Madcap movie comedies have always served as a balm to rough reality, and for director Woody Allen, working again with his original Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) co-writer Marshall Brickman on something “pleasurable…but not significant,” making Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) during the late 1992/early 1993 period when his domestic relationships were in tabloid-tinged turmoil was “a lifesaver.” The original idea of suspicious people snooping into a suspect death first arose 16 years earlier as a possible subplot involving Annie Hall’s Alvy and Annie, which was shrugged off by its creators and filed away in favor of the pure relationship focus in that Academy Award®-winning favorite. Woody: Movies from Manhattan profiler Julian Fox writes: “Woody had originally got the idea for the film when he was living on Park Avenue and had shared the floor of his apartment with an elderly couple. At one point he had to go away to play the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco and, returning about six weeks later, he called upon the husband who told him, far too cheerfully, that in Woody’s absence, his wife had fallen out a window to her death. ‘And I thought to myself,’ recalled Woody, ‘how could he be so unaffected by it? And it always stayed with me.’ Woody decided it might be very interesting for an average New York couple (but not a ‘sleuthing’ couple) to come home one evening and happen upon a possible murder which they start to investigate.” When production ended on the volatile and somewhat experimental Husbands and Wives (1992), Fox continued, “Woody once more intimated that he would ‘love more than anything to do a murder mystery. That would be my gift to myself.’ Woody once named Double Indemnity (1944) as his all-time favorite film and clips from it were to be a significant element in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Soon after, ‘I spoke to Marshall Brickman,’ he recalled, ‘and said “Why don’t we try and whip this into shape?”’ Although the pair made a few minor readjustments, their original script was to remain ‘pretty much’ the same.” The one major personnel shift, the substitution of prior leading lady Diane Keaton for the now-estranged Mia Farrow, occasioned one tweak. “The film, as originally planned, would have had Mia as the sober, intelligent half of the team, effusing to believe that their neighbor’s wife had been murdered, while Woody was to be the ‘detective,’ the one with the jokes, dragging a reluctant Mia along with his enthusiasm. Normally, said Woody, he would have altered the script to suit Diane but, because it was so tightly plotted, they simply swapped roles, with Woody transformed into the straight man, a solemn spoilsport, on the imminent verge of an anxiety attack, and Diane playing the more buoyant, fanatical half of the partnership, hilariously putting new pep into the couple’s marriage by involving her husband, unwillingly, in her amateur sleuthing. Without altering a single word of the screenplay, said Woody, Diane’s strong comic persona was sufficient to change the film’s whole perspective.”
With Manhattan in the title, the film, shot by the reliable Carlo Di Palma, is soaked in celebratory fashion with atmospheric lensing of the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Center at night, Gramercy and Bryant Parks by day, and interiors of such landmarks as the Chelsea Hotel, the National Arts Club, Madison Square Garden and Elaine’s and Lanza’s restaurants. Courtesy of Murder in the title, there are nocturnal visits to an ominous New Jersey smelting factory and an uncanny recreation, courtesy of production designer Santo Loquasto, of the mirror-laden backstage of a fleabag revival theater, where the funhouse finale from The Lady from Shanghai unspools as the frightening climactic confrontations and lifesaving machinations of the Mystery on view are unleashed. To the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, “Manhattan Murder Mystery is an accomplished balancing act. It is, on one level, a recycling of ancient crime formulas about nosy neighbors. On another, it’s about living in the big city. On still another, it’s about behavior and tabus and breaking the rules. And always with Woody fretfully convinced that it would be safer for everybody if they just stayed at home and pretended there were no neighbors; that the world was inhabited by one fearful neurotic and his crazy wife, who thankfully, therefore, didn't have anyone to practice on.” The film does, however, practice wonderfully on its audience, delivering wit, slapstick, genuine chills and delicious screwball banter, enlisting the charm and effervescence of Crimes and Misdemeanors co-stars Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston as conspiratorial cohorts in crime detection, as well as Jerry Adler, Ron Rifkin, Joy Behar and film-debuting Zach Braff. Above all, as the seventh and final (at least to date) teaming of Allen and Keaton, it’s an occasion to savor, despite the “insignificant” ruminations of its filmmaker. Sleuth out Manhattan Murder Mystery on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray February 20. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday February 7.