Crimes and Misdemeanors

Woody Allen really wants you to know what an empty, Godless world this is.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1989

Crimes and Misdemeanors is Woody Allen’s heaviest, most intimidating film yet. Its message is simple, but its conviction is so overbearing, it almost feels confrontational. The Purple Rose of Cairo was a movie that had a hidden message about how the universe is indifferent and life is disappointing — in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the message is the same, but this time it’s crammed down our throats.

Crimes and Misdemeanors was the first “serious” Woody Allen movie I ever saw, and it remains one of the most profound movie-going experiences of my life. At the time, I couldn’t believe the audacity of the movie — that it would tell the story it tells, the way it tells it. I was likely obsessed with westerns and gangster movies, so I wasn’t unaccustomed to watching bad guys win, but this was a movie that made itself infinitely more dispiriting by being about a much more mundane, familiar form of evil. The film’s ostensible hero doesn’t die a tragic death, but rather endures a dreary, sad-sack existence while the selfish, the arrogant and the phony laugh and enjoy life.

Structurally, the movie is most similar to Hannah and her Sisters. It, too, consists of a number of characters and stories from throughout Manhattan, intersecting in meaningful ways. Thematically speaking, however, it’s Hannah’s complete inverse. Hannah’s enduring message was that struggle brings insight and fulfillment, and all of its characters wind up happy in the end. Some of Crimes and Misdemeanors’ characters end up happy — but only those who have acted selfishly and cruelly to others. Those who haven’t end up blind and alone.

Another difference between Hannah and Crimes is that, while the former darted off in a multitude of different directions, the latter only really follows two narratives, and those happen side-by-side, only occasionally connecting.

The first and primary plot thread centers around wealthy ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal, played fearlessly by the great Martin Landau. He is the prototypical “man who has everything” (successful career, happy family, wealth), but it’s all on the verge of crumbling, thanks to his mistress Delores (Anjelica Huston, one of my favorite actresses), who’s threatening to blow the whistle, not just on his infidelity, but on past financial indiscretions.

Martin Landau and Claire Bloom in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

Judah turns to his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a man with a shady past and connections to organized crime. Jack “knows a guy” who can “take care” of his problem.

Martin Landau and Jerry Orbach in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

Jack and Judah’s meeting is the movie’s first breath-taking moment. Judah’s perfect life is an illusion — an illusion that he, more so than anyone, is lost in. Allen masterfully writes and directs Judah asking Jack for something that he can’t even consciously acknowledge he wants. Judah feigns disgust and moral outrage when Jack, a self-described resident of “the real world,” says “she can be gotten rid of.” Yet, that’s exactly why he called Jack, and only moments later, Judah sheepishly mutters “I think we should go ahead with... what we talked about.”

Martin Landau and Jerry Orbach in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

The fearlessness of Martin Landau’s performance comes from the way he’s not afraid to be truly ugly and unlikable. Not many actors would want to be seen in this light. He commits a great crime, yes, but he’s dishonest and immoral on a smaller scale as well. He lies to his family and his friends, there are allusions to theft from his charitable organizations, and he often belittles those around him (especially his brother). Landau is playing Allen’s first real villain.

Well, I guess Allen’s comedies often had villains (futuristic dictators, a giant breast, Adolf Hitler), but Judah is the kind of villain that, Allen would have you believe, exists everywhere. On the surface, Judah is benignity personified — soft-spoken, gentle, personable. The opening shows him dedicating a new wing of a hospital, making a blandly funny speech. No one in his inner circle (including his family) would have a mean thing to say about him, although the mark he’s left on the world is an evil one. It’s not hard to see him as a representation of the darkest part of human nature.

