Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen (screenplay)

Producer: Robert Greenhut (Rank, Orion)

Photography: Sven Nykvist

Music: Bach, Schubert

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, Anjelica Huston, Joanna Gleason, Sam Waterston, Martin S. Bergmann, Jerry Orbach, Daryl Hannah, Claire Bloom, David S. Howard, Anna Berger

Throughout history, the very greatest filmmakers, each of a different niche, always seem to attempt at least one master tragedy. For Alfred Hitchcock, it was Vertigo (1958). For Orson Welles, it was Citizen Kane (1941). And for Woody Allen, it was the unique Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film is tragedy in the real sense of the word, not its common use to describe a disaster or catastrophe. This is tragedy like the Greeks meant it, where a character has a choice between impulse (what he wants to do) and imperative (what he should do), and after that choice, realizes that all suffering caused is his own doing. And in each case, the tragedy provides the most frutiful ground for the filmmaker’s deepest dive into his own subconscious.

The fact that Allen is a far more comedic filmmaker than either of the aforementioned directors only adds to the mystique of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film remains a comedy of manners in the truest Allen form, featuring themes consistent to his career, several afflicted relationships and a number of trademark one-liners — Cliff’s Statue of Liberty joke, or his sister describing a disgustingly-kinky encounter. But beneath the laughs lies Allen’s darkest movie, and also his deepest. If by the auteur theory, one can follow a filmmaker’s career with an almost narrative arc, Crimes and Misdemeanors would be Allen’s crescendo, achieving the height of his expression of his deepest concerns — the uncertain nature of relationships, the mind-body complex and its ability to warp morals, and the somewhat answerless quest for the meaning of life.

The very plot reveals this. Back are the collection of characters, all embedded in love affairs and ponderings of life’s meaning, but in Allen finally slips the concept of murder — humanity’s ultimate sin against itself. The film basically follows two seperate plotlines, the first of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a wealthy optometrist (eye doctor) who’s trying to put behind him an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). He wants nothing more than to return to a normal life with his wife (Claire Bloom), but the emotionally unstable Dolores threatens to blow his cover. Worried that his family and good name will be ruined, Judah first consults the advice of Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston), who warns him that “one sin leads to a deeper sin,” a statement that comes true when Judah turns to his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who arranges a hit on Dolores. With Dolores dead, Judah attempts to return to life “as if she never existed.” But with the murder weighing on his conscience, can Judah ever truly go back to his normal life?

No, suggests Cliff Stern (Allen), the protagonist of the film’s second plotline. Cliff is an idealist documentary filmmaker, committed to meaningful projects that often never sell. This is in contrast to his superficial brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), who produces popular television shows without any substance (the character was based on comedian Larry Gelbart, whom both Allen and Alda wished to mock). Asked to do a bio-doc on Lester’s career, Cliff instantly learns to despise him, especially when the two fall for the same woman, associate producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Unfortunately, Cliff is married to a woman named Wendy (Joanna Gleason), but we audiences have a hard time judging his desires for Halley after getting to know the cold-as-ice Wendy (“I have to get up at 7 am”). Basically, they are both in a bitter marriage, both wanting out, but both “too lazy to do anything about it.”

Confiding in his adorable niece, Cliff tries to figure out how to win the heart of Halley before Lester, peaking her interest by a documentary he’s doing on a philiosopher-scholar (NYU’s world-renowned professor Martin S. Bergmann) who unloads a life’s worth of existential wisdom (i.e. “love contains in it the contradiction: The attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past”). But, of course, in true Allen form, Cliff is met with a double whammy of unexpected events, throwing his world off course and relocating him to a wedding bar to drown his sorrows.

It’s here that Cliff’s plotline intersects with Judah’s, two mutual friends at the same wedding party. Sitting side by side at the bar, the two engage in perhaps the seminal moment in all of Allen’s career, discussing Dolores’ murder as if a hypothetical for a screenplay, but at the same time delving into Allen’s deepest thoughts on life, humanity and the universe (which we shall discuss shortly).
But as far as these plot ideas go, Allen’s Oscar-nominated script was recently named the #57 Greatest Screenplay of All Time by the Writers Guilds. From a concept standpoint, the script puts a new spin on the adultery-murder idea of Sunrise (1927) and A Place in the Sun (1951) — which Allen borrowed for Match Point (2005) — by playing out the reciprocal, that is a man killing his mistress in order to return to his normal marriage rather than killing his wife to run off with the mistress. This very premise provides for some great narrative drama, but the film’s true depth, and Allen’s real display of genius, is in taking this compelling concept and from it mining all the emotions and moral complications that accompany such a deed. Even beyond that, Allen applies this singular evil act to comment on the much greater concept of whether or not we live in a moral universe at all.

