Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)


We are the sum total of all our choices, big and small.  That’s what Professor Levy puts forward in his interviews with documentarian Cliff Stern (Woody Allen).

Cliff is one of two main characters in Crimes and Misdemeanors.  The other one is an optometrist named Judah (Martin Landau).  Their two stories seem to have nothing in common.  They simply have a chance encounter near the end of the film, but by then their stories are nearly complete already.

When we meet Judah, he is surrounded by friends and family at an awards dinner in his honor.  Everything seems to be going well, but we learn that he has been having an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston).  Dolores is becoming a problem.  She’s calling the house over and over and threatening to tell Judah’s wife the truth.

Judah had promised her he’d leave his wife, but that clearly will not happen.  Worried that his entire life will crumble, Judah resorts to having her killed.  He anguishes over the decision, it’s certainly not his first choice, and he confides a patient, a rabbi named Ben.  Ben is also going blind, and that’s clearly a metaphor within the film.

So Dolores is killed, and Judah begins to unravel.  He starts to remember more of their good times together, and when he visits the scene of the crime, Judah is haunted by the void of nothingness he sees in her open, dead eyes.

This is when he experiences nightmares and flashbacks similar to Marion in Another Woman.  Judah walks in on conversations that he can only be imagining, and these interactions all have to deal with guilt, religion, god and morality.  Judah comes to believe that if he lets himself get over what he’s done, then he’ll be fine.  After all, he’s not a man of devout religious faith, unlike Ben the rabbi.

Now, Cliff is a documentary filmmaker whose work on the subject of Professor Levy is going nowhere.  In need of some money, his wife arranges a deal in which he will be the documentarian for her brother Lester (Alan Alda).  Lester is a filmmaker that Cliff despises, yet he goes through with the project anyway.  On set he meets Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), a producer who also has some distaste for Lester’s work.

Cliff is enamored with her right away, and he pursues an affair with promises that he would leave his own wife (very much echoing Judah’s empty promises).  But Halley is more reluctant, and she is playful with Lester’s own advances, much to Cliff’s chagrin.

In the end, Professor Levy commits suicide, so Cliff’s passion project goes out the window, Halley moves to London, and in the process Lester is so stubborn in pursuing her that they become engaged to be married.  Oh, and Cliff does in fact split up from his wife.

So at the wedding of blind rabbi Ben’s daughter, Cliff and Judah meet each other for the first time.  Judah seems to be in surprisingly good spirits, and Cliff is drinking away his sorrows.  Cliff jokes that he’s plotting a murder, and Judah responds saying he knows the perfect murder.  He goes on to explain his whole story with Dolores and then explains how he got over it by going on with his wife.  This is where Cliff says you could never get away with that kind of guilt, and we see their diverging world views.

So we are just the sum total of all our choices, and one of those choices is to be happy, even amongst some despicable actions.

That’s what I took away from the film, at least.  It’s not an indictment of Cliff and praise for Judah.  God, Judah’s disgusting.  He’s a small man, and he doesn’t want to own up to any of his mistakes, yet in the end he’s happy like he was before.

Cliff is angsty and unsatisfied with his marriage and his work from both a financial and a creative standpoint.  In the end Lester fires him, Halley rejects him, his wife and him break up and the subject of the project he cared most about committed suicide.

The role of Professor Levy shows an interesting duality of existence that Woody Allen likes to explore.  I’m not sure if “duality” is the right word, or I just liked the way it sounded.  Either way, Woody often explores existential questions, and yet he ends up focusing on what’s good about life, such as the little things like Tracy’s smile (Manhattan).  Professor Levy glows when he talks about life, but he also says that life requires us to buy in.  We live in an indifferent world, and we have to fill it with love: “human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.”

And at the same time, Levy was unhappy enough to jump out of a window.  This perplexes Cliff to no end, yet I think he will come to understand that it is okay to be happy.  One of the best parts of the film is the collection of scenes with Cliff and his young niece at the movies.  It’s heartwarming and entertaining to watch.  While with his wife, Cliff radiates positivity, saying how much he loves that kid.

So moments like those are the reasons to pursue live and fill it with love.  It’s funny then, that Judah is the one who has the more positive outlook, because, I need to reiterate, Judah’s the worst.  If you invited Judah to your party, he’d bring a bottle of wine and not share it with anyone the entire night, and then he’d meet someone, have a fling with her and then have her killed.

