Street Scene (1931) King Vidor

    The film opens with the camera panning left to right across the skyline and rooftops of New York City settling down on a street in a lower class ethnic neighborhood of Manhattan, and one tenement building in particular. It is summer and it is excruciatingly hot, neighbors are sitting on the stoop of the building, kids are playing, cooling off with the help of a hose attached to an open fire hydrant. The adults all complaining about the unbearable heat, gossiping, arguing politics, tugging at the sweat soaked clothing clinging to their bodies.  The neighbors are a melting pot of accents, an American mosaic of Italians, Jews, Swedes and other nationalities all living in close quarters. They’re friendly, yet at times cautious toward each other forced by the circumstance, of looking for a better life in America, to live together.  

     Anna Maurrent (Estelle Taylor) is one of these people, a bored housewife married to Frank (David Landau) an alcoholic man, stern, seemingly beaten down by life. In a search for some excitement from her dreary existance, she is carrying on an affair with Steve (Russell Hopken), a bill collector and a married man. The neighbors all are aware of Anna’s indiscretion including noisy gossipy neighbor Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi).

    Anna and Frank have a grown daughter Rose, (Sylvia Sydney) who works at a Real Estate office. She is pursued by her boss who flatters her that she should pursue a stage career. He encourages her to move out of the neighborhood, telling her he is willing to set her up in a nice apartment. Of course, his motives are less than pure. He, like her mother’s lover, is also married. Rose resists his advances but does go out to dinner with him. Then there is Sam Kaplan, a young Jewish law student who lives in the building and has crush on the young Rose. Sam also happens to be a coward and is continually bullied by Vincent, Emma Jones son who spits out ethnic slurs and is always coming on to Rose. Sam, however is so in love with Rose that he is willing to give up his law studies and run away with Rose toward a better life.

    One afternoon Frank unexpectedly comes home early and notices the window shade is drawn in his apartment. Running upstairs, he finds Anna and her lover in the apartment and he shoots them dead.  The police soon capture Frank in a basement down the block. He apologizes to his daughter for the mess he has created as the police take him away. Tragedy has changed Rose’s life forever, for her, her young brother and everyone on the block.

    Director King Vidor has subtly opened up the stage bound play by using a variety of camera angles making you forget the entire story takes place outside the building. Vidor already known for such classics “The Crowd” and “The Big Parade” delivers a film that retains its social impact still after all these years. The only scene I found dated was Frank’s escape, right after the shooting. It is awkwardly structured and  poorly directed.    

    The characters are colorful and human. A wonderful scene involves an Italian man and a Swede, the janitor of the building, as they argue about who really discovered America, Columbus or Leif Erickson. The script is also filled with pre-code touches, illicit affairs, ethnic slurs, and sexual innuendo.

    New Yorkers will be nostalgically reminded of a life now long gone. One scene that rang a bell for me was when Rose’s kid brother yells up to his mother to throw a dime out the window for some ice cream. Anna who is two stories up wraps the dime in a napkin and tosses it out the window to the kid (many times my Mom and I enacted this scene in my own childhood). Tenants sitting outside on the stoop, on the hot summer days was also a common sight.

    Vidor ends the film with a reverse pan of his opening shot, the camera moving right to left from the streets of Manhattan up to the rooftops and across the New York skyline.  This opening and closing was a typical technique used by D.W. Griffith in some of his shorts (The Country Doctor). However, you can read more into this than Vidor emulating Griffith, I interpreted it to mean that the story is just one of  many in one neighborhood of many. It happened here but could happen anywhere.  

    The film is based on playwright Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which ran for more than 600 performances on Broadway. Beulah Bondi made her screen debut recreating her stage role in the film. Several other actors from the play also appear in the film. Rice was a prolific author, stage director and producer. Other works include “The Adding Machine” and “Counsellor-at-Law.”  Rice’s career extended close to 40 years as a playwright with more than 50 plays to his credit.