The most interesting behind-the-scenes anecdote about this movie is that Woody Allen didn’t plan to appear in it. It had, originally, benn just about Judah Rosenthal (Landau). I guess Touchstone (who was distributing it) couldn’t help but notice that Another Woman and September were financial disasters (even by art-house standards), while Hannah and her Sisters was a hit, and Manhattan and Annie Hall were veritable blockbusters. This led them to the (perhaps reasonable) conclusion that Woody Allen movies were only profitable ventures when Woody Allen himself appeared in them. So, when the screenplay for Crimes and Misdemeanors came across the table, no doubt looking for all the world like an even grimmer Another Woman, Allen was reportedly asked to write a small part for himself.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first instance of studio interference in Allen’s work since way back in 1966, when What’s Up, Tiger Lily? was re-worked without Allen’s knowledge or consent. Maybe I should be ashamed to say this, but, for this particular movie, I’d have to side with the studio. Like the movie-going public of America, I like seeing Woody Allen in Woody Allen movies. I also think his presence helps the film artistically. Without him, it would have ended up as more of a character study, along the lines of Another Woman, and I don’t think Allen’s all-encompassing, dark portrait of humanity would have come across as sharply.

Allen plays the lead in the movie’s side-story. Given the heavy nature of its narrative counterpart, Allen’s contribution can’t help but feel like comic relief, although it’s one of his least funny roles. Most of the laughs are more mean-spirited and satirical in nature, and they mostly come from Alan Alda, playing a super-smarmy sitcom producer named Lester.

Alan Alda and Woody Allen in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

Lester plays the kind of producer who would strong-arm a director like Woody Allen into watering down his serious movies with some comic relief. He’s also the kind of guy who’d think something like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? would be a great idea for a movie, and maybe he’d just go and replace some of the movie’s jokes with a couple of zingers he thought up himself (and if the original writer doesn’t like it, just fire him!). He also has a brother-in-law named Clifford (Woody Allen), a noble but financially struggling documentarian.

Alda’s performance is the second great one in the movie, and he creates Allen’s second true villain. In so many movies, Allen has drawn connections between one’s artistic talent and one’s fulfillment as a person. If morality and artistry are what make you who you are, then Judah and Lester represent the collective forces of evil. Judah is the enemy of morality, and Lester is the enemy of art.

Alda’s performance is so precise, it’s not surprising to learn that it’s based on a real person (Larry Gelbart, according to IMDb). He’s a man who’s passionately in love with himself, and talks as if everyone who’s listening is lucky to be within earshot. In his mind, he’s a philosophical, populist comedy God, bestowing his gift of laughter upon the masses. In reality, he’s lecherous, insincere and phony.

Alan Alda in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks... it’s not funny!”

Strictly as a favor to his sister, Lester gives Cliff a cushy job making a documentary about him. The two men share a mutual resentment, but Lester owes his sister a favor and Clifford needs the money. During the filming, Clifford’s camera captures Lester promising acting jobs to cute, young interns and cruelly berating his staff, but Lester keeps trying to get Clifford to focus on his well-groomed hair and witty bon-mots.

Alan Alda and Woody Allen in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“I’ll be frank with you. You’re not my first choice. I’m doing this strictly as a favor for Wendy, because you haven’t worked for a long time. She’s embarrassed.”
Alan Alda and Woody Allen in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“Idea for farce: a poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life, and in the process, learns great values.”

Clifford, meanwhile, is trying to get the money together to make a documentary about Prof. Louis Levy (played by psychologist Martin S. Bergman), a philosophy professor with a fascinating life story, a staggering intellect, and an inspiringly positive outlook.

A scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“The interesting thing that happened to the early Israelites was that they conceived a God who cares. He cares, but at the same time, demands that you behave morally.”

During the filming of the Lester documentary, both Lester and Clifford meet and fall in love with one of its producers, Halley (Mia Farrow). Allen and Farrow have one of their most moving and low-key romances, spending it entirely within Clifford’s screening room, watching old movies and eating take-out. Allen’s biggest romantic obstacle this time is sheer lack of interest from Farrow. He proposes marriage to her before they’ve even kissed, but she’s not sure if she even wants to be friends with him.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

The sole character that spans both stories is Ben, a kind rabbi played by Sam Waterston in his fourth, final, and best performance in a Woody Allen movie. Ben is Lester’s brother, Cliff’s brother-in-law and Judah’s patient, and he serves as the movie’s moral core.

