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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) was the masterful culmination of Woody
Allen's dramatic period in the 80's, in which he made brilliant movies
like "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Another Woman" or "September". In these
movies he tried his best to play with Ingmar Bergman's narrative and
aesthetic preoccupations, which are incidentally also Allen's. He has
also always been successful at incorporating wit and comedy into the
dramatic arc. In "Crimes and Misdemeanors" he confronts two
philosophies of life with each other. And once the two story lines are
set into motion, almost every scene plays off the theme of the movie.
We meet Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful and beloved doctor. Coming home with his family from a gala, he finds a letter from his mistress Dolores (Angelica Huston); addressed to his wife. Judah meets Dolores in her apartment, where she explains her deep dissatisfaction with the current situation. She wants Judah on her own, whereas he feels that this affair is getting out of hand and wants to end it. Consecutively Dolores begins to threaten him with uncovering a fund theft he was involved in and with admitting their affair to his wife. Judah cannot see out of this predicament and calls up his Mafioso brother (Jerry Orbach) to help him getting rid of her.
Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) on the other hand is a struggling documentary filmmaker, married to a woman who stopped having sex with him a year ago and who would rather see him work than not. So Cliff goes against his principles and takes the job kindly given to him by his wife's brother Lester (Alan Alda), a millionaire TV producer. Cliff has to follow Lester around New York to document his visions for a TV program. On the job he meets Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), an associate producer, who gets interested in his work of passion, a documentary about a Jewish philosopher. At the same time Cliff begins to take interest in Halley.
Cliff is portrayed by Allen as a humble, wise and cynical man, who never managed to connect his aspirations to the demands of the real world. He has nothing to offer except his love and knowledge. This enables him to be a mentor to his young niece, but does not profit him in his relationship with Halley. The little girl also works as a stand-in for Cliff's conversations with his conscience. This device is made clearer in Rosenthal's segments, where he confides himself to a rabbi.
So we have a dual storyline, where one section is morally repugnant and the other one is idealistic. The rabbi tells Rosenthal that their conversations are always about two views of life. One believes in a harsh world, empty of values and with a pitiless moral structure, while the other sees meaning and forgiveness and a higher power. Rosenthal has heard similar things before, since he was raised very religiously. "The eyes of God are on us always", advised his father. And when it came to the question of God's existence he would add: "In case of doubt I will always choose God over truth." But Judah cannot let God interfere when he plans to kill his lover. He feels guilt, alright, but people get used to circumstances. We deny and try to forget.
When in Cliff's segment the Jewish professor commits suicide, it comes as a shock. Suddenly a philosophical system has been taken away. Isn't that one of the things we fear the most? To realize that our beliefs are incomplete and wrong. This understanding only tightens as the movie progresses. The rabbi is going blind, morality has lost. In the end the film is a sobering account of how immorality, deceit and its more harmless companions prevail.
I feel Allen had to let the downbeat ending happen, to express a fear of his. In the 90's he would often return to lighter themes. This expresses his curiosity in all aspects of existence. Light and darkness coexist. Tonally "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is not a dark movie. Allen repeatedly breaks up an emotional scene with a punch-line. But Allen is always consistent in his tone, whatever subjects or periods he chooses. He is a tough worker, who has made 33 movies since 1969, which amounts to roughly one movie a year. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is the clearest in its vision and among his very best.