****

Tit for Tat (1935) Charley Rogers

    The comedy of Laurel & Hardy was at its best in the series of shorts they made before branching out in feature length films. Most of their features could not sustain the humor or the structure. Yes, there were exceptions like “Way Out West” and “Sons of the Desert”, however overall the shorts possess their best work. The 1935 “Tit for Tat” is one of Stan and Ollie’s best. It reflects their unique style of anarchistic comedy, which generally begins as a simple problem that escalates into a choreographed sequence of immature behavior compounded by deliberate malice and still more immature behavior, a tit for tat battle of the nitwits that ends in total destruction. That’s just what happens in this film, the only one of their works that references a previous film, in this case the 1934, “Them Thar Hills.” 

    Stan and Ollie open up an electric store right next to Charley Hall’s grocery store. Hall and his wife (Mae Busch) had a earlier run in with the boys in the previously mention 1934 short where an inebriated Stan and Ollie innocently get Mrs. Hall drunk to the disapproval of  Mr. Hall, leading to a tit for tat retaliation between the irate husband and the boys.

    With their new store ready to open, Stan and Ollie go next door to introduce themselves to their neighbor. To everyone’s displeasure, all remember each other. Mr. Hall plainly tells the boys he wants nothing to do with them. Back at their store, Ollie has climbed a ladder to screw in some light bulbs into their new outdoor sign. Stanley, mentally resistant to all around him, presses the up button on the outside elevator that Ollie happens to have his ladder on. As the ladder rises up, so does Ollie until he is forced to grab on to a window ledge that leads to the first story apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Hall next door. Ollie’s only recourse is to ask Mrs. Hall if he could come in through the window, which she graciously agrees too. Downstairs in the grocery store Mr. Hall watches as Ollie and Mrs. Hall come downstairs from his apartment. Unaware of how and why Ollie was upstairs, Mr. Hall accuses him of fooling around with his wife and tells him never to come back.

    Back in his own store Ollie is perturbed by Mr. Hall’s indecent accusation and goes back to the grocery store demanding an apology from Mr. Hall for accusing him of fooling around with his wife. Mr. Hall kicks the boys out of his store telling them not to return. Soon the retaliations begin; Stan and Ollie pour honey into Mr. Hall’s cash register. Mr. Hall goes to their store and destroys a group wrist watches putting them into a blender. The back and forth battle continues culminating with some hilarious creative uses of a crate of eggs and a bucket of lard.  

    While the tit for tat reprisals between the two store owners occupies all there attention, there is a running gag with a man who keeps entering Stan and Ollie’s store and walking out with an electrical appliance. They continuously see him leaving their store with another package under his arm and a greeting of “how do you do.” He does this again and again until the man finally backs up a truck and cleans out the entire store.

    While Laurel and Hardy humor may seem so simple, and they made it look so easy, the plots of their films are always well structured, the humor, building up to the next level of the joke flowing smoothly from the previous. Their characters were well defined, Stanley not very bright and Ollie only arguably a shade brighter bumble their way through every difficulty with bewilderment and frustration. “Tit for Tat” was well received by the public and by critics as well. The film was honored with a nomination for an Academy Award in the live short subject category.  They had previously won an Oscar for their three reel short, “The Music Box.”

The Strawberry Statement (1970) Stuart Hagmann

    By 1970, the film studios of Hollywood, or what was left of them, were trying to desperately connect with the hip and new power of the youth market that exploded on to the scene in the late sixties. Films like “The Graduate”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and  “Easy Rider” proved  if you made them, they will come…..maybe.  MGM, a studio that epitomized the essence of old Hollywood, purchased  James Simon Kunen’s best-selling non-fiction book, “The Strawberry Statement”, which detailed his personal experiences as a student at Columbia University during the April 1968 student protest and eventual takeover of University buildings.

    Playwright Israel Horovitz was hired to turn Knuen’s journalistic book into a screenplay. Among Horovitz works was the off-Broadway play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx” which opened in 1968 and starred two unknown actors by the name of Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pacino and Cazale won Obies for Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively.   “The Strawberry Statement” was his first screenplay.

    Unlike the book, the film is set at a fictional University in San Francisco instead of Columbia in New York City. Most likely because, and this is an assumption on my part, Columbia did not want to  relive or re-ignite the 1968 uprising and refused to let the film be set on its campus. Subsituting San Francisco for New York was a good and reasonable choice.

