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Crimes and Misdemeanors
★★★★★
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Woody Allen closes out the 1980s—his most prolific and accomplished decade (ten features in ten years plus one Broadway play and an entry in the anthology film New York Stories)—with, arguably, the best picture of his absurdly bounteous career. Crimes and Misdemeanors also acts as a compilation and distillation of the writer/director’s signature themes: courtship, marriage, and adultery; the role of morality in a post-sacred world; the way neurotic intellectuals obsess about aesthetic matters in order to avoid dealing with life’s unanswerable questions; the vast chasm between the ordered perfection found in art and the harsh randomness of life; and the finality of death.  Most fittingly, Allen’s eighteenth movie combines his gift for uproarious comedy with his fascination for tackling serious, lofty themes influenced by European art cinema and Russian novelists. 

Balancing two storylines, one dramatic and weighty, the other comedic but hardly frivolous, Crimes and Misdemeanors contains a plethora of memorable characters and boasts the kind of first-rate ensemble that typified Allen’s ‘80s output. This marked the first time he collaborated with most of the people he cast in this picture, and each role feels inhabited by the perfect actor—unlike the random celebrity groupings found in much of his later work.

The main story centers on a successful Jewish ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (played by the great Martin Landau in a rare lead role). Judah is happily married to the elegant Miriam (Claire Bloom) but has been carrying on an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston, in the first of two memorable turns she made in Allen movies). When Dolores begins pressuring Judah about their relationship, he seeks the advice of his friend and patient Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is slowly going blind. Though Judah was raised in the Jewish faith, he’s been skeptical about the existence of God all his life. He enjoys the introspective debate with Ben, but it provides no satisfactory answers to his predicament. He turns to his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a New York gangster who suggests that if his mistress is “causing problems” that “she can be gotten rid of.” While Judah’s first reaction to this suggestion is the shock and horror polite society dictates, he quickly begins to give the option serious consideration.

Nearly all of Allen's work possess sober philosophical underpinnings. In the case of his big-screen comedies, these intellectual elements are part of what give them their distinctive edge. But when he began to venture into serious drama, the subtexts were brought to the forefront where they could overpower his narratives. In his thirties, Allen became awestruck by European New Wave directors like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and his attempts to emulate these cinematic heroes often resulted in movies that play like extreme parodies or subpar remakes of the iconic pictures of those filmmakers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

But the principal influence on Crimes and Misdemeanors comes from literature rather than cinema. Allen borrows heavily from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. He would mine this literary classic three more times—in Match Point (2005), Cassandra's Dream (2007), and Irrational Man (2015)—with diminishing degrees of success. This first dip into this particular well, however, yielded a tremendous bounty. Allen’s judicious application of themes and narrative elements explored in Dostoevsky’s century-old opus comes across as original, personal, and distinctly contemporary.

That the picture never feels derivative or pretentious is due in large part to Allen’s unique practice of constant revision, where he would reassess and revise everything—including tone, characterization, cast, and core plot points—all the way through to the last stages of post-production—in order to make each film as good as it could possibly be.

Next to Annie Hall, which was completely transformed in the editing room from an abstract, cerebral satire into a quintessential romantic comedy (the rare romcom to win the Best Picture Oscar and set the standard for its genre for decades to come), the creation of Crimes and Misdemeanors represents the ultimate example of Allen’s unique artistic process. He is the only filmmaker since the demise of the studio system with the ability to treat each stage of writing, production, and post-production as a continuously evolving narrative experiment—and no writer or director during the age of the Hollywood studios ever had the level of artistic freedom over their work that Allen has enjoyed for the last forty years.

Allen would go on to make other worthwhile movies, but Crimes and Misdemeanors was (and I’m sure will be) his final truly great picture. In the 1990s he began to give up on the process that artistically served him so well for the first two decades of his career. Soon the qualities that made each of his films a special event, despite the fact that they were so plentiful and they covered a lot of the same narrative, thematic, and stylistic ground, was lost. But Allen judges his movies by his own narrow standards, and he would not agree with my assessment that the first twenty or so pictures he made are vastly superior to the second twenty. He has never cared at all about critics, box-office tallies, or awards, and has famously skipped every Oscar ceremony despite sixteen nominations and three wins. (The one exception he made was after 9/11, when he appeared live on the Oscar telecast for a brief but welcome return to stand-up, and to introduce his friend and fellow filmmaker Nora Ephron's montage celebrating movies shot in New York City.)

