| Dir: Woody Allen
“Idea for a farce – a poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.”
There’s certain expectations with most Woody Allen pictures; a New York setting, a large degree of wit, a beautiful woman delivering a great performance, suffocating neurosis, people talking out of frame, jazz. You don’t normally come to one with the intention of having your values and morality tested. Yet with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen distills his cinematic hallmarks and philosophical passions into a meaningful debate on the decency of human impulse. It chews so tenderly on the impact of our every decision in the governance of our conscious; how we are defined by the choices we make and how it affects our position in the universe. It’s a masterful conclusion to a decade of dominance in cinema, with a collection of 10 films that challenge the consistency and quality of any filmmaker from any period.
The title lays it out plainly: what is a crime, what is merely a misdemeanor and how do we rationalise them into these compartments? The loosely connected parallel stories of ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) and fledgling documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) challenge this thesis, as they confront the depths of their values in the pursuit of self-perceived innocence and a clear conscious. Judah’s dramatic arc undoubtedly has more gravity in this regard, as he green lights the ‘perfect murder’ of his strung-along mistress (Anjelica Huston who’s great in her anxiety, neurosis and mental trauma) to save his reputation and marriage. Breaking Bad captivated us with similar commentaries 19 years later, in showcasing the transformation of an ordinary man taken from one sin to deeper sins. The dread in the viewer here comes not only from the suspense of whether Judah will get his comeuppance, but the understanding that he realises his capacity for these stakes, and whether he will revisit it later in life.
Like almost every Allen film since 1977, this deals with the intellectual middle-class of New York. That demographic actually serves a potent purpose here, as Allen shrewdly comments on the inability of intellectuals to properly rationalise their ethical dilemmas. Judah’s struggle before and after the deed leads to questions such as “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is what shes doing to me just?” In this self-centered pursuit of happiness and satisfaction in life, murder equated to infidelity, and murder resulting from the fear of your infidelity becoming known isn’t the same as any other motivation. The end result of Judah’s moral code is a refusal to let her “destroy his life”.
That Judah is an eye doctor is no coincidence, rather it’s part of some really strong symbolism from Allen – a man who helps other people improve their sight, yet is incapable of clear moral vision. While his Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston, whose little anxious touches resemble a modern day performance by Joaquin Phoenix, though ironically not his in one of Allen’s other morality tales involved murder, Irrational Man) goes physically blind while being metaphorically blinded by his faith to the realities of society. This unjust world is suggestive of Allen that there is no God there to punish the deserving; you can be free of a permanent feeling of guilt and only you can punish yourself. But for how often Allen mocks Judaism, he takes it very seriously here and offers Ben wise words to combat Judah: “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel, with all my heart, a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”
The comic side to the film sees Allen’s Cliff selling out by making a documentary on his big shot brother-in-law television producer (Alan Alda) while falling for a producer on the documentary (Mia Farrow’s Halley). The original cut had only one scene with Alda, more of the side story with Cliff’s sister and niece (which does seem to go nowhere in this final edit) and features Mia as a social worker in a nursing home for vaudevillians where Cliff is making a documentary. These changes appear to made valid improvements, even if it did require re-shooting 80 out of 139 scenes, making it his most re-shot film outside of the completely reworked September. It’s profoundly and poetically written, earning multiple nominations and winning a WGA for best screenplay. At times it is overly done though, slipping into expositional monologues. But the cast do a terrific job with the words, Landau in particular who was also nominated for multiple awards in an unconventional headline role.
Originally titled ‘Brothers’, this balance of comedy and drama is something Allen has longed to accomplish and came closest with Hannah and Her Sisters. The philosophical drama and farcical comedy would combine again more rigidly in 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, to much less success. But here the comedy, drama, existentialism and thrills of both stories converge sublimely in such playful construction. For instance, one moment you have the suspense of Judah receiving a call from a detective which transitions into a scene with Allen at the cinema watching a rendition of “Murder He Says” from Happy Go Lucky. As inherently tragic as the film is, there’s still some blistering jokes slotted in:
“He’s interested in producing something of mine.”
“Your first child!”
The flashback device is often used by Allen to good effect. They’re usually there to inform audiences about narrative details: Annie Hall is almost a film of scenes in shuffle mode but the trips that he, Annie and Rob take back to observe his childhood are richly informative and comical; Stardust Memories floats to the past; Broadway Danny Rose gets a lot of comedy out of prior endeavors. But here, Judah’s silent contemplation from the past, in the form of flashbacks for the viewer, not only inform us of this non-present time but act as methods for him to work through his conscience. It’s less artificially inserted for the sake of narrative necessities and more organic from the characters mental dialogues.
Woody, either arrogantly or stubbornly, opines on the tendency for his work to reflect reality rather than the superficial happiness of Hollywood. Judah, as if knowing that Woody Allen himself makes movies in New York, tells Cliff “You want a happy ending, you should see a Hollywood movie”. It’s as downbeat and morbid as he’s become, with Judah left unpunished and at peace with his moral values. While Cliff serves a prison sentence of four months away from Halley (as he did with Tracy in Manhattan) and a broken heart upon her return. It’s a very dark and disturbing ending even for Allen, which leaves you contemplating your own moral balance in the modern world.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.