    Our counterculture hero is Simon (Bruce Davison), an apathetic jock on the University’s rowing team. He only becomes involved in campus politics because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby) a cute girl who is supposedly an activist but other than spitting out a couple of lines about caring and causes seems  not to do much more than be  Simon’s girlfriend. Women in general are treated mostly as sexual objects and gofers for the men who are really doing the organizing.

    A group of students are protesting the Universities decision to build an ROTC center. The organizers call for the students to strike.  Simon seems to be only half-heartedly into the entire movement but that all changes in the last 15 minutes or so of the film when life becomes drastically more confrontational.

   The students are occupying the administration building. Outside the police and the National Guard, equipped with tear-gas, stand ready to close in. The students are sitting on the floor in a large circle chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as they prepare for the oncoming assault. The police and National Guard begin to move in, a full-scale riot breaks out with the police and National Guard beating on the students with nightsticks. Simon and Linda are caught in the middle of the riot. Separated, they are fighting for their lives as the film ends with a frozen shot of Simon trying to jump over the police who are reaching out to grab him.

    Whether one sympathizes are with the students or think they got what they deserved I’m sure depends on one’s point of view. (One posting on IMDB naively called the student protests “communist riots”). While many students were radicalizes by the times, or at least became more politically aware, many others did not participate in these demonstrations, they just wanted to go to school, get an education, get a job and probably avoid the draft and getting this asses shipped off to Vietnam.

    Looking at the film today, the students come off as naïve; the film itself is part satirical (thanks to Horovitz’s writing) and part Kent State. Were the shootings at Kent State where National Guardsman fired more than 60 rounds of ammunition killing four students and wounding nine others, influential to the filmmakers? It’s doubtful since the incident at Kent State happened on May 4th and the film was released in Mid-June of the same year. The timeline seems very tight. Clashes between the authorities and protesters already had a history i.e. the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.    

    One of the highlights of the film is its magnificent soundtrack, that begins during the opening credits with the Joni Mitchell song, “The Circle Game” sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Other works include, “The Loner” and “Down by the River” by Neil Young, ‘Our House” and “Helpless” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “There’s Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and as previously mentioned the students chanting  a powerful version of “Give Peace a Chance” just prior to the final confrontation with the police and National Guard.   

   Overall, the film is erratic; there are times when it conveys a realistic feel of the time and place, mostly through the music and art direction. A nice touch is a scene in Simon’s room where we hear an LP on his turntable playing   Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”, a nod to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Thanks to Horovitz there is some absurdist humor, though irrelevant to anything else going on in the film contributes to the personality of those times. That said, our counterculture hero Simon is not very radical, his interest in the movement has more to do with hooking up with Linda and hopefully getting laid than that of any higher political calling. His dedication to the movement is limited as we see when he sneaks out of the building, controlled by the students, to attend his  team’s rowing practice.   

    The cast includes Bud Cort and Bob Balaban as two of the students, James Coco, as a grocery store owner, who sympathize with the “revolutionaries”, though in he credits he is listed  as being one of  “The Establishment.”   The book’s author James Simon Knuen also has a small role as well as screenwriter Horovitz.

    For director Stuart Hagmann, this was his first feature film. His film career was mercifully short. With a commercial and TV background, his camera technique, is filled with zooms,  twirling upside down camera movements that he may have seen as hip but was then and now just plain annoying. His motto seems to be forget substance, just check out what I can do with this camera!

     During this period, Hollywood came out with a series of films about student unrest, most of which were dismal like “Getting Straight” and Stanley Kramer’s “RPM” in which student Ann-Margret was having an affair with Professor Anthony Quinn!  Some were more successful works like Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” and Paul Williams little seen, “The Revolutionary.” 