Allen measures the success of his work solely by how much the final version lines up with the way he envisioned it when writing the script. By the ‘90s he gave up on revising each film when its various pieces didn’t just fall into place. That’s the main reason all of the pictures he's made during the last two decades, even the decent ones, have felt so lazy and fall so short of their potential. He maintains that directing is all luck and that it’s impossible for a filmmaker to control either the outcome of a movie or the way the public receives it. His favorites of his own works are Stardust Memories (1980), Husbands and Wives (1992) and Match Point (2005) because they came out exactly the way he wanted them to, without requiring too much effort on his part. 

But during his first twenty years as a filmmaker, from Take the Money and Run (1968) through Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen made major adaptations to every picture based on how it was shaped by each individual and element involved in its production. Unlike more conventional auteurists like Alfred Hitchcock (who loved to say that he directed his movies on paper before shooting a single foot of film), Allen allowed his pictures to direct him as he went along—though often to his personal chagrin and disappointment.  While Allen always set out with a script he felt confident about, and though he could have his pick of actors (most everyone from Hollywood, theater, indie and world cinema was eager to work with him in the ‘80s, for the Screen Actor’s Guild minimum salary), what he captured on celluloid rarely came out as he’d envisioned on the page. These films self-determined where they needed to go and the filmmaker followed.

Working closely with his editor—Ralph Rosenblum from Take the Money and Run (1968) to Interiors (1978) and Susan E. Morse from Manhattan (1979) to Celebrity (1998)—Allen would cut together the footage he shot and assess what worked and what didn’t. He’d then rewrite and reshoot whatever wasn’t serving the picture, even if it contradicted his original intentions. By the beginning of the ‘80s, his budgets included a line item for additional photography that was about 20% of the total estimated cost. Since his movies were made for so little money, by Hollywood standards (his crew and locations were usually all in the city where he lived, and so many of his regular actors were also local), it wasn’t too much of an undertaking to shoot a significant amount of new material in the two to four weeks allotted in his schedules for post-production reshoots.

In the case of September (1987), his least artistically successful movie of the ‘80s, Allen rewrote, recast, and reshot the entire picture after putting his first version together—something that wasn’t quite as difficult as it might sound since he conceived and designed that production to be performed and photographed like a play on a single set. In his most commercially prosperous ‘80s offering, the multi Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), the funny, optimistic, and deeply satisfying ending was not part of his plan but rather the result of how the picture came together in terms of performances and editing. Allen was dismissive of that highly acclaimed movie, unhappy with how neatly everything tied up for the characters. He wanted the ending to play out closer to the way it would in “real life,” with the relationships remaining strained or unrequited. But everything came together so perfectly in that film, it would have been foolish for the director not to follow the cheery course dictated by his organically developing picture.

Crimes and Misdemeanors was, in many ways, a response to how Hannah turned out. In Eric Lax’s Conversations With Woody Allen, written around the time Crimes was finishing up, Allen told the biographer that he felt he had been “too nice” to the characters in Hannah, and this time he was determined to tell a much darker story with no chance of winding up with a comforting, happily-ever-after ending. Indeed Allen isn’t nice to any of the people in his script for Crimes—he literally shits on one of them! Once again, he wrote a script that focused on siblings; this time two brothers—Judah, the privileged Manhattan doctor, and Jack, the gangster from the New York underworld.

Allen hadn’t appeared in the three movies he’d made between Hannah and Crimes and all three of them had lost money (it didn’t help that September and Another Woman were attempts at serious drama that suffered from aggressively negative reviews). The heads of Orion Pictures—the studio that gave Allen (and so many other great filmmakers) the creative freedom in the ‘80s to make whatever movies they wanted however they wanted to make them provided they did it for a modest budget—asked Allen to consider writing a part for himself in his next script. He agreed, but Crimes and Misdemeanors ended up disproving the thinking that Woody Allen movies only made money when Woody Allen was in them. Despite being one of the most acclaimed pictures of 1989, Crimes failed to recoup its $19 million budget upon its release. 

