L contributor Miriam Bale has curated a “Before and After Woody” mini-series at 92YTribeca, which begins tonight and continues tomorrow. Tonight, there’ll be a panel featuring The L’s Nicolas Rapold, the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, Brody’s sometime internet nemesis Christian Lorentzen of n+1 and the Observer, Columbia film-theory professor Nico Baumbach, and Moveline critic Stephanie Zacharek. But before this surely epic panel, you can enjoy Woody’s first Late Film, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
At a Manhattan flea market: “Are we going to Elaine’s Thursday?” “No, Thursday’s our Wagner opera.”
We’re in Woody Allen country. 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery stars him, again not testing his nonexistent range, and Diane Keaton, and Alan Alda, and the quips are as punchy and frequent as in his best. As if it’s an homage to his own Manhattan (1979), it even opens with romantic shots of the New York skyline, though now in color, scored to Cole Porter instead of Gershwin, and looser in the style of immediate predecessor Husbands and Wives. The difference, and the movie’s main joke, is the title’s two other words. Subtract the primary plot about the married Allen and Keaton’s neighbor possibly being a wife-murderer, and Carol’s investigations into the matter, and you’d still have a casual, slickly shot movie about interesting people chatting over wine and salads. The “murder mystery” only wryly gives it a reason for being, gag scaffolding that is, incidentally, tense and involving. It’s the closest thing to a Chabrol movie that Allen’s made.
Baldly acknowledging Double Indemnity, the movie forces you to care about the treacherous plot intricacies, but it’s really about Alda’s prolonged, loaded smile at Keaton’s unattainable Carol, and frame-worthy two-liners like “I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.” There are subtler zingers, like cutting to Alda laboring through a date with a model-actress (also tied up in the murder): “So was this before or after your fourth abortion?” Repeated references to being “woken up from a deep sleep” echo 1992’s Shadows and Fog, suggesting that Allen was particularly death-obsessed at the beginning of the 90s.
Other than the novelty of a young Zach Braff as the main characters’ son, there’s nothing glaring that raises Manhattan Murder Mystery above Husbands and Wives or Hannah and Her Sisters, which compel and amuse without the murder joke. But there’s something special that Allen stashed some of his tenderest scenes into this supposed Hitchcockian aside. People often complain about the narcissism of Woody’s world, ignoring the fact that observing raging narcissists onscreen can be just as compelling as observing an intricately planned murder. Here, Woody marries the two.
In one scene, Woody’s Larry is impatient to get home to see a Bob Hope movie. 92YTribeca’s series connects Manhattan Murder Mystery with the Hope/Paulette Godard vehicle The Cat and the Canary, and Roman Scandals, with Eddie Cantor, both screening on January 28.