    The title of this film, by the way, supposedly refers to a statement made by a Columbia administrator who said the opinions of the students on administrative manners meant no more than as if they said they like the taste of strawberries. The administrator has since stated that he was misquoted. Kunen also offered the statement that the title partially refers to the rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

    The copy of this film I watched was a severely edited TCM version; one of the few “R” rated post 1970’s films I have watched on TCM. I was appalled by the sloppy unnecessary editing; after all, the film was shown in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2:30AM. Anyone up at that late time should be old enough to make their own decisions about whether they want to watch an “R” rated film or not. There were obvious cuts for female nudity and a ridiculous fogging of Bruce Davison ass in a shower scene. Editing vulgarity resulted in a lot bull…that made Simon sound like a stuttering idiot in one particular scene. I know TCM has shown other films that contained nudity. When originally released, the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” has nude scenes, so  I now wonder how TCM handled this. I always thought TCM had the integrity to show films uncut but I guess I was wrong.

**1/2

Times Square of Yesteryear – Part 2

In Part 2 still more theatres that made Times Square a mecca for moviegoers.   

The New York  aka Globe Theater and the Big Apple 

As the Times Square district deteriorated, the theaters began to reflect the times. By the time the New York/Globe was renamed The Big Apple the theater was reduced to a porn house.

Rko Palace – 1962

The Roxy    – Called “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture”, The Roxy was THE theater on Broadway with a multi-tiered balconey and close to 6,000 seats!  

With the decline in movie attendance in the 1950’s The Roxy closed it doors in 1960.  Below is Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of what was once The majestic Roxy Theater.

The Strand

 In the early 1950’s The Strand was renamed the Warner Theater and a few years later renamed the Warner Cinerama playing films like “Exodus” (see ad below). In 1963, the theater was equiped for 70MM films like “It’s A Mad, Mad , Mad, Mad World”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Camelot.” Another name change followed to the RKO Cinerama and then two screens were added turning the theater into a triplex with the names  the Penthouse and the  Orleans.  The theater closed and was demolished in 1987.

Criterion Theater

National Theater

Noir City Film Festival January 22-31

The 8th annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival starts on January 22nd at the Castro Theater. Films in the program includes:

Cry Danger (restored)

Walk a Crooked Mile

Armoured Car Robbery

Red Light

Pitfall

Niagara

Larceny

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Odd’s Against Tomorrow

Women’s Prison

He Ran All the Way

Pickup on South Street

Human Desire

A Place in the Sun

  ….and more!

Times Square of Yesteryear – Part 1

Once upon a time Times Square was not just the center of the theater district it was also the center for the great majestic movie palaces with magical names like The Roxy, The Strand, The Astor, The Capitol and The Rivoli, all with huge billboard advertising the latest cinematic spectacle.   Today there are no movie theaters on Times Square. All that is left are two cinemaplexes on 42nd street. Here is what it used to look like when movie theaters ruled.

Times  Square -1955 – that is the  Criterion Theater underneath the Pepsi sign.1955timessqnorthview

Times  Square 1958 – Loew’s State

1958loewsstate

Times Square – 1962

Ben-Hur is playing at the Loew’s State. On the left at the Astor Theater is Inherit the Wind  

times-square-at-night-1962

Loew’s State

loewsstatedeanjerry

Astor Theater 

theaterastor-dean41

U1330053INP

astor-theater-spellbound1

Astor and Victoria Theaters

astor-and-victoira42timessquare1963

Victoria Theater

victoria-billboard-david20niven

Paramount Theater  – The Paramount was one of the premiere theaters of its time. Frank Sinatra had thousands of young bobby soxers screaming in the ailes in the 1940’s. parafrank

In 1956, Elvis Presley’s  first movie “Love Me Tender” premiered at the Paramount where a new generation of young girls were screaming.   paramount-theatre-love-me-tender-premierev168341

Rivoli Theater   – Roadshow engagements were common back then. Big attractions  like “West Side Story”  played for more than  one year. Two shows daily at 2pm and 8pm. 

rivoliwestsidestory

rivoli-come-to-the-stable

Loew’s Capitol

loewscapitolnight2-1953

loews-capitol-dr-zhivago-1965

Mayfair Theater  (Many theaters changed names over the year’s. The Mayfair became the Loew’s Mayfair and then The DeMille and eventually the Embassy 123 before closing its doors for good.   

demille1955

mayfair-rko1

Visit My New Blog “Watching Shadows on the Wall”

 I know, I know, just what the world needs now another blog! So why am I starting this? Well, there have been times I wanted to write on other topics outside of the scope of Twenty Four Frames. Topics of interest like books, photography, music, cats, TV, movies (that do not fit into the framework of 24Frames) and any random thoughts that may spill out of my head. 

