Saturday, May 16, 2009

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)

My relationship with Woody Allen films has always been somewhat subdued. In the past I always tended to like every movie that I saw, but never quite seemed to love any of them. None of them ever quite reached the status of greatness that I hoped or expected of them. I’ve always had an appreciation for legendary films like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, but for some reason was always left with an unfulfilled feeling at the end of each of them. All of this changed upon seeing Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was a revelation. It made me understand that the sum of Woody Allen’s career in cinema was far greater than his riffing on variations of the same character and themes in each of his films. Here, he was able to tackle the same existential ideas that permeate many of his other efforts, but do so in a way that is equal parts tragedy and comedy.

The story is told through two separate storylines, but both concern strained relationships between two men and their respective wives. In the “serious” storyline, renowned ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) scrambles to find a way to keep his young mistress (Anjelica Houston) from exposing their affair to his longtime wife. Ultimately, he reaches the conclusion that his only way out is to have her eliminated and he turns to his connected, streetwise brother (Jerry Orbach) to see that the job is done. In the “comedy” storyline, struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is also in a crumbling marriage. After being coaxed into directing a biography about the life of his Emmy award-winning television producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda), Cliff begins to fall in love with a producer also on the job (played by Mia Farrow). The two tales are interwoven seamlessly, with the narrative jumping between one storyline to the other.

This is another instance where I don’t want to give away too many details as to how things play out, because a lot of the emotional impact of the film comes from experiencing and trying to cope with the anguish as Judah himself does. The flashback scene of Judah remembering the discussions at his family dinner table, with arguments between family members over whether the eyes of God see everything that a person does, is crucial to the entire film. It crystallizes the issues that are haunting Judah and make him wonder if he can ever truly break free from the past relationship. Is the fact that one is not actually caught for a transgression proof that they come away from it unscathed? Or are there other ways, particularly personal and internal, that in due course see that punishment is exacted? Judah struggles with these weighty questions until the very end and the viewer is exposed to the same uncertainty and uneasiness.

The thing that amazes me about this movie is the fact that it works brilliantly on two completely different levels. It is both a comedy and a neo-noir. I’ll admit that the story focusing on Judah and the inner turmoil he goes through in coming to terms with decisions that he has made is the angle that is the most intriguing for me. It’s interesting how his predicament is juxtaposed with the less grave dilemma of Cliff. Even though Cliff’s situation is much less ominous, he still agonizes over his problems with the same intensity with which Judah contemplates contract murder. When the two men finally come together and meet each other at the end of the film, it’s interesting to realize which of the two characters is actually in a better state.

As I’ve already mentioned, this tops my list of best Woody Allen films. But probably the biggest impact that this movie has had on me is that it encouraged me to go back and reexamine other Allen films and I’ve realized that I enjoy his work a lot more than I originally thought. I’m writing this review after having watched Crimes and Misdemeanors for a second time and it’s just as entertaining and thought provoking as the first.

Rating: 9/10


  1. Indeed Dave, this does work on both a comedy level and a philosophical one. This is absolutely one of my favorite Woody Allen film, ranking with the likes of ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN, (the later EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and MATCH POINT are also on my short list) CRIMES is philosophically weighty, and it resprenets the Woodman's writing at its most perceptive. Landau is terrific here, as are Alda and Houston.

    Wonderful and passionate review that served as a springboard for re-visitation.

  2. Thanks for the compliments, Sam! If I've encouraged somebody to re-watch the film, then I at least feel like I've accomplished something with the review.

    Being something of a newcomer to the total breadth of Woody's work, I'm amazed at how great a writer he is for pure drama, and even for a thriller to a certain degree (in this one and Match Point, for example). I knew he had great comedy chops, but for pure drama and tension he can hold his own with the best as well.

    Oh, and anyone else reading these comments be sure and visit Sam's blog Wonders in the Dark (see links on the left). It's among the best and most active on the 'net.

  3. Dave,
    Certainly one of Woody's most complex films and brilliantly done. I am a big W. Allen fan and count this film along with the unusual suspects (“Annie Hall,” Hannah and Her Sisters”, “Manhattan” and “Point Match” among his best. I also have a real soft spot for “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” As you say, he has interwoven his two storylines seamlessly and you find yourself continuously intrigued by both.

    Excellent site! Look forward to your future postings.

  4. John,
    I'm glad that you enjoyed the review. I've been watching a lot of Woody's work lately, so hopefully I'll get around to writing some more about them in the near future. I'm amazed at how many of his films are so dearly loved -- one man's average Woody film is another's masterpiece!

    Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of the few I actually haven't seen, so this is great encouragement for me to remedy that ASAP.