October 5, 2013

Screwball

The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen's movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion that leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
The movie's central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, or Jean Arthur, and later by Betty Hutton) is frisky and in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she's such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it's Keaton, back to form, leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people's apartments and scouting for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murdery Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded dialogue on cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation; naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the "conversation" hits an abrupt snag. The last scene is kind of a dud—an anticlimactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (during the scene, The Lady From Shanghai is playing on the screens just in case you couldn't quite figure it all out by yourself). But all in all, the movie is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a pretty good time as old movie references fly back and forth, and cobblestone streets gets soaked with rain. Things are a lot closer to the spirit of the '30s here than Peter Bogdanovich's mostly witless What's Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murdery Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

3 comments:

This May Hurt Just A Little said...

Allen's best film for me is BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, which strikes the perfect balance between comedy and pathos(and without the artsy fartsery). His best comeback movie is MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY, which gets better and better with each viewing.
It's fun to see Allen riffing on Hitchcock than on the 'art film' Europeans. It's like he finally made peace with what he is, with Hollywood and NY and his essentially comic talents. He's not pretending to be America's Bergman or an Antonioni or Fellini. Or a Cassavetes(as with dreary hubbies and wives).

One of the great things about Hitchcock was his ease about being an entertainer; he didn't feel he had to be an ARTIST.

And Allen found that ease with MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY. Like BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, it maintains the right balance of emotions and clowning.

It works as spoof but also on the psychological level BECAUSE ALLEN DOESN'T PUSH TOO HARD. The psychological undertones just flow naturally from the material. We know that the wife(Keaton) is going through a middle-age crisis and fears that her husband may be interested in another woman; so, she projects her own fears onto the old couple down the hallway.

The sort of stuff Hitchcock did many times. Allen does it with a smile and high jinks, but there's something to think about as well. In many cases, the best ideas simply flow from a good story and fine execution of details. One doesn't have to strain or do heavy-lifting with symbolism or testament about the 'human condition' to make a point. And in that sense, I partly agree with those who rate Hitchcock over Bergman. Bergman was the purer artist, but he sometimes pushed his themes too hard, as if his films were meant to be shown in a church, a gym, or something. He held it up like weights. Hitchcock just wore it on his sleeve.

Dr. Goo said...

"The last scene is kind of a dud—an anticlimactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (during the scene, The Lady From Shanghai is playing on the screens just in case you couldn't quite figure it all out by yourself)."

How can you not like the ending? It's one of Allen's best spoofs of old movies. One of the funniest things he did, up there with the nitro-oxide funny voice scene in Broadway Danny Rose.

Frank Black said...

Hugely underrated movie often dismissed as being lightweight.