Crimes and Misdemeanors

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(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1989)

Living with the Consequences

Abandoning none of the dry humor and wit of his earlier triumphs, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors remains the director’s finest foray into more serious subject matter. Like Hannah and Her Sisters before it, Crimes balances parallel storylines that Allen wonderfully connects come film’s end. In the first, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a respected and honored ophthalmologist, finds himself in a devastating dilemma when his mistress, Dolores (Angelica Huston), threatens to expose their affair if he chooses not to leave his wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom). Following his brother Jack’s (Jerry Orbach) advice, the doctor decides to have Dolores murdered to keep their affair forever concealed. In the second story, struggling television producer Cliff Stern (Allen) faces the prospect of cheating on his wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), with a charming associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow). These two moral quandaries, one with presumably more severe consequences, the other no less significant, carry our characters through this existential drama recalling Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Throughout the film, these two separate stories connect only peripherally in the character of Ben (Sam Waterston), a patient of Judah’s and the brother-in-law of Cliff. Both are particularly fond of this rabbi losing his eyesight who serves as the moral gravitational center that these wayward characters haphazardly orbit. Allen’s own personal dichotomies – rationality and universal morality – are present in the split between Ben and our two protagonists. Both Judah and Cliff frequently recall their strict Jewish upbringings, but neither can seem to make room for God in the absurdity of life. “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah admits whilst contemplating the decision to eliminate Dolores.

These struggles present in its characters posit Crimes and Misdemeanors as a heavyweight morality play. In one particularly striking sequence as Judah wrestles with his hefty decision, the voices of Ben and Jack run through his thoughts as if an angel and devil rest on his two shoulders tugging him in separate directions. When the doctor does indeed choose to silence his mistress, choosing the rationality of this “real world” over some far-off absolute morality, the guilt and terror that plague him drive him toward decidedly irrational behavior. The dilemma, then, becomes whether or not one can peacefully live with this secret abhorrent deed always in the back of one’s mind – something Dostoevsky’s conflicted Raskolnikov debated for the entirety of his seminal work. Conversely, Cliff’s problem is solved for him with Halley’s refusal to enter into a romantic relationship. His marriage still crumbles, but his character is not rewarded for his unwilling fidelity – Halley ultimately chooses his nemesis and other brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) – a representation of the artificiality of New York – over him.

Neither does Allen let Judah off the hook so easily. Haunted by the memories of Dolores and the despicable act that ended her life, the doctor visits his childhood home where he walks in on a family dinner from the past (a much more visceral and less comedic take on a character’s interactions with memories à la Annie Hall) as his relatives fiercely debate the existence of God and universal morality. Judah decides to weigh in, but finds no consolation when these staunch adherents to Judaism remind him of his sin. “God sees all,” they assure him.

When these stories finally meet at film’s end, Judah joins a miserable-looking Cliff, who has just discovered Halley’s engagement to Lester, on a bench at Ben’s daughter’s wedding. In the four months that have elapsed off-screen, Judah has come to terms with his decision and begins to move on – though we are left questioning his self-affirming rhetoric as Cliff verbalizes our protests: Judah was party to a heinous crime and has gotten away scot-free; where’s the justice in that? Here, Allen answers Dostoevsky with a rebuttal, no matter how unconvincing it may seem. The object of Cliff’s in-production documentary Professor Levy offers an explanation through a closing voiceover: “It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” Allen, it seems, rejects Ben’s religious notions (interestingly having this character go blind) in favor of the rational “real world” that exists in both Judah and Cliff. He makes no excuses for these characters, but he reveals his belief that they answer to no one but themselves. It’s a powerful notion – a troubling one – that has come to mark much of the filmmaker’s body of work (as well as his personal life) since. Allen’s worldview is profoundly pessimistic, and Crimes and Misdemeanors is an engrossing, if not wholly tragic, glimpse into its creator’s troubled psyche.

We leave Judah and Cliff with a neatly polished montage narrated by Professor Levy explicitly outlining Allen’s beliefs (the one minor misstep in an otherwise impeccable film). But, we are left to wrestle with these ideas and questions on our own – the mark of truly great philosophical art that only a few filmmakers as accomplished as Allen are capable of perfecting.

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