Today, regrettably, it is a great distraction to revisit any Woody Allen movie without first immediately being drawn to the director/actor’s personal Catch-22 being played out as tabloid fodder. Renewed allegations of child sexual abuse are, of course, serious (if proven true) and – if not overshadowing Allen’s ingenious back catalogue of stellar work committed to film – then definitely something of a clouding influence on our collective impressions of his frequent interactions with children (particularly young girls) in his movies. Thankfully, Allen’s penultimate cinematic offering from the 1980’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) does not lend itself to too much contemplation on that score; its rather transparent nod to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment serving as bookends to an otherwise fairly engrossing and, at times, deadly serious (no pun intended) examination of the impossibly flawed interactions between gravely troubled human beings.
Woody Allen’s movies are infrequently misinterpreted as simple tomes to New York. And fair enough; a goodly number of them take special delight in exalting the virtues, as well as the absurdities to be mined from this narrow strip of congestion running from the Bronx to the Battery. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is quite different – at moments, darkly provocative, unquestioningly cynical, yet undeniably tempering the director/writer’s usual zeal for self-deprecating, acerbic wit with far more ecclesiastical epiphanies and self-reflexive scrutiny. In some ways, Allen’s filmmaking repertoire pays homage – collectively - to Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Allen’s movies are, after all, more talkative than visually arresting/‘telling’ more than ‘showing’; the one obvious exception - Allen’s own Manhattan (1979); a visually resplendent digest of the affluent, the haughty and the exclusive. Ten years separate the Manhattan in Manhattan from the one briefly glimpsed as mere backdrop in Crimes and Misdemeanors. In this interim, Allen’s opinion of humanity in general, and New York society in particular seems to have soured, or perhaps grown more variegated from his own enthusiastic contempt for modern, cosmopolitan civilization.
It isn’t only the callous murder of Dolores Paley - a spurned lover (played with uncharacteristic bite by Anjelica Huston) that makes us rethink the cold calculations brewing beneath that very thin veneer of our seemingly placid, though decidedly unfulfilled protagonist, Dr. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau); only the discouraging revelation made by one of Rosenthal’s patients, Ben (Sam Waterston, as a benevolent rabbi who offers Rosenthal some fairly sound – if hypothetical - advice, quite unaware a murder has taken place); only Woody Allen’s sardonic documentarian/anthropologist, Clifford Stern contemplating marital infidelity in his impossible pursuit of the fairly frigid movie producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), her eyes decided fixed on a much bigger prize – her boss, Lester (Alan Alda): an utterly arrogant pinhead given his comeuppance by Cliff (who does a hack job editing some raw footage to effectively compare Lester to both Benito Mussolini and Frances the Talking Mule). The aforementioned are, of course, the superficial - if necessary - ingredients that make Allen’s existentialist milieu go bump in the night.
However, Crimes and Misdemeanors does not place its most unnerving existential crises squarely on Woody Allen’s shoulders. Indeed, many of Allen’s most famous alter egos are drowning in their own implausible disorientation; smothered, as it were, almost to the point of extinction by an apparently insignificant and irrational world), Herein, the graft – or rather, angst – is evenly spread around; a congenital malady enveloping the entire ensemble. And Allen, at least in this movie, cannot even claim status as the film’s deus ex machine; a role fulfilled by Professor Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann); a deeply prophetic Jewish intellectual who, unfortunately, commits suicide before Clifford can immortalize him on film. Throughout Crimes and Misdemeanors it is Levy’s omnipotent voice emanating from the Movieola in Cliff’s editing room, his benevolent evaluations of humanity caught in its most primal – if defective – pursuits that serves as the greatest informant about life.
We begin with Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist at the end of a disastrous love affair with flight attendant, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). After it becomes brutally clear to Dolores that Judah has no intention of dissolving his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), Dolores methodically plots her revenge. She’ll tell Miriam everything, wreck Judah’s seemingly perfect world and force him to accept her as his only alternative. Dolores also makes it clear to Judah that she intends to expose certain spurious financial deals he’s made. How could these two have ever been in love…or lust, as the case may be?
To ease his conscience, Judah confides his infidelities to one of his patients – Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi stricken with the rapid deterioration of his eyesight. Ironically, even with the pall of blindness dangling over him, Ben sees the situation more clearly than Judah. He advises kindness, openness and, above all else, honesty with Miriam; letting the chips fall where they may. Judah, however, has fallen into that trap familiar to most philanderers, defending his toxic relationship with Dolores and suggesting any discovery of it would completely destroy Miriam. Judah’s faux altruism doesn’t really fool anybody. He is merely concerned about the impact the affair will have on his own reputation - both private and professional.