Judah is torn between two systems of belief: the first, Ben’s, says that the universe is morally balanced, and no evil deeds go unpunished. While still deciding how to handle his situation with Delores, Judah confides in Ben — at least partially (he leaves out the part about how he’s considering having her killed). Ben, who manages to be wise and moral without ever seeming righteous or condescending, explains that he couldn’t go on living unless he knew in his heart that there was a higher power and some sort of universal moral structure.

Martin Landau and Sam Waterston in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“Without some kind of higher power, there’s no basis to know how to live. And I know somewhere inside of you, a spark of that notion still exists.”
“Now you’re talking to me like your convocation.”

The second system of belief is represented by his brother Jack (Orbach), as well as their aunt, who we see in flashback. To them, the universe is indifferent to the sins of man. The only consequences you face are practical and earthly — jail, divorce, etc. If you can avoid those, then anything’s fair game. Another Woman, like Wild Strawberries, allowed its protagonist to freely interact with their memories. Crimes and Misdemeanors does this once again, as Judah (at Martin Landau’s age) interacts with his childhood family, arguing over the dinner table. He engages his father (who’s also a rabbi) and his aunt in debate over the morality issue.

Martin Landau in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“And what if there is no God?”
“Then I will still have a happier life than those who doubt. Given the choice, I will always choose God over truth.”

Judah’s dilemma comes to a crux one night when Ben visits him in a waking dream. Ben says that, without God, it’s all darkness, but Judah just repeats what Jack has told him, about the “real world.” Judah’s arguments are mostly self-serving — after all, he doesn’t live in the real world, he only turns to it when he needs some dirty work done.

Martin Landau and Sam Waterston in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“You don’t think the eyes of God look upon you?”
“God is a luxury I can’t afford.”

Judah does end up calling Jack, and Delores (his mistress) is murdered. This movie’s parallels with Crime and Punishment are often brought up (the title even alludes to it). Crime and Punishment was largely about morality, seeming to dwell on the question of whether an act of murder could ever be moral. Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t about morality in the same sense. It doesn’t ask whether murder is moral — after all, unlike Raskolnikov’s, Judah’s crime is purely selfish — but rather, asks whether morality even matters. If all moral codes are man-made, what difference does it make what we do, as long as we can avoid being detected by the wrong people?

However, both Punishment and Misdemeanors share one very explicit question: can a person live with having done something terrible? Dostoyevsky’s answer is an emphatic ‘no.’ Only by suffering the appropriate consequences associated with his crime can Raskolnikov re-achieve sanity. For a while, it seems like Crimes and Misdemeanors is moving in the same direction. After the crime is committed, Judah is an emotional wreck. He starts drinking, has trouble communicating with his family, and even seriously considers turning himself in. In one scene, a dinner with his wife and daughter is intercut with memories of him and Delores. When his wife asks him what’s bothering him, he shouts, slams his hand on the table and humiliates them in the restaurant. He seems to be falling apart at the seams — contrast this with Clifford’s interview subject, Prof. Levy, a holocaust survivor who has has found the secret to happiness through love and personal connection.

Martin Landau in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“Maybe we should go”
“Don’t tell me what to do, damnit!”

But then things start to change, and Allen’s more sinister intentions start to surface. Prof. Levy dies, from a suicide. Despite all of his love letters, Halley ignores Clifford, and when he next sees her, she’s engaged to Lester. Clifford’s sister goes on a date with a man she met through a personal ad and he ties her to a bed and defecates on her (off-screen, thankfully). Rabbi Ben goes blind. Most significantly, Judah starts to make peace with his crime. Slowly, a very cohesive message starts to form: Be a phony, lie, steal, kill people, take a dump on Woody Allen’s sister... the world is your oyster, and the only thing holding you back are the arbitrary moral codes you impose upon yourself. If you think there’s a heavenly force that’s going to reward you for your good behavior, you’re a blind fool.

All of the movie’s characters converge in the end at Ben’s daughter’s wedding, the same way they did at Thanksgiving in Hannah and her Sisters (or even, in a very different way, at the French hotel in What’s New Pussycat). This is where Clifford sees Halley for the first time in months, and is shocked to discover that she’s engaged to Lester, a man he mistakenly believed she hated just as much as he did. We also find out that Ben, who had previously been seeing Judah with vision problems, has gone completely blind. And then there’s Judah, who’s doing wonderfully.

