As someone who prefers Woody Allen’s stand-up comedy to his films, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) gave me new-found respect for his work. The film begins with a banquet celebrating Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist and a highly respected man in his Jewish community. He has worked hard to secure a privileged position in life, so when he finds his equilibrium threatened, he is faced with a moral and philosophical dilemma.
A 2-year love affair with flight attendant Dolores (Anjelica Huston) becomes problematic when he comes across a letter from her addressed to his wife, revealing their affair and threatening to destroy his carefully constructed image. She is done waiting, has “put off business opportunities” and turned down other men for him according to her. She deserves to get what she claims was promised: marriage, security, and basic acknowledgment. The viewer sympathises with her character, growing more desperate with each scene she plays in.
Dolores makes the tactical mistake of reminding Judah she is aware of his “financial improprieties” and illegal moving around of funds to maintain his comfortable situation. It is at this moment he feels truly threatened, not only menacing to ruin his private life but also his professional one.
Presented with the opportunity to arrange her murder, it soon becomes the only viable option in Judah’s mind to put an end to his misery. This is a constant trait of this man of so called morals – he is perpetually concerned with his image, his life, his comfort. Where this is an immoral thing to do, his choice is very simple: to allow Delores to destroy his life completely or to eliminate her and carry on with his life unaffected. Judah Rosenthal is a man of probity, and due to his long-standing reputation is therefore exempt from any association to this crime – he is a man beyond suspicion.
Running parallel to this storyline is that of Cliff (Woody Allen), a now out-of-work newsreel editor who also is also involved in a passionless marriage and adultery. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the film’s format is Shakespearean: “The crimes of kings are mirrored for comic effect in the foibles of the lower orders”, and Cliff certainly brings comedy in this tragedy. Both him and his wife Wendy (Joanna Gleason) are clearly fed up with each other, but unlike Judah, he does not have any appearances to keep up.
It is through Wendy’s two brothers Lester (Alan Alda) and Ben (Sam Waterston) that Cliff’s and Judah’s lives intertwine. Ben’s character is intriguing, he is a Rabbi who, going blind, is treated by Judah. Underlined by Judah’s growing guilty conscience of getting away with murder, Ben’s presence and loss of eyesight evokes the possibility that God, who’s “eyes are always on us”, may have a tendency to turn a blind eye to evil. Throughout Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen does a brilliant job of suggesting that God merely exists if one lives in the fear of Him, basing all of one’s actions and decisions on the fear of a vengeful God.
Lester is the polar opposite to Ben, a charismatic TV sitcom producer. The embodiment of everything Cliff despises, he is less than thrilled when, as “a favour to Wendy”, Lester gives him the opportunity to work on a documentary about Lester himself. “You weren’t my first choice” he matter-of-factly tells Cliff – neither of them want this to happen. Whilst on the production of Lester’s documentary, Cliff meets Halley (Mia Farrow), becomes infatuated with her after multiple instances of watching and working on film together, yet of course looses her to Lester.
Cliff’s comparison of Lester to Mussolini is his step too far and seems genuinely surprised as to why this should get him fired, this was his way of using the cinematic lens as a tool to expose someone’s true nature. Lester’s character comes across as the continuation of Alan Alda’s famous role as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H (1972-1983). He is the same endearing, delightful character we watched for 11 seasons, making it not seem impossible that this is the post-war life of the talented surgeon. His hair may have grayed, but certainly not his charm and natural magnetism.
At Ben’s daughter’s wedding, the two protagonists end up “plotting the perfect murder” for a film scenario. Inconspicuously, Judah tells his story in the form of a potential movie plot, and reveals that after a lot of rationalizing, he feels no remorse and is now at peace with his actions. Cliff disagrees with this ending, “how could he live with himself?” he asks Judah. Cliff is a man of morals and philosophy, who ironically by the end of the film has suffered professionally, romantically and ideologically. Judah has abandoned his morals and has thus been able to continue his life of wealth and privilege, he has stopped living in fear of a higher power.
Allen therefore displaces the punishment immoral characters deserved but never received: the wicked are rewarded, the guilty left to languish, and the believer blinded.