As originally conceived, Allen and Mia Farrow, the star or co-star of his previous 13 directorial projects, were to play the middle-aged, long-married couple that suspect their next-door neighbor may have murdered his wife. But their sudden, tumultuous break-up and subsequent allegations that Allen had sexually abused his adopted seven-year-old daughter (an allegation of which he was later empathetically cleared by two teams of investigators)* necessitated recasting that role.
Diane Keaton - who'd starred in all but one of Allen's ‘70s films, as well as Play It Again, Sam (1972), which Allen didn't direct, and the Bermanesque drama Interiors (1978) - replaced Farrow. It was like Old Home Week. In addition to Keaton, Allen reunited with Marshall Brickman on the screenplay, and with whom Allen had previously collaborated on Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979). Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda, both of whom had major roles in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), enjoy similarly large parts here.
Returning from a New York Rangers hockey game, old marrieds Larry (Allen) and Carol (Keaton) Lipton meet next-door neighbors Paul (Jerry Adler) and Lillian (Lynn Cohen) House in the elevator of their apartment building. The older couple invites them over to their place, and while Larry endures listening to Paul show off his stamp collection, Lillian tells Carol about her dieting and exercise regimen. Larry and Carol are shocked to return home the following evening to find paramedics wheeling out Lillian's dead body, she the apparent victim of a sudden heart attack, this despite her seemingly excellent health.
In the days and weeks that follow, Carol becomes increasingly suspicious about Paul, especially after Larry and Carol bring over some dessert to comfort the new widower, and Carol discovers an urn, apparently containing Lillian's ashes, ignominiously stashed in a kitchen cabinet - this after telling them at their first meeting they had purchased side-by-side burial plots. Maybe Paul murdered his wife!
Larry isn't buying any of this, so Carol turns to recently divorced but more adventurous friend Ted (Alan Alda), who obviously has carried a torch for Carol for many years. Emboldened by Ted, Carol breaks into Paul's apartment, discovering two tickets to Paris (he said he was planning a solo trip to Florida) and, when Paul unexpectedly returns, she overhears him talking to a mysterious woman named Helen Moss.
By now Larry thinks his wife is going crazy, and he's concerned that he may be losing her to smooth-talking Ted besides. He decides to set Ted up with his assertive, worldly client, Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), whose novel Larry is editing. She advises Larry that the only way to avoid losing Carol to Ted is for him to become more adventurous himself and show some support for Carol's amateur detective work.
The question most commonly asked about Manhattan Murder Mystery is whether Allen (and Brickman) changed the script once the part of the wife was recast. The answer, for the most part, is no. However, in sharp contrast to, say, director Billy Wilder, who not only demanded that his actors stick to his scripts word-for-word but even exactingly adhere to the comic rhythm of the dialogue as he imagined it, Allen was much freer with his casts. He generally advises them to use the scripted dialogue as a guide, allowing them to say their lines in ways they feel most comfortable with. Bearing this in mind, and given Allen and Keaton's long relationship and previous experiences working together, once Keaton fell back into the groove, they found a happy middle ground between what was scripted and little bits of business and dialogue they improvised together on the set.
Thus, the pairing of Allen and Keaton tweaked Manhattan Murder Mystery in unexpectedly delightful ways. Originally, Allen perceived most of the comedy emanating from the Larry character, a variation of Allen's longtime screen persona, itself patterned very closely after Bob Hope's in his ‘40s and '50s comedies. Allen quickly realized that Keaton's more excitable, slightly broader comic style shifted the weight of the comedy to her character, meaning that Allen's Larry would get most of his laughs reacting to her sudden and seemingly crazy impulses. Together, they're such a marvelous fit it's really a shame they haven't done a film together since, and just as Manhattan Murder Mystery makes the middle-aged rut they find themselves in a big part of the story, one hopes Allen will someday reunite them to explore the comic possibilities of the pair as senior citizens.
Two aspects of Manhattan Murder Mystery really stand out. While it's easy to see the picture as a harmless but inconsequential throwback to Allen's "earlier, funny movies," the characters are much richer and more believable than those found in his pre-Annie Hall films. Larry and Carol have fallen into a pattern of tolerating each other's passions, taking turns like Carol suffering through a hockey game that he enjoys while he sits through a Wagner opera she loves. Impulsive Ted can't contain his infatuation with Carol, seizing upon the possible murder as a means to spend time with her and maybe win her away from Larry, regardless of the consequences. Out of desperation, Larry tries humoring her, and their experiences test their marriage and ultimately bring them closer than ever before.
And for all the recent lurid articles pointing to clues in Allen's films of his supposed misogyny, Manhattan Murder Mystery is one title conveniently ignored. In the end it's the two women, Carol and Marcia, who are by far more assertive and smarter than the men, and who crack and resolve the case, with Larry too dismissive and later too cowardly to be of much use, and Ted too infatuated with Carol to see things clearly.
Movies fusing comedy with other genres almost always work best when the other genre, whether mystery, horror, Western, whatever, is played straight, not for laughs, and Manhattan Murder Mystery does this expertly. During the picture's first half, it's not certain that any crime at all has been committed, and as things begin to get more complicated the screenplay and Allen's direction effectively compliment the funny dialogue and situations with a real element of danger. It may be the only Woody Allen comedy to date where the audience becomes genuinely concerned for the safety of its characters, and the picture has both a couple of genuinely surprising plot twists and a couple of honestly-earned if mild hair-raising moments. It is, during its last third, genuinely suspenseful.
Visually, the movie doesn't deviate much from the look established by cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, beginning with Allen on Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), though his camerawork adds to the nervousness of many scenes. There are numerous movie references, with Larry and Carol partially conceived as a kind of domesticated Nick and Nora Charles. (This may account for the many moments of Carol and Larry drinking, including atypical scenes of Allen's character partaking in wine and even beer.)
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Manhattan Murder Mystery, originally a Tri-Star Pictures release (Allen's second of two), improves markedly on the earlier DVD version. Though the credits note Dolby SR, it was and remains mono, as is Allen's usual custom, presented here as DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono, with optional subtitles. A limited edition of 3,000 units, the disc is region-free.
Supplements are limited to an isolated music and effects track, a trailer, and Julie Kirgo's usual liner notes.
One of Woody Allen's most accessible, funniest, and thoroughly satisfying features, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.