(A quick aside before the review. Weirdly enough, even though I’ve reviewed nearly 300 films for this blog in the last year and a half, this will be the first movie I’ve reviewed from the year that I was born, 1989. I’ve done three Song of the Days from then but not a single film. It’s crazy. How fitting [and this was purely by chance] that it was a Woody Allen movie. He’s my favorite director of all time. And I’ve reviewed, by far, more of his films than any other director. To wit, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Manhattan, Radio Days, Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris. And now Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s made like 40 films so it’s not shocking that he’s showing up a lot.)
There’s always an inherent danger when writers try to split their films into two or more mostly separate stories. While ensemble pieces usually give the audience a chance to pick one section of a film to passionately support and love (ala the Dylan Baker scenes stealing all of Happiness or John Locke and Ben Linus regularly upstaging their cast-mates on Lost), they also run the risk of having a crucial segment that is simply far less engaging than the best elements of the film. These elements may not even be bad. They can be very good. But if a writer/director hits the sweet spot with one segment of a film, everything else will seem like a drag in comparison. Much like his earlier film Radio Days, Woody Allen’s 1989 dramedy Crimes and Misdemeanors is split in half. One section is a serviceable, typically “Allen” romance while the other is a stunning, Ingmar Bergman-esque examination of morality and responsibility. It should have been the entire film.
In the lighter romantic dramedy portion of the film, Woody Allen plays Cliff Stern, a struggling documentarian whose wife convinces her brother Lester, a successful but boorish television comedian (Alan Alda), to allow Cliff to shoot a documentary for the network about the day-to-day aspects of Lester’s life. Although Lester would rather shoot a more personal documentary about a college philosophy professor with profound insights into the universe, he takes the job while hoping that he can use it to kickstart his static career. Stuck in a loveless marriage, Cliff falls for the documentary’s producer, the intelligent and warm Halley (Rosemary Baby‘s Mia Farrow). Determined to leave his wife for his new love, Cliff is tripped up by his own neuroses and the pressing question of whether Halley shares the same feelings that he does.
In the more serious, existential dramatic portions of the film, Martin Landau is Judah Rosenthal (Ed Wood), a wealthy ophthalmologist and philanthropist, sees his whole world crashing down around him when his neurotic and obsessive mistress (The Grifters‘ Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife about their affair as well as inform the police about some fiscal improprieties that Judah has committed. When he refuses the advice of his rabbi (Sam Waterston) to simply admit to his wife what he’s done, Judah eventually decides to accept the help of his criminal brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and have his mistress killed. As the reality of what he’s done sets in, Judah finds himself overwhelmed with guilt and begins to question the moral and ethical constructs that were the basic building blocks of his life, such as guilt, responsibility, and the nature of God.
Martin Landau’s Academy Award nomination was well-deserved. Judah’s story was by far the most compelling, and Martin Landau navigated the morally turbulent waters of Judah’s life like the seasoned pro he is. Judah lives in a self-created universe which refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for his actions, even before he begins to contemplate the murder of his mistress. He can’t admit that he led Dolores on, that he made promises to her about a future relationship he was never going to keep. He can’t comprehend that what he did with his charitable foundation’s money was morally bankrupt. He calls his mobster brother up to discuss the problem with Dolores and when Jack suggests the ugly options (which are the only options Judah ever wants from Jack), Judah acts offended. And as Judah finds himself continually overwhelmed by more and more guilt, he fabricates more ways to rationalize his behavior.
Perhaps because Woody was at the tail end of middle age when he shot this film (and Martin Laundau was himself in his early 60s), both the film and Landau’s performance take on rueful and remorseful overtones. The specter of the past always hangs over the film. Whether it’s the words of Judah’s rabbi father or the literal shades of Judah’s past which return to haunt him at his most vulnerable moments, Martin Landau makes Judah a man whose rational (and rationalized) existence is being torn apart by the metaphysical philosophies of his childhood. In one of the film’s best scenes, Judah visits his childhood home only to be confronted by visions of his childhood where an atheist aunt debates his father over the nature of morality and whether men or inherently good creatures, and Martin Landau shows Judah’s dawning realization that he’s twisted his aunt’s philosophy to rationalize murdering an innocent woman.
Earlier, I called the section of the film starring Woody himself as lighter but perhaps that is inaccurate. It begins as a typically Allen romance exploring commitment, lust, neuroses, and yet a love of life, but it quickly takes a darker turn. Many of the philosophical underpinnings of the film are directly stated through the footage Cliff has acquired of the philosophy professor he would rather shoot than Alan Alda’s Lester. It’s supposed to carry an uplifting affirmation of life, but when future events soil that dream, Woody’s tale takes increasingly darker turns until Cliff’s tale ultimately leaves you more devastated than that of Judah. And for the first time in any Mia Farrow role that I can think of, she actually enhanced a film. Her chemistry with her real-life husband was palpable, and she was the type of great female role that seemingly only Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman can write.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that this was one of Woody’s darkest and most pessimistic films. Much like the earlier Interiors and the later Husbands & Wives, there’s not a lot of light in the film (despite what Woody tricks you into thinking during the first half). Bad people do bad things and get away with it. Good men get crushed under the wheels of men with less talent. Love is unrequited. Wives don’t learn of their husband’s infidelities, and a cold, uncaring universe lets it all happen. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the film is that a rabbi (the film’s most reasonable character) is slowly going blind in a universe where Judah’s biggest fear as a child was his father telling him that God’s eyes saw all. In this film’s world (and by proxy, Woody’s interpretation of the real world), god and therefore morality are dying and the only meaning we can get from life is that which we choose to take from it.
When people complain about the period of Woody’s career where all he made were his more “serious” works, Crimes and Misdemeanors is certainly a prime example. Richly symbolic (with a heavy emphasis on eyes as a metaphor for responsibility as well as a running meta-commentary with classic film footage) and utterly cynical, Crimes and Misdemeanors arose from a dark place in Woody’s life (his divorce from Mia Farrow is only a few years away) that colors the whole film. Still, the story centered around Judah’s existential crisis is among the most insightful and mature of Allen’s career. And if the romance couldn’t hold a candle to the deeper philosophical meditation, that’s a small price to pay for another great film from the man who has cemented his legacy as the greatest writer in the history of American cinema.
Final Score: A-