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Non-Review Review: Crimes and Misdemeanors

I have to admit a special fondness for Crimes and Misdemeanors. It isn’t my favourite Woody Allen film, but it does sit somewhere near the top of my ranking of the director’s extensive filmography. More than that, though, it’s interesting to revisit Crimes and Misdemeanors in light of the director’s more recent work in films like Cassandra’s Dream or Match Point. Indeed, reflecting on it today, Crimes and Misdemeanors seems to occupy a strange middle-ground, literally positioned half-way between the director’s observational comedies and his more sombre meditations on the human condition. Anchored in a fantastic lead performance by Martin Landau, Crimes and Misdemeanors is an intriguing moral dramedy.

Well suited to each other?

Of course, when I described the film as “half-way between the director’s observational comedies and his more sombre meditations on the human condition”, I was referring directly to the format of the film. Given its influence on the director’s films released over the past decade, it’s easy to forget that Crimes and Misdemeanors actually has two extended plots playing out simultaneously. The heftier of the two follows Judah as he tries to deal with the mistress who threatens to destroy his life, but there’s also another thread following Woody Allen as a New York documentary film-maker.

Allen himself has stated that he believes the film would have been stronger without the thread about his character, and I think that a lot of the attention on the film, deservedly, focuses on Martin Landau’s superb performance as the conflicted Judah. And yet, watching it again, it seems that there’s quite a bit of weight behind the documentary subplot as well. Allen tends to draw on his own experiences and opinions in crafting his films – regardless of what people might make of them, most are hugely personal endeavours for the director. As such, a story about Woody Allen directing a documentary about a New York comedian must be at least a little bit fascinating.

He’s Alda that…

There’s a lot of self-deprecation in Allen’s work. In fact, watching a lot of films where Allen has clearly cast the lead character in his own image can be a distinctly uncomfortable experience.  Here, Alan Alda’s Lester seems like a possible stand-in for Allen, and is used to address the director’s insecurities and uncertainties and fears. Like Allen, Lester is a comedian associated with New York. Unlike Allen, Lester is more than happy to talk about his interests and his methods, to discuss and pick apart his comedy.

“I love New York,” Lester explains, seeming ridiculously affable. “It’s like thousands of straight lines just lookin’ for a punch line. And what makes New York such a funny place is that there’s so much tension and pain and misery and craziness here. And that’s the first part of comedy.” Perhaps Lester is the reason that Allen is notoriously reluctant to talk about his work, because he doesn’t want to be seen as a shallow and pretentious fool. Lester just rambles whatever comes into his head, but treats it like some divine pronouncement. When he asks if he’s provided enough material, Allen’s character, Clifford Stern, responds, “I shot ten rolls on your first question.”

New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town…

Stern describes Lester as “a pompous moron.” Lester has clearly let his popularity go to his head. I can’t help but feel that this might be Allen’s insecurity coming to the fore. He is, for example, perplexed by the long-term love affair audiences seem to have with Annie Hall and Manhattan, and I suspect he balks at some of the more pretentious meditations on his rich back catalog of films. Lester himself appears to have generated his own share of enthusiastic followers who have celebrated and explored his works. “I couldn’t graduate,” he boasts, not immodestly, “and this same school now teaches a course in existential motifs in my situation comedies.”

It’s actually quite a fascinating story thread, but one that doesn’t work because it’s never quite as interesting as the second story being told. Allen’s Stern is never engaging as a character in his own right, despite the fact we’re seeing the story through his eyes. He’s an exceptionally bland focal character for a Woody Allen film, which means we’re never as interested in him as we should be. At points, it seems like he exists merely to provide thematic resonance to the main plot thread, with his passion project about religion. Instead, Alan Alda’s Lester is much more fascinating, but our exposure to him is relatively limited.

She’s no Angel(ica)…

In contrast, Judah’s story arc is much more compelling and fascinating. Indeed, it’s so fascinating that Allen has actually played out variations on it twice within the last decade, but that doesn’t detract from Martin Landau’s superb performance as a man struggling with the consequences of his various bad decisions. Like so many of Allen’s lead characters, Judah is selfish and disconnected, keen to avoid reaping what he has sewn. Landau manages to render this truly tragic – to the point where we almost empathise with him, despite our better judgment.

Judah is one of those protagonists who lacks the integrity to be honest even with himself. When he talks with his brother about how he plans to deal with the woman who threatens to destroy his life, he’s willfully obtuse. His brother, Jack, asks, “What did you call me for?” Judah struggles for an excuse, “I don’t know. I hoped you’d have more experience with something like this.” Jack is somewhat more frank about it. “You called because you need some dirty work done,” he tells his brother. “That’s all you ever call for.”

Will he Land(au) on his feet?

In fact, Allen seems to condemn Judah for his own inability to even acknowledge his complicity and misdeeds, perhaps to a greater degree than for the actions themselves. Judah isn’t just a morally-flawed individual, he’s a morally-flawed individual who lacks the necessary conviction to clean up his own mess. His brother, Jack, calls him out on it, as Judah tries to act righteous about the situation. “You come to me with a hell of a problem, and then you get high-handed on me,” Jack accuses his brother, not unfairly.

