By the end of the 1980s the prolific writings of Woody Allen, which always incorporated wit and comedy within his dramatic arcs, culminated in what would be one of his scathing philosophical masterpieces, Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Within this thought-provoking piece about adultery, values, and morality Allen takes an intricately balanced and nuanced direction following two very different men – rich and respected (but morally repugnant) Ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) and humble idealistic documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) – exposing their beliefs, temptations, and consequences.
Judah has been having an affair with airline stewardess Dolores (Angelica Huston) and she threatens to blackmail him when he ends their relationship. In desperate fear of having his reputation and marriage destroyed, Judah contacts his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) for help.
Jack has not enjoyed the same social mobility as his wealthy brother and lives in an entirely different world – the criminal world. He offers to have Dolores killed and Judah – after first affecting outrage and shock at the mere thought of such a suggestion – eventually gives his consent.
Skilfully interwoven with this dramatic storyline is the more comic tale of struggling filmmaker Cliff whose distaste for the modern world and general cynicism has led him to eschew well-paid jobs and pursue his own more esoteric path.
He shoots little films about toxic waste and is attempting to complete a documentary about philosopher Louis Levy – but few potential employers are interested in such worthy fare.
Through family connections, however, Cliff is offered the chance to make some real money by Lester (Alan Alda), his wife’s brother and a big shot television producer. Cliff will now have to shoot a fawning profile of Lester, a man he absolutely loathes and regards as vain and shallow.
When filming on the project begins Cliff quickly falls in love with Lester’s producer Halley (Mia Farrow) and openly confides to her that he thinks Lester is a complete idiot.
Meanwhile, Judah is wracked with guilt after the deed is done – conveyed in a skilfully understated and beautiful way by Allen with haunting music- and the Dolores problem is no more. The presence of God is suddenly everywhere – or so it seems.
In flashback scenes reminiscent of Death Of A Salesman, Judah revisits his childhood home and we see his memories onscreen – his family discussing and debating religion and faith around the dinner table. An Aunt dismisses God as a fantasy.
One of Judah’s patients, Ben, a priest (Sam Waterston), is going blind but remains positive and serenely committed to his faith. He is blind in all senses in Woody Allen’s universe but his unshakable faith and belief is a precious gift and something to be envied.
Allen suggests an indifferent universe where the guilty Judah remains unpunished but the innocent Ben is going blind. Only those with real faith can see hope beyond this apparent cosmic randomness.
Cliff completes his documentary on Lester but mocks his subject by intercutting shots of Mussolini arrogantly posing on a balcony – in addition to a talking mule. Cliff is (unsurprisingly) fired but mortified to find out that Halley has rejected him for the smooth and wealthy charms of Lester.
The final moments of Crimes are framed by a beautiful wedding sequence. Judah and Cliff meet in the hall and share a drink. Judah has moved on. He is no longer wracked by guilt. He has not been punished by having Dolores murdered. Cliff is not so sure.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably Woody Allen’s most cynical view on moral justice and relationship happiness as the final dialogue between two strangers leaves you with a contemplatively empty feeling demonstrating Allen’s rare ability to have levity in the face of darkness.
Professor Louis Levy
Stanley (Chris’ father)
David S. Howard
George J. Manos