Mia Farrow and Alan Alda in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors

Judah sits down next to Clifford, and Judah, who’d heard Clifford was a filmmaker (they hadn’t previously met), tells him about an idea he has for a murder mystery, which is, of course, his own story. In this story, the “protagonist” is never caught, and while he struggles with the moral implications for a while, eventually he’s able to get past what he’d done, not let it bother him any more, and retreat back into a life of privilege and wealth. “He should turn himself in” says Clifford, suggesting a different ending. “That’s fiction,” replies Judah. Clifford doesn’t think anyone could live with himself after committing murder. Judah, who is, of course, speaking from experience, disagrees.

Woody Allen and Martin Landau in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“This is reality. In reality, we rationalize. We deny. Otherwise we couldn’t go on living.”

Is Judah right... if he had turned himself in, would it have made this film less realistic? Additionally, would a smart, resourceful woman like Halley really get married to someone like Lester? Certainly Ben’s blindness is symbolic, as is Prof. Levy’s sudden suicide, but I think the resolution of the Landau and Farrow storylines is, in Woody Allen’s eyes, true to life.

Discussing La Dolce Vita, Roger Ebert once said that he’s viewed the movie at all different stages of his life, and each time, it’s seemed like a completely different movie, and I feel like I share a similar history with Crimes and Misdemeanors. It has seemed to me, at different times, like an exercise in nihilistic despair, like mopey self-pity and even like an uncomfortable endorsement of self-centric hedonism. Watching it now, and maybe this is just because I keep mentally associating it with The Purple Rose of Cairo, I feel like it has, perhaps, some sort of muted flashlight trying to cut through the darkness.

Much like Cairo, the movie ends on a meaningful but ambiguous note. While we revisit the movie’s characters in a mostly silent montage — those still alive and those who have died — Prof. Levy’s voice-over tries to summarize what makes us human. There are no eyes of God watching us, and no moral force guiding our actions, but it’s up to us to create moral systems for ourselves, because otherwise, all that’s left is chaos.

Anjelica Huston in a scene from Crimes and Misdemeanors
“We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices 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 be 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 try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”
  • “He says he wants to exchange ideas, but you know he just wants to exchange fluids.”
  • “He wants to produce something of mine.”
    “Yeah, your first child.”
  • “Where I grew up, no one committed suicide. Everyone was too unhappy.”
  • “He’s an American phenomenon.”
    “Yeah, like acid rain.”
  • “Don’t listen to what your teachers tell you, you know. Don’t pay attention. Just see what they look like and that’s how you’ll know what life is really gonna be like.”
  • “Show business is dog-eat-dog. It’s worse than dog-eat-dog, it’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls,”
  • “I wish I had met [Prof. Levy] before I got married. It would’ve saved me a gall bladder operation.”
  • “It’ll be a year [since we last slept together] come April 20th. I remember the date exactly, because it was Hitler’s birthday.”

Fun Facts

  • Before Allen was forced to write a part for himself, the movie’s title was Brothers (which also has a Dostoyevsky connection). It was also nearly called The Eyes of God.
  • Woody Allen was on vacation in Scandinavia, and had promised he’d write the New York Times a review of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography. Instead, he came up with this idea and couldn’t get it out of his head, so just wrote this screenplay instead (he never ended up submitting a book review).
  • The side-story was re-shot almost entirely at the last minute. In the original version, Farrow was married, not Allen, and she worked at a hospital at which Allen was shooting a documentary. Lester was only a minor character.
  • Originally, the iconic final scene was supposed to be between Judah and Ben. But Sam Waterston was unavailable for shooting, so Allen himself stepped in.
  • Daryl Hannah has a brief appearance as one of Lester’s lady-friends in the beginning of the movie (you can see her in one of the screenshots above — she’s in the red dress).
  • Nora Ephron, writer of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally (among many others), and close friend of Allen, is one of the guests at the wedding at the end of the movie.
  • Three Oscar nominations: Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau). The next year (this movie came out a bit later in Britain), it picked up six BAFTA nominations: Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Alda), and Best Supporting Actress (Huston).
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