A Mother’s Day Flick

She’ll never win any “Best Mother of the Year” awards but Anjelica Huston as Lily Dillon in Stephen Frears THE GRIFTERS, based on Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction classic, gives a superb performance as one of the nastiest Mom’s on screen. After a scam gone wrong, and her son Roy (John Cusack) gets beat up badly, she tells the ambulance medic “He’s gonna be alright ain’t he? If not, I’m going to kill you.” Yet, she has no problem stealing her boy’s money at the same time. Ah, motherly love.

With a screenplay by Donald Westlake, THE GRIFTERS is a great neo-noir and makes for an terrific alternative Mother’s Day flick.

The Grifters

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.”

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