When you’re coming of age as a movie-watcher, and just growing aware of the idea of auteurism, or at least that there are certain filmmakers who have attained a grandeur that sets them apart from the vast landscape of movies, you also grow a steely resolve against such notions. It’s difficult to jump right into an oeuvre; and tenfold if you’re still just a kid. In my case, I needed a gateway film into the work of Woody Allen–growing up in a Jewish household, of course, his name had always been spoken well of, accompanied by a few chuckles, as well as a certain degree of reverence usually withheld when it came to mere comics. My first encounters with Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters didn’t go over well, their mix of headiness and froth was confounding and even downright unpalatable to an undeveloped intellect such as mine; and the shenanigans of Sleeper truly boggled the mind with the film’s plus-sized sight gags, political commentary, and disregard for narrative conventions.
I needed to be eased in, and that chance came with Manhattan Murder Mystery, which not only moved along with a buoyancy that didn’t preclude linear narrative; it was a new film, when I first saw it in 1993, so it had the bonus of freshness–something I could embrace as a film of my generation rather than of my parents’, something that wasn’t seemingly trapped in amber (yes, Hannah was a mere seven years old, but in kid years that was an eternity). Hilarious that a film that takes as its subject the restlessness of middle-age should appeal to a kid of fourteen, but by some alchemy, Woody Allen clicked for me with Manhattan Murder Mystery–the actor/director’s nebbish persona, the New York adoration, the individualized aesthetic, the film history recall. Coming right after the drenched-in-scandal Husbands and Wives surprised the mainstream movie world by employing jittery, handheld camerawork, Murder Mystery used the same shaky-cam for a completely different effect, lending the film’s intricate and silly crime-caper plot a scatterbrained immediacy.
Whereas Annie Hall was totally alien to me (young neurotic love in New York City might as well have been raking pebbles on the moon), an aging couple with empty-nest syndrome spying on their neighbors had a vivacity and a tender, domestic recognition. It also helped that Diane Keaton was given front and center this time around; it’s one of her most fine-tuned, joyous performances, and she’s allowed to run the comical gamut, from daffy nosiness (regarding her seemingly normal little old Jewish neighbors) to marriage frustration (with her “fuddy-dud” husband, Woody’s unadventurous book editor Larry) to giddy flirtation (with her best friend, Alan Alda’s unmarried restaurateur wannabe) to seething jealousy (against Anjelica Huston’s hotshot writer, one of Larry’s star clients).
“Too much Double Indemnity,” Larry warns Carol when he fears she’s becoming too manic in her pursuit of her neighbor’s guilt over the sudden heart-attack death of his wife–yet Allen’s obviously the one doing the studying of classical Hollywood crime thrillers. Murder Mystery‘s got a surprisingly sturdy plot; though it moves along via wild coincidences and slapdash logic gaps, it’s full of enough twists and turns and has so many virtuoso surprises up its sleeve that it could have stood on its own without having to go all mega-meta hall of mirrors-ish in that Lady from Shanghai climax. Again, there are moments you look forward to like favorite tracks of a CD: Keaton’s middle-of-the-night spy session, in which an exasperated Allen unsuccessfully “forbids” her to peek on the neighbors (“I forbid you to go! Is that what you do when I’m forbidding? ? Well, if that’s what you’re going to do then I’m not going to be forbidding you a lot….”); Huston’s backfiring ruse to trap the killer, in which the group uses an unreliable spliced-together tape to try and blackmail him over the phone (“Yes, they’re keeping it refrigerated!”); Larry and Carol sneaking into a hotel after hours, checking up on a lead, only to be trapped in a dark elevator with a dead body.
It’s the perfect updating of the bumbling detective, perfectly wedded to Allen’s eternal fish-out-of-water persona and Keaton’s game resolve. With musty memories of Murder, She Wrote, that concurrent Dick Van Dyke geriatrics-on-the-trail show, and now Monk, it seems that only Woody could make the aging-sleuths subgenre seem fresh. And it still does. It’s said that Annie Hall’s origins were as a comical murder mystery itself (“Anhedonia”), and if that’s the case, it seems to have been a good move to wait until these two actors hit their peak. To paraphrase Keaton’s Carol, the roles fit them like an old pair of shoes (“but never comfortable,” Larry adds), and this is the sort of chemistry that can only be honed over a course of many years.