When I registered with the IMDb, one of the survey questions asked what
my favorite film was. I listed Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. I don't
know if this is always true, but for the most part I feel fairly
confident regarding my choice. Allen's story here works, like most well
written literature, on many levels. It is funny (Woody's lessons),
symbolic (the Rabbi going blind), ironic (the good suffer and the evil
go unpunished), deep (faith and suicide), and is a film that leaves you
with something to identify with and learn from. Even Hally Reed's (Mia
Farrow) surprising revelation at the end of the film, which I won't
reveal of course, shows us a bit about the dangers of prejudging
others. Woody shows us that we shouldn't judge on the surface, but must
look deeper into the individual value of people. Do we trust Hally, or
do we stick to what we see as the truth about Lester (Alan Alda)? This
is a lesson that Woody's character, Cliff, doesn't even fully grasp at
the end of the film, but Allen gives us the insight, even though what
Hally reveals about Lester goes against what we've seen of him.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is certainly not for all tastes. It's not exactly a film that people would watch for pure escapism. This is a film to be treasured, revisited and held up with some of the greatest films of all time. Not for how it looks or sounds, but for what it says. This is a film aimed at both the heart and the mind and succeeds in capturing both.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) offers perhaps the most complex study of
the relationship between film and reality in all of Woody Allen's work,
not excepting the lighter treatment of the theme in The Purple Rose of
Cairo (1985). In Crimes and Misdemeanors, film and reality interact on
multiple levels ranging from the commercial to the philosophical. They
also interact through a blend of genres that includes the noir crime
drama, romantic comedy, social satire, and the documentary. Along the
way the film enthusiast is treated to a dazzling variety of interwoven
film clips from Hollywood genre films, darkly humorous newsreel footage
of a blustering Mussolini, and arresting talking head interviews with
fictional philosopher Louis Levy (played by Martin S. Bergmann, the
renowned clinical psychologist and author of The Anatomy of Loving).
Allen uses these film-within-film conceits to dramatize a central
Dostoevskian (and 20th century) theme: the consequences of a god-
A crucial film/reality intersection occurs in the final sequence, a first meeting between the central characters of the paralleled "crime" and "misdemeanor" plots: Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a highly successful late middle-aged ophthalmologist and Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), an obscure documentary filmmaker whose one claim to fame is an "Honorable Mention" at the Cincinnati Film Festival. Aware that Cliff is a director of sorts, Judah pitches him a murder mystery plot based on recent experiences in his "real life." Ironically, Cliff rejects Judah's plot as too implausible, shapeless, and amoral to work as a movie even though it is a large part of the movie that Woody Allen as director has just presented, a twist familiar to viewers of Robert Altman's The Player (as well as to readers of Borges, Nabokov, and a slew of lesser post-modern fiction writers).
The meeting between Judah and Cliff takes place at a wedding celebration for the daughter of Ben (Sam Watterston), a rabbi who is Judah's long-time friend and Cliff's brother-in-law. Previously, the only link between the two plots comes from Ben's repeated visits to Judah's office for monitoring of a progressive eye-disease. In an early scene in the doctor's darkened examination room, Ben listens to Judah's confession of marital infidelity, financial indiscretion, and fears of exposure from his unstable mistress, Dolores (Angelica Huston), who refuses to be dumped after a several year relationship. What Judah does not confess is the means he uses to resolve his dilemma: the murder of Dolores by a hit man hired by Judah's underworld-connected businessman brother, Jack. For a time, like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Judah suffers agonies of guilt for initiating the taking of a human life, but eventually he "awakens as if from a dream" to find that rather than being punished he continues to prosper, a perverse irony that seems to belie his religious father's conviction that "the eyes of God are always watching us" and that "whether in the Old Testament or Shakespeare 'murder will out.'"
The Woody Allen character, Cliff, is an unsung and largely uncompensated maker of intellectual documentaries. An obsessive film buff, he prefers to spend most afternoons at the movies with his niece and most evenings in his low-budget cutting room rather than face the reality of his unhappy marriage and nowhere career. Alan Alda plays Cliff's other brother-in-law and nemesis, Lester, a thoroughly obnoxious but prominent writer and producer of TV sitcoms. The antagonism between these two characters is sharpened when Lester, as a favor to his sister, hires Cliff to shoot a TV documentary about Lester himself for a "Creative Minds" PBS-style series. The show's Associate Producer, Halley (Mia Farrow), becomes the object of a courtship rivalry between Cliff and Lester. Since Cliff is married and Lester is an obvious philanderer, this romantic triangle forms the "misdemeanor" segment of the film's plot - adultery and licentiousness having long been stricken from the contemporary urban world's list of cardinal sins.
