I didn’t realize Zach Braff was in the movie, but there he is, playing Woody Allen’s and Diane Keaton’s son. I was so surprised that this was Braff when I looked it up that I had to rewatch the scene again. I found a brief interview with Braff about this film in which he describes how nervous he was to be in a scene with Allen, Keaton and Anjelica Huston. In the interview he says that Allen and Keaton would go off script, and Allen told him before to “try to keep up.”
I don’t know why I found that so interesting. I guess it should’ve been clear that there would be a lot of improvisation in Allen’s films, and upon rewatching the scene it seemed so obvious. The characters talk over each other, stammering and struggling to say what they want to say while the camera simply observes them in their habitat.
In Manhattan Murder Mystery in particular among Allen’s films, there is nothing neat and orderly. The characters aren’t shy about talking each other’s ears off and yet they often aren’t communicative about what’s really on their minds.
In this story, Allen plays Larry, married to Keaton’s Carol. They have been married long enough to have a son in college, and we meet them as they bicker at a hockey game. They’re bickering because they’re bartering. Larry wants to go to the hockey game so that means next time out they’ll go to the opera. Neither of them likes the thing that the other one wants to go to, and this is the seed of the slight rift between them.
So they have similar interests, and they’re trying to navigate the rough waters that are their differences, made more pronounced as the years have gone by. Coming back home to their apartment, they meet Paul and Lillian, an older couple who lives in their building.
They have a few drinks with this couple, though Larry protests, preferring instead to go home and watch a movie. Both Larry and Carol use the elder couple as a case study of what their lives might become. Though the elder couple seems to get along and looks forward to celebrating their wedding anniversary soon, Larry and Carol hope to not end up like them, just some boring older married couple.
So they each want to do the things that will keep them youthful, but they just want different things.
When Lillian dies of an apparent heart attack, Carol lets her imagination run wild with thoughts of murder, encouraged by Ted (Alan Alda) a friend to the couple. Larry doesn’t want to indulge in any of these fantasies, brushing the whole thing aside as ludicrous, yet Ted and Carol grow closer as they bond over the rush of their investigation.
The film sets this up so that Carol and Ted will have an affair, but it also appears that Larry might have an affair with Marcia (Huston), a colleague of his. But then, Larry and Carol simply communicate.
Ted makes a pass at Carol, but it never goes further, and it doesn’t seem to interfere with either their friendship or Ted’s friendship with Larry.
Larry makes a concerted effort to be more open, and he joins Carol’s investigation, staking out the hotel in which Carol insists Lillian, supposedly dead, is living.
To get you up to speed: Carol did some digging and learned that Paul is seeing another woman as well as using a false name over the phone. The whole reason Carol was spurred to look into the death was because Paul never seemed too broken up about it.
A little while later Carol sees Lillian in a bus, and this is so suspect that no one believes her, particularly not Larry. But Larry wants to fight for their relationship, so he suspends his disbelief and comes along for the ride, despite voicing his objections all the while. The long hours together in the car during the stake out act as couples’ therapy, forcing them to talk about how their relationship has soured.
They are both thrust into the situation, though, when both see Lillian go into the hotel. Now Larry has rid himself of all reservations, and they’re in it together. They venture into the hotel only to find Lillian’s dead body, raising even more questions.
They call the police, but then the body disappears before they arrive. Later, struggling through the mystery, they get stuck in the hotel elevator, and in the process of trying to escape they uncover the body on top of the elevator.
Soon after they hide and find Paul picking up the body and taking it to be destroyed. Now they know for sure Paul has killed his wife, but they have no way of knowing how, why or finding any evidence with the body destroyed.
That night, Larry and Carol are in bed together, both coming up with theories and laughing about the absurdity of it. Larry then decides they should meet with Ted and Marcia (who are on a date organized by Larry). The four of them chat over dinner and drinks, and Marcia propels the story into the third act, coming up with her theory: Phil and Lillian had a friend over for dinner who looked like Lillian. The friend had a heart attack and died, and then Lillian traded clothes with the dead woman to fake her own death. Though the motive is still unclear, it gives the four characters enough motivation to continue the investigation.