At the risk of wandering into the pseudo-philosophical meanderings that Allen seemed to condemn with Lester, there’s a fascinating moral philosophy at play here – arguably the kind that Allen is an expert at drawing out. “We went from a small infidelity to the meaning of existence,”one of Judah’s friends remarks as the pair have a full and frank discussion. The meanings of life, the universe, and everything can be found in the strangest places, with questions provoked by the strangest of circumstances.

Long dark midnight of the soul…

Here, it seems, Allen is meditating on morality. Judah’s name is, of course, biblical, and Allen seems to fixate on the question of whether human morality is governed by external factors. Religion is the most obvious potential influence. Allen’s documentary film-maker is producing a meditation on Levy, a philosopher, who offers a choice opinion. “Now, then, the first thing that happened to the early Israelites was that they conceived of a God who cares,” Levy observes. “He cares, but at the same time, He also demands that you behave morally. But here comes the paradox. What’s one of the first things that God asks? That God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son, to Him. In others words, in spite of millennia of efforts, we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God. This was beyond our capacity to imagine.”

That’s a fascinating statement, if only because Allen seems to acknowledge God as a man-made construct, and the idea that our conception of God is confined by our own limitations. It’s an interesting reversal of most religious teachings, where we are imperfect representations of divinity. Here, Allen suggests, God is limited by our own imagination. We can’t, collectively, imagine a truly peaceful or perfect God, because we are deeply flawed people. So there’s an inherent irony in the notion that we created these concepts to provide an external force to justify our morality.

Dial “M” for “morality”…

Of course, religion is a big part of this, but it’s not the only part of it. Mankind, at least according to Allen, seem to to spend a large amount of time trying to externally enforce morality on one another. There’s any number of clips from classic movies that show up to reinforce the idea, and several characters reference the recurring idea in fiction that crime will inevitably be punished. “Whether it’s the Old Testament or Shakespeare, murder will out.” When Stern talks with Judah towards the end, he suggests something similar. Judah blows him off, suggesting, “But that’s fiction, that’s movies.”

Judah remembers a Rabbi telling him, “The eyes of God see all… there is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight, he sees the righteous and the wicked. The righteous would be awarded and the wicked would be punished for eternity.” At a large family dinner, Aunt May asks her more religious family members what role that external factor plays in determining their morality. “You afraid if you don’t obey the rules, God will punish you?” she asks. May does not subscribe to such thinking. She argues, “And I say, if he can do it and get away with it and chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free.”

He’s actually got a pretty serious misdemeanor, if you ask me…

That’s the dilemma at the hear of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the question of whether morality can be absolute or if it’s relative. Judah suggests that each person must be able to make peace with their actions, as they will ultimately be the ones to hold themselves to account. When he pitches a movie to Stern, Judah explains that the criminal protagonist must come to terms with himself. “I mean, this is reality. In reality, we rationalize. We deny, or we couldn’t go on living.”

It is, after all, a question of what we can live with. Judah is faced with a mistress who risks exposing the affair to his wife. He can’t figure out how to deal with it. “I even thought of telling everything to Miriam,” he confesses, “but she could never live with it.” Even his religious friend seems to frame the discussion in terms of Judah’s own psyche, rather than any external force that will serve to judge him. “Could you sleep with that?” Ben asks as Judah considers his options. “Is that who you really are?”

Doesn’t seem too Farrow off the mark…

There’s a lot of stuff to chew on there, and Allen has built one hell of a cast to explore it. Obviously Landau is fantastic Judah, to the point where Alan Alda is somewhat overshadowed. Mia Farrow and Anjelica Houston put in superb supporting performances, and it’s great to see Law & Order alumni Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterson given nice and juicy roles. Allen’s cast is great, and they give the script their best.

Of course, the biggest problem with Crimes and Misdemeanors is that a lot of it feels somewhat redundant. The two halves of the story explore ground that Allen has covered elsewhere, and arguably more thoroughly. Still, I quite like it for what it is – especially as it seems to position itself half-way between two of the director’s more prominent types of films.

7 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. This was a very good flick from Allen that I found unpredictable, much like Match Point. Definitely a more interesting story than I first expected. Loved your picture captions btw man!

    • Thanks! You can definitely see that Allen was inspired by the Landau plot, particularly for Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream.

  2. I watched this movie for the first time a month or so ago. I’m not a huge Woody Allen fan, but found the film to be interesting. I liked the Martin Landau portions of the film far more than the scenes focusing on Allen, though his relationship with his niece was touching (hmm…given Allen’s real-life relationship with his sort of adopted step-daughter, perhaps that’s not a good choice of words). It’s always great to see Alan Alda on screen, even when he plays unlikeable louses. The ending was very clever and original.

    • The irony is that Alda, despite being a douche, is actually still more likeable than Allen himself. Although, you are correct, the relationship with his neice is a nice touch – although it’s hard not to cringe a bit. (The fact that the film also stars Mia Farrow problem doesn’t help those uncomfortable associations.) Love the ending though. Great way of overlapping two relatively disconnected threads. (Well, not thematically disconnected, but you get my point.)

  3. Interesting review, I need to watch this again after reading your excellent post.

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