Yet there are people who rely on Judah, and despite all his whining about not being able to admit the affair to his wife, maybe there is some truth to what he says.  He should, no doubt, have admitted the affair and taken responsibility for what he did, yet that would destroy his wife and his daughter, presumably.  He compromises his mental health and bites the bullet.  God, how can it be sacrificial to order a hit on someone?  I’m talking myself out of this.  You know, I write about these movies and avoid any reviews before I’m finished writing, then I read Roger Ebert’s reviews, and he’s so well-spoken and makes so many good insights.  I’m just like “how did I miss that?”  I should organize my thoughts, but alas I do not.

Taking a step back, this film is remarkably similar to Match Point, and it shows one possible, yet extreme consequence of having an affair which at this point is a staple of Woody’s movies.  It’s treated so lightly in his other films that people have affairs and that’s that.  There are never any drastic consequences, and his characters can’t keep it in their pants.  They’re constantly looking for bigger and better things when it comes to other romances.  The grass is always greener, I suppose.

His characters really do make their own problems, and he’s said that before in Manhattan.  So here Judah really does make himself a big problem.  I guess Cliff did too, in the sense that he probably never really figured out the right career balance between making enough money to be comfortable and pursuing more creative projects.  His dislike of Lester is very childlike, and though we as the audience understand his feelings, it’s not professional at all, especially when Lester is doing him a favor.

But I loved this movie, it’s fairly gripping and engaging, even if it does seem to tell two separate stories and bounces back and forth between them.  I guess there’s something more entertaining about watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion.  We’re rooting (at least I was) for something to happen to Judah.  I wanted the other shoe to drop, and I wanted to watch it all come crashing down, yet it didn’t.

The other thing I noticed is just how far Woody had come (at this point in his career) as a filmmaker.  His dialogue is sharp and witty, and he does a good job of writing out each character.  Contrast this with his earlier work in Take the Money and Run in which it was just a collection of sketches and quick jokes thrown together with narration.  His earlier work, while funny, wasn’t remotely as engaging as some of his films in this part of his career.  He’s playing more with consequence and deeper emotions.

The emotions came first, well, I guess desire came first.  His characters in the slapstick comedies wanted things, but they never seemed to feel defeated if they didn’t get them, because tragedy isn’t funny.  Incidentally, Lester emphasizes multiple times that “tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

So in Take the Money and Bananas, for example, the character has a goal, but when it doesn’t work out, he just keep chugging along.  There was some desire, but it felt fleeting because when it didn’t work out, nothing happened.

But then in his more grounded films, the characters felt the pain of striking out. Alvy missed Annie, and Isaac longed for Tracy.  Not only did they have deeper desire, but they often were left feeling hopeless or looking for meaning in the strikeout.

So Woody Allen ran with the idea of desire and layered in characters who felt more deeply the pain but maybe not the joy.  In his dramas, his characters are all losing their minds, it seems.  Rather than find comfort in loss, they really struggle.  This all boils down to an existential fear of a number of things that equate to death.

So you have desire, leading to more emotional impact, and then you had a bunch of characters who all wanted things so badly that they were making mistakes for themselves.  It’s like he took the characters from his slapstick comedies, placed them in the real world and found out that they’re all making their lives more complicated than they needed to be.  Another character like this is Elliot from Hannah and Her Sisters.  He had a yearlong affair with his wife’s sister, and then nothing of consequence happened.

So all these people making their own problems, and Woody decided there must be a consequence greater than feeling sad.  So he added guilt.  We see some of that in Another Woman as Marion has her face rubbed in the mistakes she’s made and forced to accept them.  Then here you have Judah having his mistress murdered which is about as real as it gets, having him look her in the eye but only once she’s deceased.

So I guess all of that is to say that Woody isn’t letting his characters off the hook.  Their misbehavior has consequences, and jeez, I’m already over 2,000 words.

Lastly, this is what Woody said about this film: “Crimes And Misdemeanors is about people who don’t see. They don’t see themselves as others see them. They don’t see the right and wrong situations. And that was a strong metaphor in the movie”.

Up Next: Deepwater Horizon (2016), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1991)

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