    I also wanted a place where I could catalog articles I found on the web on subjects, ideas I am interested in and may be of interest to others. In other words, I want a place for my stuff, as George Carlin would say. Everyone needs a place for there stuff. 

     Whatever I write about the postings will be  short, as most of my time will still be devoted to 24 Frames. There are already a couple of postings to get things started.  

    The blog’s title is “Watching Shadows on the Wall” ,  and if you haven’t guessed already, the title is a line from the John Lennon song, “Watching the Wheels.”

Women’s Prison (1955) Lewis Seiler

    Made in 1955, “Women’s Prison” is an early example of a sub-genre of films that has muddled along for more than 5o years without much change in storyline. There is the young waif (not your typical criminal type but a young innocent who through unfortunate circumstances became involved in a crime), the career criminal who is returning to the joint for the umpteenth time, the wise cracking sidekick, the cruel matrons, and the sadistic superintendent, in this case played by none other than Ida Lupino. Few of these films have ever risen above the level of exploitation, John Cromwell’s “Caged” (1951) the most obvious exception. The most unique and improbable feature about “Women’s Prison” is the prison itself, being a coed penitentiary, well almost. Split into two sections, the men’s and the women’s. There is a Warden (Barry Kelley) who runs the entire institution and a cruel female Superintendent, Amelia Van Zandt (Ida Lupino), who is in charge of the female wing.

     Van Zandt is no nonsense, borderline psychotic who runs the prison with an iron hand, minor infractions punished severely without remorse. It seems the root of Van Zandt’s sadistic nature is her incapability to establish an emotional relationship with a man and takes out her frustrations on the inmates. At least, we are given that explanation by the compassionate prison doctor (Howard Duff) who is in verbal battles with Van Zandt throughout the film. Yes, a woman cannot be fore filled without a man according to the doctor and of course, by the two writers credited of the script, Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur.

    The film begins when waif like Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter), convicted of manslaughter due to a car accident that caused the death of a young girl, and returning inmate Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) are delivered to the prison. Helene is immediately placed into solitary for a two-week stretch, on orders from Superintendent Van Zandt, which is too much for Helene’s fragile psyche and soon she is screaming uncontrollably. Annoyed by the constant ear-piercing crying, Van Zandt orders the matrons to strap Helene into a straight jacket and toss her into a padded cell. That ought to teach her! The following morning, the matrons find Helene comatose, probably from all that screaming. She is taken to the infirmary where prison’s doctor, the sensitive Doctor Crane lashes out at Van Zandt’s inhumane methods. Not taking any bullshit from this compassionate do-gooder, Van Zandt verbally strikes back at him by enlightening him to the fact she is only reforming these women and the harsh measurements are necessary in order to prepare them to function in society.  Helene manages to survive her ordeal in solitary and is eventually transferred into the general inmate population.

    The film’s switches its focus from Helene to another inmate Joan Burton (Audrey Totter), whose husband Glen (Warren Stevens) is also a prisoner in the male section of the prison.  Glen has discovered a secret passageway that leads to the women’s wings and sneaks over to visit his wife. Joan is scheduled to be released soon and being a loving husband, Glen wants to spend a little quality time with his wife before she departs. Apparently, one of his visits was a memorable one as Joan soon finds herself pregnant. When the Warden and Van Zandt discover the pregnancy, they want to know how Glen accomplished this breach in security, sneaking into the women’s wing that is, not getting his wife pregnant. The Warden can’t get any information out of Glen so he threatens Van Zandt giving her one week to find out from Joan the details or she is out of there.

    Van Zandt begins a methodical ritual of waking up the pregnant Joan every night dragging the expectant inmate to her office and attempting to force the woman to spill the beans on how her husband sneaked into the women’s section. Only problem is, Joan doesn’t know because Glen never revealed to her how he did it. Of course, the vile Van Zandt does not believe Joan’s claims of innocence and responds with vicious slaps across the inmate’s face. Finally, in a fit of rage Van Zandt knocks the pregnant Joan down to the floor.

