CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, 1989
Starring: Martin Landau; Anjelica Huston; Mia Farrow; Alan Alda; Claire Bloom; Woody Allen; Sam Waterston.
A distinguished doctor’s mistress threatens to ruin his life unless he leaves his wife. He’s driven to desperate measures; but will he be able to live with himself?
Nominated for 3 Oscars.
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Writer/director Woody Allen has worked outside of Hollywood for years, simply because he would not leave New York. He did not travel to the Oscars to receive statues for ‘Annie Hall’. Now he has loosened up a bit and shoots many of his films in Europe; he finds financing there. He puts out one film per year on average – they range from amazing to amusing to ahem. ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ sits assuredly in the amazing column; but with little fuss or fanfare and no car chases. This is a drama coupled with a humorous subplot and based on an age old question: does God see all? Is He keeping score? Or do we live in a godless moral vacuum? If you can dramatize this subject who needs car chases?
Judah Rosenthal (Landau) is an eye doctor; a wealthy, influential family man, a pillar of the community. At curtains rise he is receiving kudos at a black tie event for a lifetime of achievement. Beneath the surface of this a mistress, Dolores (Huston) threatens to bring the whole carnival crashing down -- unless he leaves his wife.
On the shoot Cliff meets Halley (Farrow) and immediately starts romancing her. This is the misdemeanor of the title. He knows he shouldn’t be doing it but his marriage is toast; he and his wife haven’t been sleeping together for a year – since Hitler’s birthday – so he’s a loose cannon.
In the meantime Judah is driven to the proverbial edge: Dolores threatens to expose some questionable financial dealings. Judah calls his brother Jack, a shady character with underworld connections. Jack suggests if the woman won’t listen to reason she can be gotten rid of and snuffed out. Judah is appalled at the suggestion; but as days pass and the pressures mount he falls in with the idea. A hitman is hired and the drama plays itself out. But will Judah be able to live with himself? Or will he confess to the crime and bring his brother and family down with him?
The two stories don’t intersect until the final frames. You hardly notice the wonderful supporting cast: Claire Bloom as Judah’s wife, Mirium: every scene she enters flows effortlessly through the warmth of her character’s personality. She does not get, nor does she require, a close up to achieve this. Another notable is Sam Waterston – he play’s Lester’s brother Ben, a rabbi who’s going blind. Jerry Orbach as Jack turns in a nice understated performance. Anjelica Huston is convincing as the neurotic girlfriend.
Allen’s script was nominated for an Oscar. His direction is beautifully economic. But for all the excellence in writing and direction and cinematography, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ rests squarely on the shoulders of Martin Landau. Without his masterful turn as the great man falling to low places it would be a lesser film.
As for the Big Question: the script toys with but never fully explores it. Allen cannot or will not imagine Rosenthal’s counterpart – a towering believer caught in a human trap – instead we have Cliff, hardly an Elmer Gantry, but excellent comic relief. This isn’t wrong; it’s simply not what we’re used to: and that can be very good. It’s as if Allen treats themes in his story like a jazz band would musical hooks. (Allen is also a jazz musician.) A theme serves as a loose platform for the performer: he can stick to it, but more likely will soar off topic into unimaginable directions.
The deck is stacked, then: as Judah’s storyline illustrates completely the ‘there is no God’ side of the argument: the counterpoint is underrepresented. But this is not drama along traditional lines, more a storey set to jazz – fun and pleasure are the ends. If you like your drama cut with humor, talent, irreverence and a whimsical search for the truth then this is the classic film for you – but no car chases.