The script was written sporadically on notebooks and the stationary of various hotels during an extended European holiday Allen took with his longtime romantic partner and most frequent leading lady, Mia Farrow. He planned the movie as a serious drama, but, as per his studio’s wishes, he wrote in a comic subplot with a small role for himself. His character, Clifford Stern, was to be a documentarian making a movie about a group of retired vaudeville performers living in a nursing home. Farrow would play Halley Reed, the married head of the institution whom Cliff develops a crush on. Cliff enlists his niece Jenny (played by Mike Nichols’ daughter Jenny Nichols) to help him spy on Halley when he discovers she might be having an affair. Halley eventually rejects Cliff’s romantic advances and he goes on to pursue an actress (played by Sean Young).  The film was always meant to end at the wedding of Rabbi Ben’s daughter, with most of the main characters in attendance. But in the original version, it was Judah and Ben who engage in a philosophical conversation away from the festivities. While the other guests dance, these two old friends discuss the weighty thematic matters of the movie until, suddenly, Cliff and his actress paramour are caught in a compromising position in front of the entire wedding party. 

All of this was filmed, but Allen was unhappy with the results after his first cut, and he decided to throw out practically everything he’d shot with his character and rewrite that section—the “misdemeanors” section—of the picture. Alan Alda’s role, as Cliff’s blowhard brother-in-law Lester, was originally conceived and shot as a cameo. But Allen was taken with the pompous TV producer Alda created in his brief amount of screen time. He also found Alda to be a skilled improviser whom he enjoyed playing off. So Allen dropped the concept of his character making a documentary about ageing vaudevillians and decided that Cliff should be tasked with directing a flattering television portrait of Lester, a man for whom Cliff has no respect. Halley Reed became an associate producer on this Lester project, with both Cliff and Lester developing a romantic interest in her.

This major narrative overhaul required reshooting over a third of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it transformed the picture from a potentially heavy-handed melodrama interrupted by moments of frivolous slapstick into a masterfully integrated work of existential drama and playfully sophisticated comedy.

The structure coalesced around the new Cliff storyline, which is the less profound but far more relatable of the two main plots. The humor became sharper—no longer mere comic relief but thematically potent. In fact, despite being primarily a bleak statement on the darkness that lurks within the soul of humanity, Crimes and Misdemeanors features some of the funniest one-liners in the entire Woody Allen cannon. The proceedings become downright giddy whenever Allen shares the screen with Alda. The overt antagonism between their characters enables an escalating series of witty put-downs, scathing observations, and hilariously clueless behavior from both men. All of this barbed jocularity enhances the film’s subtext concerning people’s inability to see: to see right from wrong; to see ourselves the way others see us; and to see past societal constructs created to obscure awful truths.

The new scenes improved the overall picture profoundly, sharpening each aspect of the narrative all the way through to its conclusion. Though still set in a quiet corner of the wedding reception hosted by Rabbi Ben, the culminating sequence now took on a more monumental significance. What was originally the continuation of an ongoing moral debate between Judah and Ben was changed to a first-time conversation between Judah and Cliff. In the first draft, the protagonists of the main plot and the subplot never crossed paths. Now they came together at the film’s ostensible climax—one man defeated yet still believing in some form of cosmic justice, the other luxuriating in the newly discovered power that comes with his realization that morality is a construct that can be ignored without consequence. The simple shot of Landau and Allen sitting together on a staircase dressed in tuxedoes at the end of a long night became the movie’s central image. It exemplifies how some of the most memorable moments in cinema are discovered rather than conceived.

Nothing about Crimes and Misdemeanors feels like it had to be “fixed” in editing. It all plays out via a meticulously constructed narrative, darting back and forth between parallel incidents that come off as solemn in Judah’s dramatic storyline and hilarious in Cliff’s comical one. The film also navigates time and space with a deft simplicity, with Judah moving between his present and memories of his past. Occasionally he even interacts with people from prior eras of life, the way Gena Rowlands’ Marion Post did in Allen’s previous picture Another Woman. Allen had often utilized similar techniques of dramatizing thought and memory, and he would continue to do so, but his use of such narrative devices has never felt as effortless as it does here.

Rather than rely on voiceover narration, inter-titles, or some other uninspired way of providing necessary new connective tissue between his two new narrative threads, Allen devised an amusing way to utilize clips from old movies to fill in the gaps and to slyly comment on what was going on in each story. Cliff frequently takes Jenny and eventually Halley to the Bleeker Street Cinema to watch revivals of classic films as an escape from the banality of life. This was hardly the first time Allen had incorporated old movies into one of his films—his characters find solace at cinemas in Play It Again Sam, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and her Sisters—but this is both his most playful and judicious celebration of his favorite medium.