Cliff's work on the Lester documentary allows Allen to satirize the TV-centered culture that lionizes a figure like Lester but offers scant recognition or reward to the subject of his documentary work-in-progress, Professor Levy (or, by extension, to Cliff himself). Although he has some moments, Lester is an easily deflated buffoon - a self-satisfied font of reductive and repeated bombast ("if it bends it's funny; if it breaks it's not funny.") Unfortunately, he can only be deflated in art. In "real life" Lester not only has the power to keep filling the airwaves with pap, but to fire Cliff and - most depressingly - to seduce and marry his dream girl, Halley. If Judah finds the absence of moral order comforting, Cliff is totally nonplussed by reality's harsh artlessness, but then, as Judah advises him: "If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie."
Despite its plot resolution, Crimes and Misdemeanors is rescued from utter nihilism by its ritual comic ending and by its final shot of the now completely blind Ben dancing happily with his daughter. Despite the literal place of darkness he has entered, the rabbi embodies the affirmative element in Professor Levy's vision, eloquently expressed in these words: "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." Alas, the uplifting imagery of the film's ending is counterbalanced, though not thoroughly undercut, by the recollection of Professor Levy's personal response to "the indifferent universe": he exits it via self-defenestration, leaving only a suicide note that reads "I've gone out the window."
Crimes and Misdemeanors is as close to pure tragicomedy as Woody Allen gets anywhere in his work, and it is one of his most essential and finest films.
Not much has to be said. This is an outstanding film, possibly one of the best films I have ever seen. All performances are perfect. Half drama, half comedy, and that very well done. It has deep thoughts about quilt and mistakes, lots of truth about relationships. It has laughs and a perfect ending. Every time I watch this film I just want to sit down and write, just write something interesting to leave behind. The film is already 16 yrs old and you wont notice that at all, it's one of those films that never age. I would recommend this movie to anyone who doesn't want to spend another two hours of his life watching yet another Hollywood crap.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)- is Woody Allen's masterpiece and my
favorite film. It is urban and sophisticated, subtle and cruel. It is
darker than dark and self-ironic. It is profound and touchingly
poignant. It is deadly serious and in the same time it is incredibly
funny. Its humor is razor sharp and sparkling and the best and funniest
Woody's one-liners and comic performances belong here. As always in his
best films, Allen had created a clever and elegant film out of his own
weaknesses and insecurities and it shines. How much was Allen able to
meditate on life, death, God, religion, morality, crimes and the
responsibility, love and lust, happiness and the price one pays for it,
and among those eternal subjects - how much fun it is to skip work or
school and to sneak to the movies.
It is universal. It has the references to many Artists and cultures - Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Bergman among the others but it is so undeniably and uniquely Allen. It could not have been made by any other director.
It is the movie Allen will be remembered for.
Most would say "Annie Hall", some would say "Manhattan", those who
prefer Allen's early career might even mention "Sleeper". Few would
call "Crimes and Misdemeanors" Woody Allen's best film as
writer/director, but the more I watch it, the more I realize that it's
not only my favorite, but in many ways the film Allen was working
towards for the entirety of his career as a writer prior to this.
In "Crimes and Misdemeanors" Allen revisits a recurring theme in many of his films, adultery. It would be a simplistic and narrow-minded view of this film to say that it was simply about adultery because it is really far more complex than that, and essentially a film about all varieties of human nature and relationships, and one could even argue- the relationship between reality and film as explored through the lens of genre- romantic comedy, Film-Noir, and documentary, and what parts of this film are- satire.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is one of Allen's best scripts. Any screenplay attempting to accomplish as much as this one does could easily fall apart, and Allen has had less convincing attempts than this one with similar ambitions, but everything works beautifully here. This film practically defines the 'tragicomedy' sub-genre, with neither overpowering the other and much of the humor is dark humor originating in tragedy, something that is acknowledged by Allen through the character of Lester (played to perfection by Alan Alda), who comments that comedy is nothing more than "tragedy plus time". He also mentions that comedy has to have an ending, and that's one of the best things about this movie- Allen allows dramatic scenes to succeed at being dramatic and emotional, then throws a hilarious punchline at you, which has an effect that is both entertaining and somewhat unsettling. This is an expertly-written movie.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is the culmination of a decade of consistently brilliant, evocative, original, and fascinating films from Woody Allen, whose 80's output I would personally consider to be his best. His 70's work is far more popular, but his 80's work contains some of the most unique and memorable films ever made: "Stardust Memories", "Zelig", "The Purple Rose of Cairo", and "Hannah and Her Sisters", as well as numerous overlooked and generally forgotten films that can only be called excellent, such as: "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", "Broadway Danny Rose", "Radio Days", "September", and "Another Woman". On top of all these memorable films is "Crimes and Misdemeanors", which is simply my favorite Woody Allen film and almost certainly his best and most focused effort.
