegory about marriage, how relationships can grow stale and couples can drift apart despite all appearances of being close. And this second story, the crumbling of a marriage, emerges so easily from the potboiler plot that the viewer gets lulled into it before really knowing what’s happening. It’s also got some arty touches, a few homages to classic cinema: a nod to the Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity at the beginning, and a spine-tingling scene with mirrors near the end that’s a nod to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.
is not to say Manhattan Murder Mystery is not primo Woody Allen. It is. In addition to being prolific, Allen has maintained a consistent style and voice, even as his work has evolved over the years, and that’s the case here. Many of his trademarks are present, from the understated titles and credits to the subdued and elegant set and costume design (warm lighting, lots of earth tones, Upper East Side classiness) to the way the characters easily digress from the plot in banter that makes them wonderfully complex and interesting. This film really showcases his skills as a writer. It’s not
one of his deepest and most profound films, such as
But what I love most about this movie is Diane Keaton. This isn’t an Oscar performance. There’s not a lot in the way of heavy emotion. But it’s her performance that really makes the film work, draws the viewer in and has the audience at the edge of their seats. Which is doubly amazing because the part wasn’t even written for her. Allen wrote it for Mia Farrow, but the two split as it was going into production. Legend has it that Keaton was nervous at the first shooting, and she had to consult with an acting coach, which obviously did the trick. Her obsession with the murder develops very quickly, and is conveyed eloquently with her facial expressions (that furrowed brow mixed with slack-jawed amazement), her movement through the crime scenes (driven, confident and awkwardly inexperienced, all at once), and the tone of her voice (increasingly sharp toward her husband, played by Allen, and intimate toward a recently divorced friend played by Alan Alda). The chemistry between these two is palpable from the start, and so natural. Allen has said of Keaton’s role in this film that her ability to play comedy is so strong that it pushed him into the role of straight man, which is not his usual place. He doesn’t change anything; he’s still the stammering, neurotic, wisecracking, hand-gesturing Allen we all know. It’s just that Keaton’s presence is so strong that even at full-force Allen’s character moves into a secondary position. Plus she’s just as smart and sexy as can be, despite her reading glasses and conservative pants suits and turtleneck sweaters.
Of course, none of this should be a surprise. Keaton is an Oscar winner, after all, for her performance in Annie Hall. Still it’s great to see a terrific actress really bring it to role that might otherwise be mundane, and bring such life and depth to a film that would otherwise be like so many other long forgotten films in the same genre.