Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) and his wife Carol (Diane Keaton) meet their older neighbors Paul (Jerry Adler) and Lillian (Lynn Cohen) House in the elevator in a pleasant encounter. But the next night, Lillian is found to have died of a heart attack. The Liptons are surprised by the death because Lillian seemed so healthy.
The Liptons are also surprised by Paul's cheerfulness so soon after his wife's death. Carol becomes suspicious and starts to investigate, even inventing an excuse to visit him. An urn she finds in Paul's apartment contradicts Paul's story that Lillian had been buried. Larry becomes frustrated with Carol, telling her she's "inventing a mystery".
Carol sneaks into Paul's apartment while he's away and finds more telling signs. Lillian's urn is missing, there are two tickets to Paris and hotel reservations with a woman named Helen Moss. Carol calls Ted (Alan Alda), a close friend who agrees with Carol's suspicions and urges her to keep snooping. When Paul returns unexpectedly, Carol hides under the bed and overhears Paul's conversation with a woman whom she suspects is Helen Moss.
Later, Ted tracks down where Helen Moss lives, and with Carol and Larry, they follow her to a theater owned by Paul. They discover that Helen (Melanie Norris) is a young actress. The three eavesdrop on Paul and Helen talking about money.
A few days later, Carol spots a woman who's a dead ringer for the supposedly dead Lillian House on a passing bus. Upon Larry's suggestion that Lillian has a twin, Ted investigates but finds Lillian has none. Larry and Carol trace this mystery "Lillian" to a hotel and, under the pretense of delivering a personal gift, they enter her hotel room, but find her lying dead on the bedroom floor. They call the police, who subsequently find no trace of the dead body.
The Liptons search the room for clues. While leaving, they get trapped in the lift and accidentally stumble across Lillian's body inside the emergency exit panel. Upon exiting to the street, they spot Mr. House putting the body in the trunk of his car. The Liptons follow him to a junk yard, where they see him dumping the body on a pile of scrap metal that's dropped into a melting furnace.
With the help of Larry's friend and client Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), they hatch a plan to bring Paul to justice by telling him they retrieved Lillian's body from the furnace. They also trick Helen into a fake audition where her voice is recorded, edited, and later used to harass Paul, by demanding he give Larry and Carol $200,000 or kill them if he wanted everything covered up. They knew he'd go for the latter, and hoped the police would catch him in the act.
The plan backfires as Paul kidnaps Carol and calls Larry, demanding Lillian's body, in exchange for Carol. Paul and Larry meet in the theater and get into a scuffle. Larry breaks free and searches for Carol, with Paul in pursuit. An array of mirrors and glass behind the theater reflect the movie being screened (Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai) and mislead Paul several times. Suddenly, Paul's loyal assistant Mrs. Dalton, an older paramour earlier brushed aside by Paul in favor of Helen, shoots him in an exchange of gunfire. Larry rescues Carol and they call the police.
After the cops arrive, Marcia explains that the dead body in the apartment was actually Lillian's rich sister, who bore a passing resemblance to Lillian but was not her twin. The sister had suffered a heart attack while visiting them, and the Houses decided to take advantage of the situation by claiming that it was Lillian who had died. Lillian would then assume the identity of her sister (a recluse living at the hotel) in order to manipulate her sister's will naming Lillian and Paul as sole beneficiaries. But Paul then double-crossed and killed Lillian, too, so he could run off with Helen.Woody Allen as Larry Lipton
Diane Keaton as Carol Lipton
Jerry Adler as Paul House
Lynn Cohen as Lillian House
Alan Alda as Ted
Melanie Norris as Helen Moss
Marge Redmond as Mrs. Dalton
Anjelica Huston as Marcia Fox
Joy Behar as Marilyn
Ron Rifkin as Sy
Zach Braff as Nick Lipton
Sylvia Kauders as Neighbor
The screenplay for Manhattan Murder Mystery started out as an early draft of Annie Hall, but Woody Allen did not feel that it was substantial enough, and he decided to go in a different direction. He had put off making the film for years because he felt it was too lightweight, "like an airplane book read". Allen decided to revisit the material in the early 1990s. He contacted Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Annie Hall, and they developed the story further. The role of Carol was originally written for Mia Farrow, but the part was recast when she and Allen ended their relationship and became embroiled in a custody battle over their three children. Allegations in the media claimed that changes were made to the film in what was "definitely a reaction" to Allen's relationship problems, including the casting of Anjelica Huston as "a much younger first time novelist" with whom Allen's character became romantically involved (Huston was 41 during production).