    

 Unconscious, Joan ends up in the infirmary, so severely beaten she is on oxygen. Glen sneaks over again to visit her only to watch her die with him by her side. Almost magically, Glen pulls out a gun and goes after Van Zandt. Meanwhile Brenda and the other inmates upon learning of Joan’s death are set to riot. They burst into Van Zandt’s office, drag her out taking her hostage. The Warden sends in armed guards with tear gas to crush the uprising.

      So here, we have a riot in the women’s wing, a crazed husband with a gun on the hunt for Van Zandt, armed guards lobbing tear gas in and Van Zandt running, hiding and dodging everyone only to appropriately “hide” in the padded cell. The good Doctor, the only one with any common sense in this entire film is helpless to stop the out of control insanity.

    Overly melodramatic, with some laugh out loud situations you can easily understand how this film found its camp following in the early 1970’s. Ida Lupino, a very good actress, hams it up here, and one has to wonder if she was in on the joke. Then there is Ms. Lupino’s wardrobe. While the inmates all wear standard drab prison uniform type dresses, Ms. Lupino is dressed as if she fell off the pages of a 1950’s Vogue magazine ad. Lupino apparently, wanted her character to dress stylishly to emphasize the contrast between her control freak character and the lowly inmates.

     Lupino made this film right after the collapse of “The Filmakers”, the independent production company she formed with her former husband Collier Young. It was with “The Filmakers” that Lupino directed most of her films, “The Bigamist”, “Outrage” and “The Hitch-Hiker” and produced and acted in such works as “On Dangerous Ground”, “Beware My Lovely” and “Private Hell 36.”   When the company collapsed in 1955 (an ill-fated decision to go into film distribution, which Lupino fought against) Ida had to find work and “Women’s Prison” was her first post “The Filmakers” job. Interesting enough, Lupino would play a similar role some 17 years later in the made for TV movie, “Women in Chains.”

    Women in Prison films became very popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s though the premise changed very little. This included Roger Corman cheapie’s like “The Big Doll House” and its sequel “The Big Bird Cage”, both with Pam Grier, “Caged Heat”, directed by Jonathan Demme among many others. These films became so popular  that even made for television movies like the previously mentioned  “Women in Chains” (1972) again with Lupino and in 1982, “Born Innocent” with head twisting pea soup queen Linda Blair (who also made her own “R” rated WIP feature film, “Chained Heat”). Even the quaint murder mystery TV series “Murder She Wrote” had a WIP episode entitled “Jessica Behind Bars” that included Adrienne Barbeau in the cast.

     “Women’s Prison’ was directed by the pedestrian Lewis Seiler with a cast that includes along with Lupino, Howard Duff, her husband at the time, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore, Mae Clarke and Juanita Moore. The film was released by Columbia.

     You will notice I am giving this film only two stars out of five for many reasons including a hilarious overly melodramatic script, over the top acting and uninspired direction. That said, on another level, the film is a lot of unintentional campy fun much for the same reasons just mentioned. Just to see Lupino’s final scene padded cell antics makes this film worth viewing. On this basis I would rate the film ***1/2.  

**

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) Woody Allen

“Manhattan Murder Mystery”  is one of my favorites and maybe is my all time favorite Woody Allen film. Like many, I am a fan of “The Thin Man” movies and other amateur sleuth husband and wife type films that have appeared over the years. Think “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” or “There is Always A Woman” or “Mr. and Mrs. North.” They’re light, entertaining and if you’re lucky there is a good mystery and some laughs.

The film is a throwback to some extent of Allen’s earlier work, which make sense since the script written by Allen and his former partner Marshall Brickman years ago and tossed in a draw only to be excavated after the trials, tribulations and accusations of his former lover Mia Farrow. Mia was originally supposed to play the part of Carol but due to all the personal animosity, Allen wisely sought out former lover and screen co-star Diane Keaton.  And let me say, Keaton is a marvel here, the driving force of the entire story. They look as comfortable working together as a pair of well-worn shoes.

