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.