Let's begin by declaring that you do not need to be a Woody Allen fan
to appreciate this film. As is often the case, Allen's schlemiel
character is the least sympathetic and interesting one in the movie.
But that aside, here's a story that I found thoroughly engaging. Is there a perfect crime? Is guilt the same as remorse? How does a "good" person come to terms with his sins?
The blind Rabbi: Is God unseeing? The Holocaust survivor philosopher who challenges survival (that's all I can say without spoiling): is there any real redemption?
The movie has flaws but I give it a "10" for daring to ask serious questions. (And the visit to the old house in Brooklyn has a dynamism that all of us who remember our childhood homes will relate to.)
After watching four of Woody Allen's movies, I am now convinced that he is
one of the best directors of all time. His blend of a serious subject matter
and humor is executed into perfection. Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably
as serious as Allen can get. It sometimes plays like a thriller and
suspense, but it also contains signature Allen humor.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is essentially about two separate stories connected only by ending the way it supposed to end in the real world. Allen implies that how these stories ended is not how they will end in a movie but how they will end in reality. Again, Allen explores the nature of human beings, analyzes relationships, and studies human decisions.
The first story involves a successful Ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). He has been married for decades with several children, but has had an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). Dolores is now obsessed with Judah and plans to confront his wife and reveal his financial secrets if Judah does not leave his wife. After his brother suggested murdering Dolores, Judah tries to decide if he wants to save his life or face murder.
The other story involves struggling documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern (Woody Allen). He was forced to make a documentary about his successful brother-in-law-which he despises. He agreed to do it only for the money, and in the process, fell in love with an associate named Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). His problem is that he is married and his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) is also making a pass at Halley. Halley must now decide whether she wants to be with a sincere man or a rich successful one.
Halley and Judah's decisions are also meant for the audience to analyze. What would we do if we were in their situation? Would we do the same thing they did? Can we stand having a murder in our conscience? Would we go for the wealthy man even though he may be a phony? Allen plays the audience with this questions and expertly guides them his characters' decisions.
Allen intercuts the Judah story with Judah's memories. His recollections of his times with Dolores and his childhood memories with his family. He recalls his father teaching him about God and our obligations. These memories made his decision harder and regrettable. In the other story, a professor makes some statements about life. These statements were heard again in the final montage, and this seems to be Allen's ultimate message about life, relationships, and decisions.
This movie is very similar to my favorite Allen movie Hannah and her Sisters. They both involve several storylines that is connected only by the central theme and message. Allen's excellent writing is complimented by his steady direction. Crimes and Misdemeanors is not as funny as Annie Hall or as accomplished as Manhattan, but it certainly ranks as one of Allen's best films.
Martin Landau, a successful doctor, contemplates murdering a former mistress who threatens his easy life while Woody Allen, an unsuccessful filmmaker, contemplates having an extramarital affair. This film, alongside "Annie Hall," will one day be rated as one of Woody Allen's greatest achievements. It is an important, intelligent work that explores the implications of whether or not this is indeed a moral universe. It also very funny. The subplot about Allen making a film about his successful, conceited brother-in-law (Alan Alda.) A masterpiece. I doubt he will reach these heights again.
This is a profound film, a true classic and great even among Woody Allen's great films! Thought-provoking and involving, I've found since seeing it that the film and its statements about good versus evil, denial, guilt, narcissism, have never really left me. A film with many layers, one that demands a re-visiting from time to time.
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