In a moment of desperation, Judah contacts his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach); a ne’er do well with spurious connections to that seedy inner city underworld operating outside Judah’s cloistered upper-class suburban fool’s paradise. Judah’s panged insistence, brimming with faux piety and self-serving motivations – prostituting his peccadillos for abject sympathy – leads Jack to suggest a hit man to put a definite end to all his problems. It doesn’t take much for Judah to agree. However, almost immediately he begins to have second thoughts. These, of course, come too late for Dolores, who is quietly murdered in her low rent apartment by the hired assassin. Jack telephones Judah to confirm the kill; Judah excusing himself from a dinner party to rush to Dolores’ apartment and see the results for himself. Sure enough, Dolores is lying on the floor of her living room in a pool of blood, her death’s head stare condemning the man she once loved from beyond the grave as he cleans her apartment of all sentimental mementos given to her during their affair.
Overwrought with guilt, or perhaps more fear that the religious precepts from his childhood upbringing will come back to smite him – “God is watching…he sees everything” – Judah becomes despondent; suffering outbursts that alarm and perplex both Miriam and his daughter. He even threatens Jack about going to the police. But then a strange thing happens. Time passes. Judah returns to the home of his late father, now owned by someone else (Francis Conroy), reliving a particularly pointed dinner conversation between his dad, Sol (David S. Howard) and Aunt May (Anna Berger), the latter harboring latent Marxist tendencies. The liquidity in Woody Allen’s narrative timeline affords Judah a rare opportunity to address this familial gathering from his past, already caught in a spirited debate about the spiritual ramifications for a man who has knowingly committed murder. While Sol chooses the more conventional approach – eternal damnation – Alva is rather empathetic, suggesting that if anyone can get away with murder, and be able to justify it in their own head, then more power to them. More time passes. We see Judah settled back into his routine; growing more confident and complacent about his complicity in Dolores’ demise.
If you’re waiting for that clichéd moment in most movies when the police suddenly piece together the evidence and burst in to cart Judah off to prison – think again. Crimes and Misdemeanors is not about retribution – divine or otherwise. It never succumbs to the cinematic hyperbole ‘crime doesn’t pay’, falling into that oft’ exploited gray area referenced in movies as kismet, fate, bad karma…call it what you will. No, Crimes and Misdemeanors is all about getting away with it in this life. The ramifications to be hatched in the hereafter are something Woody Allen leaves unexplored. After a brief period of sleepless nights, buffeted by a few choice flashbacks - Dolores and Judah in happier times - life returns to normal for our ruthless protagonist. He’s gone back to the man he used to be, or rather, the one he rather pompously always assumed himself to be; Miriam and his family none the wiser, the police obtusely pinning Dolores’ murder on somebody else.
Running a parallel course to this story is the less dramatic, though no less painful, journey of self-discovery facing Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) – by all accounts a failed artist whose days are spent dodging the barbs of his sexually despondent wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), entertaining his prepubescent niece, Jenny (Jenny Nichols) with afternoon trips to a local theater where classic movies are run, and playing nursemaid/therapist to his train-wreck of a sister, Barbara (Caroline Aaron) who, in one of the few lighter moments in the movie, confides that her most appalling taste in men has resulted in a perverse encounter with a guy who tied her up in bed, then defecated all over her.
If that sounds extreme, it rather palls to the mess that is Cliff’s life. He’s caught in a whirlpool of loveless iniquity, burgeoning with sexual frustrations, leading him to pursue movie producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), currently working for Wendy’s brother – the highly successful, though utterly narcissistic misfit, Lester (Alan Alda). While Cliff measures his success – or lack thereof - by a yardstick in personal integrity (or so he says), Lester equates the true measure of a man most readily by the dollars in his bank, of which he has many.
Coaxed by Halley into doing a documentary on Lester – presumably with the promise she will help Cliff finance his dream project – a movie about philosopher, Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann), Cliff pursues a thoroughly faulty romantic entanglement with Halley to ease his nerves; one she aptly resists, although even she acknowledges their similar tastes and opinions on life and entertainment. When Cliff learns Halley intends to fly to Europe for several months he decides to submarine his documentary on Lester – giving the pontificating boob a taste of his own medicine. Outraged, Lester fires Cliff from the project.
A short while later Cliff suffers two setbacks – one personal, the other professional. It seems Professor Levy has committed suicide, thus thwarting Cliff’s ambitions to produce a documentary on the man. Cliff also discovers that Lester flew to Europe to be with Halley, the two since returned to New York and become engaged, thus putting a definite period to Cliff’s aspirations to be with Halley instead of his wife. What a mess – an absolute implosion, actually – and where does Cliff go from here?