Another late addition to Crimes and Misdemeanors was the character of Professor Louis Levy, the subject of an unfinished documentary that Cliff has been working on for ages. Allen’s friend Martin Bergmann, a world-renowned therapist and NYU psychology professor, plays this small role. Conceived as a hybrid of Bergmann, who specialized in the treatment of Holocaust survivors and their families, and the Italian Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, Professor Levy provides a kind of authoritative commentary on the paradoxes of the human condition that we all struggle with. Like the classic movie clips, the brief snippets of Cliff’s interview footage with Levy has the effect of pulling viewers back from the engrossing details of Allen’s twin stories and encouraging us to contemplate his larger thematic ideas—and this is all done without breaking the film’s narrative spell.

Allen wrote Crimes and Misdemeanors under the title Brothers, as the story’s fraternal aspect was more prominent in his original draft. Fortunately, that bland, single-word moniker was unavailable at the time, as it was in use by a cable TV sitcom.  When Eric Lax was interviewing Allen for his biography, the director was in the midst of coming up with a new title. Since the metaphor of vision, and religious and moral questioning, had risen in prominence over the various story changes, Allen was considering, “The Eyes of God,” “The Sight Of God,” “Windows Of The Soul,” and the laughably generic “Dark Visions,” but he wisely settled on Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is subtly descriptive and pays respectful homage to Dostoevsky. 

The film was not a financial success and it didn’t win any of the Academy Awards it was nominated for—Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Landau’s leading role. But it quickly rose in prominence as one of Allen’s greatest achievements, and it appeared on numerous Best of the ‘80s lists, even from critics who dislike most of Allen’s work.

But the film is even more relevant thirty years later. Allen’s choices in his personal life and the criminal accusation made against him that he was never tried for, draw direct parallels to the theme that rich and powerful men can avoid punishment for both their misdemeanors and their crimes as long as they can deny or rationalize their immoral behavior. It was only a few years after the release of this picture that Allen and Mia Farrow went through a bitter and very public break up that ensued after Farrow discovered Allen was having an affair with her nineteen-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. During the custody fight over the three children Allen and Farrow had adopted and conceived together, Farrow accused Allen of sexually molesting their seven-year-old daughter Dylan. These accusations were made again by Dylan Farrow as an adult before and after the start of the #MeToo movement that called out sexually predatory men, first in Hollywood and then in other fields.

The way the public now perceives what’s right and wrong is also so radically different thirty years after this picture was made that the fundamental American values and beliefs most of its characters hold seem quaint by today’s standards. There’s a Donald Trump reference in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but at the time the film was made, the idea that someone as morally compromised and flagrantly corrupt as Trump could be elected president of the United Sates, and championed by the same religious conservatives who backed Ronald Regan, was unthinkable. It now seems that all of us live in the “real world” that Judah describes to Ben and Cliff, which makes this movie—one of the very last films released in the 1980s—all the more timely.

NOTE: This is one of my 100 favorite films. An expanded version of this essay, paired with another favorite Allen film Broadway Danny Rose will soon be listed here: http://www.film5000.com/my-100-favorite-films

Twitter Capsule:
A wealthy philandering ophthalmologist deals with his unstable mistress, and a ne'er-do-well documentarian has his worst fears confirmed in this powerful and hilarious existential comedic drama. One of Woody Allen's greatest pictures, and one of the best films of the '80s.

Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut

Written by Woody Allen

With: Martin Landau, Anjelica Huston, Woody Allen, Jenny Nichols, Joanna Gleason, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, Jerry Orbach, Claire Bloom, Sam Waterston, Caroline Aaron, Jerry Zaks, Frances Conroy, Nora Ephron, Daryl Hannah, Fred Melamed, Mercedes Ruehl, Robin Bartlett, Dylan O'Sullivan Farrow, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Gregg Edelman, David S. Howard, Anna Berger, Hy Anzell, Sylvia Kauders, Victor Argo, and Martin S. Bergmann

Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Editing: Susan E. Morse

Runtime: 104 min
Release Date: 13 October 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color