In the fall of 1992, Allen called Diane Keaton and asked her to fill in for Farrow, and she immediately accepted. When asked if he had re-written the script to fit Keaton's talents, Allen said, "No, I couldn't do that. In a regular script I would have done that upon hiring Diane Keaton. But I couldn't [here] because it's a murder mystery, and it's very tightly plotted, so it's very hard to make big changes... I had written [the part] more to what Mia likes to do. Mia likes to do funny things, but she's not as broad a comedian as Diane is. So Diane made this part funnier than I wrote it."
Making the film was a form of escape for Allen because the "past year was so exhausting that I wanted to just indulge myself in something I could relax and enjoy". He also found it very therapeutic working with Keaton again. After getting over her initial panic in her first scene with Alan Alda, Keaton and Allen slipped back into their old rhythm. After she had trouble with that scene, Allen decided to re-shoot it. In the meantime, she worked with her acting coach and did other scenes that went well. According to Allen, Keaton changed the dynamic of the film because he "always look(s) sober and normal compared to Keaton. I turn into the straight man". Huston said that the set was "oddly free of anxiety, introspection and pain", and this was due to Keaton's presence.
The film was shot in the fall of 1992 on the streets of Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. Allen had cinematographer Carlo Di Palma rely on hand-held cameras, "swiveling restlessly from one room to another, or zooming in abruptly for a close look."
Larry and Carol Lipton's apartment is at 200 East 78th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue and between two groups of New York City Designated Landmarks, east of one group of rowhouses and west of another group. Allen staged a climactic shoot-out in a roomful of mirrors that, according to Allen, referenced a similar shoot-out in Orson Welles' film The Lady from Shanghai.
The film marked Allen's second and final film with TriStar Pictures, and it was speculated in the press that this deal was not extended because of the filmmaker's personal problems, or that his films were not very profitable. Allen, however, denied these allegations in interviews at the time. As Zach Braff made one scene role as Nick Lipton, the son of Larry and Carol, he said: "When I look at that scene now, all I can see is the terror in my eyes".
Manhattan Murder Mystery opened on August 18, 1993, in 268 theaters and made USD $2 million in its opening weekend. It went on to gross $11.3 million in North America, below its estimated $13.5 million budget. Its £1,920,825 in box office made it the number-one film in the United Kingdom for the weekend ending January 23, 1994.
The film was well received by critics and holds a 92% positive "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with 24 positive out of 26 reviews.
In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "On screen, Keaton and Allen have always been made for each other: they still strike wonderfully ditsy sparks". USA Today gave the film four out of four stars, and advised fans to forget Allen's tabloid woes because "there's a better reason why Allen fans should give it a shot. It's very, very funny, and there's no mystery about that". Janet Maslin called it a "dated detective story" but also wrote, "it achieves a gentle, nostalgic grace and a hint of un-self-conscious wisdom". Desson Howe, in The Washington Post, complained that there was "little 'new'" in this film. Allen and Keaton are essentially playing Alvy Singer and Annie Hall gone middle-aged".1994 César Awards: Best Foreign Film
48th British Academy Film Awards: Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Anjelica Huston
51st Golden Globe Awards: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role - Comedy/Musical, Diane Keaton