By happenstance, Cliff and Judah meet at the wedding reception of Rabbi Ben’s daughter (Grace Zimmerman). Removing themselves from the others, each exchanges seemingly hypothetical contemplations about Dolores’ murder. Judah confides in Cliff that what seemed like a heinous act at first, gradually gave way to a lesser moral quandary until any crisis of conscience he once felt had entirely left him. Still suffering the angst of having lost Halley to Lester, Cliff glumly assesses that, regardless of a man’s feelings his soul is forever doomed to bear the burden for his ‘crimes and misdemeanors’. Unable to reach a mutual consensus in their discussion Judah, now callously contented in his life, and, regardless of what fate might have in store for him in the hereafter, thanks Cliff for his opinions. The two men part company, perhaps neither grasping the significance in their exchange of ideas.
In retrospect, Crimes and Misdemeanors represents Woody Allen’s cinematic genius at its most refined and perversely morose. Sven Nykvist’s brooding cinematography proves the perfect complement to this rather iniquitous tale of people’s abject surrender to their darker impulses. Yet, the movie clings to its own fascinating moral conscience.
“You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox,” Professor Levy meditates via a spool of 16mm film Cliff runs through his Movieola for Halley, “The paradox consists of the fact that, when we fall in love, we are seeking to re-find all, or some, of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted upon us. So that love contains in it the contradiction: the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.”
Even for Woody Allen, these are fairly weighty contemplations. It’s also Allen’s uber-clever way of getting into the movie’s meatier innards; deconstructing life’s perennially evergreen perplexities rarely – if ever – given meditation in the movies. Allen coats this rather large pill for us to subconsciously absorb into our systems with his usual showcase of pop standards from another bygone era in American music when love songs really were about love and not sex. But the music serves a much grander purpose than mere nostalgia. It punctures the balloons of hypocrisy and punctuates the ironies endured by our long-suffering characters. Allen also shares his innate love of classic movies herein – poignant reminders of a blissfully obtuse era in pop-u-tainment utterly oblivious to such penetrating moral evaluations.
Of course, the real trick of any Woody Allen movie is how to get the audience to think for themselves without any of the aforementioned appraisals and/or life’s lessons devolving into rhetorical grandiloquence. Ah, but here too Woody Allen has proven himself the master storyteller. Never do his astute annotations weigh heavily on our fundamental joy of experiencing his craftsmanship; neither do they veer into abject tedium. If enlightenment is the order of the day then its’ absorption is practically through some collective osmosis based in our amusement. We see ourselves in a Woody Allen movie – occasionally at our best, though more often as exemplars of these lesser attributes; the least favorable qualities we seek to keep buried deep within and/or mask from the world.
As Professor Levy astutely concludes in the movie’s epilogue, “We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions - moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most 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 have been 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 to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
In an era when most movies neither challenge, nor even consider their audiences as intelligent, beyond the mere inundation of mind-numbing CGI, Crimes and Misdemeanors is, arguably, Woody Allen’s most provocatively cerebral excursion; encouraging us to partake in this experiment we laughingly refer to as ‘life’ – accepting on its universal terms, and ultimately serving as a queerly unsettling reminder of our own relative insignificance in its ever-unraveling tapestry.
Crimes and Misdemeanors gets a modest transfer from Fox/MGM via Twilight Time. The image is fairly rich in detail and color saturation. The original moody magnificence of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography notwithstanding, flesh tones are still way too orange – veering from pumpkin to tangerine and never remotely appearing natural. Woody Allen’s cinematic style can best be described as minimalist, but I am fairly certain not even he would approve of a transfer marginalized by age-related nicks and chips. They’re not prevalent, so I suppose this is a minor quibbling on my part. But in hi-def everything matters. Worse – everything shows! I can’t help but point out the obvious in this remastering effort.
Pluses are as follows: fine detail looking fairly impressive and a good solid smattering of indigenous grain looking as it should – natural. The DTS 1.0 audio is in keeping with Allen’s abhorrence for what he considers superfluous bells and whistles. Stereo…who needs it? Actually, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a fairly articulate affair. No car chases, ricocheting bullets or roller coaster rides here. So mono suits the subject matter just fine. Extras are limited to an isolated score/effects track and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Crimes and Misdemeanors is a movie to make you think. While the transfer falls considerably short of my expectations, you really shouldn’t think twice about owning this one on Blu-ray. A must have.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)