Such a cinematic study of guilt and human capacity provides not only an Oscar-nominated stage for Landau, but simultaneously a fifth directing Oscar nomination foir Allen. He continues his tradition of long-takes, empty frames and characters obstructed by objects (walls, kitchen cabinets), as well as brilliantly selected jazz and classical pieces that play against the horror of the situation, particularly Franz Shubert’s “String Quartet #15 in G” when Judah first sees Dolores’ dead body, Allen’s camera moving from his hands to her dead body and back again (after which Judah tries washing his hands of the deed). He also makes clever use of eye symbolism, making Judah an opthemologist and inserting dialogue that claims “the eyes are the windows to the soul” and that “the eyes of God are on us always.” But two scenes in particular stick out as the perfect fusion of writer and director, the kind that can only come from the same man doing both — a huge feather in the cap for Allen, who unlike many of history’s greatest filmmakers, actually wrote the amazing material for which he would then amazingly shoot. Allen’s biggest gift has always been his absolute obliteration of traditional narrative constrcuts (see Annie Hall), and these two particular scenes feature the combination of reality and the imagination working toward moral answers.

The first is the key turning point in Judah’s story, the scene just before Judah places the call to the hitman. He sits alone in his den, completely in the dark, the only light coming from the fireplace. As he imagines Rabbi Ben in the room with him, holding a conversation about the morality of the situation, the flames of the fireplace flicker against his face in a moment of dark aesthetic beauty and hellacious implications for the fatal choice he is about to make. This scene, more than any other, displays the work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, long-time collaborator of Allen’s fillmaking idol Ingmar Bergman.

The second is also Bergman-esque, reminiscient of a composition in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), as Judah visits his boyhood home and incurs a flashback to a roundtable Seder discussion his family had in his youth. Here, Judah stands in a doorway looking in at his flashback family, eventually joining in on the conversation with these figures of his memory. His character is drawn to this scene because it represents the entire moral dilemma he has playing out in his head — “sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up.” Representing both sides of his being are (a) his religious father, who says, “If necessary I will always choose God over the truth,” and (b) his skeptic Aunt May, who speaking of his murder, says, “If he can do it and get away with it, and not be bothers by the ethics, I say he’s home free.”

In time, Judah comes to side with his Aunt May’s point of view, realizing that, at least in this world, he has gotten away with the murder. But what is this “real world,” and is there another plane even higher than this? Judah’s conclusion is that there is nothing more, that he is able to ovecome his guilt because in the real world, that’s what people do. “This is reality; we rationalize,” he says. “We deny, or we couldn’t go on living.”

This “rationalization” of one’s moral acts instantly recalls memories of Manhattan (1979), as the mind-body problem remains a continued interest for Allen. Here, Cliff says, “It’s very hard to get your heart and head together in life,” describing the plight of human existence and the troubling human reflex to try to deny immoral decisions with excuse-making rationale. The mind deciphers its own definition of the difference between a crime and a misdemeanor, a sin and a questionable act, and how these acts are justified in the human mind. This is what Judah means when he, at the bar, tells Cliff, “People carry sins around … in time it fades.” But Cliff argues that this is the real tragedy in it all, saying, “But then his worst fears are realized.” The real tragedy is not just that Judah feels guilty about the murder, but that he actually has the capacity to put it behind him! What does this say about humanity? In order to reach this point, one has to deny the existence of a moral universe, at which point he has concluded that there is no purpose to our existence, no meaning to life. This is the scariest thing of all to Allen, because, as Rabbi Ben says, “without the law, it’s all darkness.”

Some may find all this philosophical rambling a bit preachy, but to Allen’s credit, he finds solid situations in which to philosophize — a confidential talk with a rabbi, interviews with a wise academic, two guys discussing a script idea, a childhood flashback that may be embellished in his own head. These scenarios realistically allow for the kind of existential philosophy that interests Allen, the kind that’s shown up in many of his films and which reaches its greatest profundity here in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Overall, Allen’s conclusion seems to be that in life, “no matter how much of a philosophical system you work out, in the end it’s incomplete” and that all that’s left is either a leap of faith or the denial of a moral universe. No moment sums up this world view better than the final sequence of this film, a beautiful montage of seminal scenes from the film, set to beautiful music, and featuring Bergmann’s beautifully delivery of Allen’s beautifully written words:

“We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

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