    One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that Allen and Keaton are just playing older versions of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. While there may be some validity to this, I don’t see it as detrimental. After all, didn’t Chaplin mainly play the same tramp character in each of his films as did Laurel and Hardy and Bob Hope.

Larry (Allen) and Carol (Keaton) Lipton are a empty nest couple living on the Upper East Side of New York. Their son Nick (Zach Braff) has recently gone off to college and they spend their time having dinner with friends, going to hockey games, movies and concerts. After walking out of Lincoln Center one night in the middle of a concert Larry quips, “I’m sorry, but every time I hear Wagner, I get the urge to conquer Poland.”

  One Saturday evening after a hockey game at Madison Square Garden, Larry and Carol meet their neighbors Paul and Lillian House.  The older couple invites the Lipton’s in for a cup of coffee. While Lillian shows Carol her new exercise machine, Paul bores Larry with his stamp collection. “My favorite thing in life is to look at cancelled postage,” say Larry, who is more interested in watching an old Bob Hope movie that was going to be on TV.

Soon after, Lillian House dies and Carol becomes suspicious and obsesses about the woman’s death because Mr. House does not seem remorseful enough about his wife’s passing.   At first, Larry is reluctant to go along with Carol’s theories but is soon caught up in “her murder case” as she insistently calls it at one point. Also getting involved in the case is their friend, recently divorced playwright Ted (Alan Alda), who is not too subtle about his crush on Carol, continually encouraging her to open up a restaurant that he would help her run. “Ted sees himself as Rick in “Casablanca, I see him more as Peter Lorre”, Larry retorts.

Larry tries to hook Ted up with Marcia Fox (Angelica Huston), a novelist and sexy client of Larry’s, who is a book editor for Harper’s Publishing. Marcia’s creative mind conjures up a plan to expose Mr. House as the killer. Her theories on the murder, which turn out to be fairly correct, along with her sexy presence clearly intimidate Carol and turn on both Ted and Larry.  Carol in fact believes Larry is a little too fascinated with the tantalizing Marcia.

The Lipton’s get more and more involved until the climatic ending that screenwriters Allen and Brickman set up in a repertory movie theater in Queens, owned by Mr. House, and an ending that mirrors Orson Welles “The Lady from Shanghai.”

Allen, as he does in many of his films, references classic movies. At the beginning of the film, Larry wants to get home quickly after the hockey game to catch a late night Bob Hope movie (Hope was an Allen favorite and clearly a large influence on the Woody persona.) Early in the film they also meet two friends at a flea market on Canal Street (Ron Rifkin and Joy Behar), and together attend a showing of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Finally, at the end of the film is the shoot out that  pays homage to Welles “The Lady from Shanghai.”

Along with Keaton’s fine performance, and the natural camaraderie and charm between her and Allen, Angelica Huston’s portrayal of the sexy long-legged confident Marcia Fox is a joy to watch.

My only problem with the film is the shaky hand-held camera work of cinematographer Carlo DiPalma, which I found intermittently annoying. His seemingly useless movement of the camera, in a restaurant scene where Allen and five other principals are discussing the murder, constantly blocking the character who is speaking by placing the camera behind the head of another. At times like this, it was downright frustrating.

At the time it opened “Manhattan Murder Mystery” was met with generally good reviews but was accused of being a lightweight Allen comedy and it is. This is no “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Husband and Wives.” As a mystery, do not expect Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.   What we get is a neurotic Nick and Nora Charles fumbling their way through a murder “investigation.”  At one point, Larry ever reluctant to get involved tells Carol to “save the craziness for menopause.”

****

Self Styled Siren/Shadows of Russia/The Moving Image

 Blogger Farren Smith Nehme aka the Self Styled Siren has written an article for The Moving Image Source, on Shadows of Russia, a film series she and New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick created and is airing on TCM every Wednesday this month. Farren and Lumenick will also be joining Glenn Kenny on January 12th at BAM (cinematek) for a panel discussion on the Michael Curtiz feature film “Mission to Moscow”, which will air on TCM on January 20th.  Lumenick has also contributed an article on the subject found here.

Here is Farren’s posting on how it all happened. Congratulations!!!