Taking an idea from A Murder in Manhattan, a fictional book alluded to earlier, they decide to hold a fake audition at Ted’s theater (he has a theater) and bring in Helen, a younger woman whom Paul has been seeing, to read from a fake script. Then they’ll take her words, recorded on video, to construct a fake phone call recording which they will use to call Paul and make it seem like they have evidence on Paul. Look, I’m not explaining this very well. The four of them know Paul is in the clear because there’s no body. So they decide to bluff and tell him they have a body, but they decide it’s best if someone close to Paul makes the call, so this is how they decide on Helen. They cut up her reading of the script so that she seems to tell Paul that his neighbors, Larry and Carol, found the body and are demanding a $200,000 reward.
In the funniest scene of the movie they call Paul and play the recording, only to be stumped when he asks her to repeat what she just said and then asks unexpected questions. It’s a very broadly funny scene, complete with Woody Allen struggling with a tape as it unspools in his hands.
They get Paul to meet them, but he first sneaks into their apartment and kidnaps Carol. Paul calls Larry and tells him he has kidnapped his wife. Larry tries to bluff that he has Lillian’s body in his trunk, but he admits to being a bad poker player. They end up in the back of a theater owned by Paul, and Mrs. Dalton, Paul’s assistant and former love interest, shoots Paul dead. Larry breaks away and frees Carol.
They then walk down the street reminiscing about the crazy situation they found themselves in, and their marriage seems to be as strong as ever.
So a lot of stuff happens in this movie. At its heart it’s another Woody Allen relationship story, but it’s more affirming then some of his previous films. The plot with the murder investigation only takes hold because Carol is actively looking for excitement, and Ted encourages her. It’s a clear sign of discord in Larry and Carol’s marriage as well as a probable attraction to Ted (though that’s never explicitly stated). It’s a story about two people trying to figure out their life together, and they’re each pulled in a different direction, but then they’re pushed back together because they try to make it work.
Larry could easily have never indulged in Carol’s fantasies, but he does because he wants to work to make it work, unlike the characters in Allen’s last film, Husbands and Wives.
The nature in which this story was filmed, with the improvisation and lack of close ups, feels messy, like rats in a cage, scurrying about. Most of his films (outside of his bleak dramas) are filmed this way so that we can see the characters in relation to each other rather than in close ups, like many modern films.
Take, for example, this scene of Larry and Carol stuck in an elevator:
And compare it with this elevator scene from Grey’s Anatomy (starting at the 18 second mark)
Forgive me for using a clip from Grey’s Anatomy aka TV’s Fifty Shades of Grey, but I know there are plenty of elevator scenes in that show, and I’m too lazy to search more deeply for another example.
Anyways, in the elevator scene from Manhattan Murder Mystery, Larry and Carol are always in the same shot, bouncing off each other. They take over each other, and if their interaction were a painting it would be this:
Meanwhile, the elevator scene in Grey’s is neat and orderly. Sure there’s a medium shot in which we see both characters, but they shoot with coverage so they have 3 angles: the “2 shot,” and an individual shot of each character. This allows them to cut back and forth as needed and with more flexibility in how quickly or slowly the scene is paced. If that scene were a painting it’d be something like this:
With television, there is a strict run time in which the show must fit (unless you’re HBO or The Walking Dead), so the editor needs flexibility to cut a scene to fit a specific time. If that elevator scene needed to be 30 seconds, they could cut it down so there’s hardly any time for the characters to react. They would just cut from person A’s line to B’s line and back and forth until they made it through that portion of the script.
In Manhattan Murder Mystery, however, there’s no place to cut because we see everything going on at once. If they wanted to cut out part of the middle, then we’d see a jarring jump cut (oddly enough, there are multiple jump cuts in Husbands and Wives but that was Allen deliberately messing with the audience’s expectations). In Grey’s, the two individual shots allow them to cut out anything that they don’t want, in another words the scene is mostly made in the edit.
In the MMM scene, by contrast, the scene exists as it was shot, until the very end when we cut to a new shot. I don’t know what this means other than Allen has confidence in his script and letting the actors, himself included, run with it. It’s more messy, but it feels more organic. The way Allen nearly faints is not only funny, but it has more resemblance to reality than McDreamy looking handsome and saying allegedly funny things.
There are no marks to hit in many of his Allen’s films. He takes characters, gives them certain needs and lets them run into each other, causing conflict. In MMM, though, the conflict, though driven by inter-personal interactions, also deals with the murder plot, so that’s new.
Lastly, the film is very similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which a woman allegedly died but then didn’t. In some ways it feels overly plotted, but it’s a callback to Hitchcockian mystery films, or at least I think it is.
Up Next: Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Duel (1971), The Mighty Aphrodite (1995)