Crimes and Misdemeanors
Screenplay : Woody Allen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Woody Allen (Cliff Stern), Martin Landau (Judah Rosenthal), Alan Alda (Lester), Mia Farrow (Halley Reed), Anjelica Huston (Dolores Paley), Sam Waterston (Ben), Claire Bloom (Miriam Rosenthal), Jerry Orbach (Jack Rosenthal)
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is one of Woody Allen's most controversial and pessimistic films. Using a deft blend of Bergmanesque drama and his own special brand of neurotic humor, Allen concocts a film that tells two stories that don't fully intertwine until the last scene, which leaves you stunned because it takes all the hope out of what is essentially a morality play.
One of the stories concerns a successful, wealthy ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). For the past two years, he has been carrying on an extramarital affair with a younger, emotionally dependent woman named Delores (Anjelica Huston). Judah wants out of the relationship, but Delores wants to tell his wife the truth. Delores is somewhat unbalanced, especially when she feels threatened by the possibility of Judah, who is her emotional stability, walking out on her forever. Plus, she knows the details of some of Judah's shady financial dealings involving his philanthropy, and she doesn't shy away from reminding him of that fact.
Fearing that she will not only ruin his twenty-year marriage, but also land him in jail, Judah is distraught on how to resolve the situation. At first, he turns to a rabbi (Sam Waterston), who can only suggest the painful way out, which is to come clean and tell his wife the truth. Judah claims he cannot do this, for his own sake and for his wife's.
He finally turns to his brother Jack, a shady character played by Jerry Orbach. He suggests that Judah have Delores "taken care of," which of course, means to have her killed. At first, Judah is repulsed by this suggestion, but as his situation gets tighter and tighter, he starts considering it. Eventually, he does have her murdered in a faux burglary attempt, and he soon finds that living with his guilt might be worse than having allowed this woman to destroy his social and financial life.
Running alongside this rather grim story is the more light-hearted tale of Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), a small-time documentary filmmaker in the last throes of a dying marriage. He falls in love with another woman, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), while making a documentary on his brother-in-law, Lester, an obnoxious, arrogant, self-possessed television producer played with wonderful relish by Alan Alda. Cliff, who considers his work on an obscure philosophy professor to be art and Lester's closet-full of Emmies to be bunk, describes Lester's work as "sub-mental." Unfortunately, Lester is also pursuing Halley, and Cliff fears that because Lester is successful, rich, and attractive, he will win the girl.
I know it doesn't sound like these two stories could have anything in common, but they do. They have the world in common. Both speak of the injustices of the everyday life, how evil is not always punished, and how the wrong people sometimes win out in the end. There is a lot of talk about the eyes of God watching everything, but Allen blatantly points out that, just because God sees, doesn't necessarily mean He's going to jump in and do something about it.
One of the most often-asked and virtually unanswerable questions I have ever heard is, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" This film asks the same kind of question, but in reverse: "Why do good things happen to bad people?"
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" doesn't pretend it can answer this question. Like Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," it is designed to inspire discussion rather than solve problems. It paints a dilemma in stark terms, then leaves the decision up to the viewer.
When I finished watching the film, I couldn't answer why life is unfair because I don't think it's up to us as people to know. Life is life, and it is often cruel. This might be cynical, it might be pessimistic, but I believe it is true. It is our constant battle against the injustices of the world that makes life interesting and invigorating. Otherwise, life would be devoid of meaning because everything would be pre-ordained.
In his own special way, Allen captures this sense perfectly. Because he is Woody Allen, he never lets the proceedings get bogged down too far in philosophical discussion. He treats the serious subject matter with proper respect, but he still finds enough time to insert humor and pathos, and his famous one-liners that can sum up the world. It is an incredible balancing act, and I wonder how many other filmmakers could have pulled it off this well.
Probably very few.
©1997 James Kendrick