Thursday 6 January 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989]

Some Woody Allen aficionados consider Crimes and Misdemeanors as his best film. Though I disagree with that – in my humble opinion, Annie Hall and Manhattan still rank, perhaps along with Hannah and Her Sisters, as his best of what I’ve seen so far – that in no way means I don’t think highly of this film. In fact, this is an extremely competent, well-rounded and mature work of Allen, and has combined an ultra-serious sub-plot with an Allenesque tragi-comedic counterpart in a single film with utmost ease. The former is about an ageing, wealthy and well-respected doctor (Martin Landau), whose seemingly perfect life is at the brink of collapsing courtesy his volatile mistress (Angelica Huston) who is impossible to reason with, and that forces the man to consider alternate routes out of desperation. The latter sub-plot is about a documentary filmmaker (Woody Allen) who is given a chance to make some money by filming the life of one person he detests with all his heart – his successful and pompous brother-in-law, and this gets him introduced to a TV producer (Mia Farrow) who he finds himself falling for, but with tragic consequences. As has been mentioned by another reviewer, despite the differing tones of the two parallel strands, both seem to end in notes of sadness and regret. The film has addressed a number of complex themes, including morality, infidelity and self-destructive (and unrequited) love, and Landau and Allen have represented the two sides of a coin with simplicity and brilliance.

Note: My recent review of the film can be found here

Director: Woody Allen
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Psychological Drama/Social Satire/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US


Dennis Polifroni said...

Whether the general consensus on Woody Allen's canon of work lean more towards films like ANNIE HALL and HANNAH, the facts remain that, along with INTERIORS (1978), CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS is Allen's most probing examination on the subjects plaque his questioning mind (INTERIORS saw things like death and suicide, CRIMES focuses on guilt and morality).

Allen has, more than any one of the major American directors of the 70's, championed the examination of his own neuroses as fodder for his film work and I find it fascinating that a man who is so much in the public eye would be brave enough to air his personal concerns as a way of examining his own life. With CRIMES, he brilliantly reasons that the morality of the individual is solely based on his his/her own conclusions to events that have shaped personal periods of introspection in their lives.

Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau, in his very best performance), finds out that the eyes of God may not always be watching him and that if the individual who is responsible for senseless horror can walk away from the guilt of a massive crime without drawing attention to him/herself then no harm no-no foul, the life goes on and happiness can, indeed be found.

The conundrum of all of this, however, is that we sense that the individual is forever hardened in a way that makes the individual really a mask of the person that once existed before they commited the heinous act and that a sort of fake reality, fake satisfaction that is derived by the idea that "they" did "what needed to be done" is all they need to continue on in the wake of private devastation. Judah has killed out of convenience and, in the end, he has used convenience to forgive himself when no eyes on the prize are looking his way....

The film is about a forced perspective that only those in the thick of the situation will recognize. It's a film about wrestling a forced implosion before the imlosion takes on devastating proportions and how the voices of the past will, at times, rescue (for good or bad)us from making the invited grief take a strangle hold on everything we are about.

Dennis Polifroni said...

Now, don't get me wrong...

I happen to love all of Allen's films (yes, even movies like SHADOWS AND FOG and CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION)and this is solely because I feel the director is not so much concerned with his viewers as he is concerned with using his art as a way of working through his own personal introspections.

The thing with Allen is that I believe he sees his films as way of shedding his problems from his thinking and uses them as a way to move on to the next problem. I honestly believe that once he has made a film he has then cleared his thought process and given room to his next dilemma in life.

CRIMES works on so many levels that it screams to be seen as his very best film insomuch that he has rarely drawn water from this type of well. It is an unsafe place that he takes us to with CRIMES and it also reveals the very darkest corners of his thought process. Most of his films deal with the funny, often bizarre nature of romance and realtionships, and that's fine, but here he is taking on much bigger game. He's addressing themes that don't often get spoken of and, for that alone, the film screams for recognition.

What I think I love most about this film is that Allen uses many of the techniques that made ANNIE HALL and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS work so well and the use of flashback is one of the techniques that becomes immediately apparent.

Judah walks back in time to see himself and key moments in his life as a way of putting some kind of cogent understanding towards the big questions he is facing. "Is there a way out?" seems to be the biggest dilemma one would be grasping as the deeper the abyss gets under our feet when the unthinkable makes itself known. By referencing his own childhood and the people that would be integral the building of who he is as an adult, Allen comments that we are all children finding our way even into the far reaches of old age when we SHOULD know better.

Then there is the irony of the piece...

That Ben (Sam Waterston), the all knowing and advising Rabbi that warns Judah of the consequences of his foul deed, is stricken blind only goes to support the idea that blind faith will often keep the person living in reality of life from seeing the truth of the matter at hand. In this way, I feel Allen is hitting a raw nerve for those that often ponder the fine lines between faith and real life and he lets us ponder the validity of faith that has, so often, failed those that adhere to it as if there very life depends on it.

I know it sounds crazy to make this comparison, but has anyone ever wondered why a fool like Homer Simpson lives a happy life in the face of disaster week in and week out on THE SIMPSONS? The idea, and it is a valid one, is that those who don't think too hard about the responses to their actions don't really see a problem in the first place and, like Judah exposes in the final scene of CRIMES, the one that doesn't allow the guilt of a matter to get to him is "scott free".

This is, of course, one of the darkest moral conclusions in life and certainly the darkest conclsion for a film by Woody Allen. However, as a realist, I also find it refreshing to see Allen tackle and deliver on a subject that nobody would have seen him nurture from a mile away.

Simply put, this is the most challenging and thought provoking of all of the directors many wonderful films and its themes have haunted me since I saw this film in its original run in 1989...

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a ton Dennis for such a detailed and intellectually-stimulating post, and for expressing your deep love for this movie. As I said, I do think highly of Crimes & Misdemeanors, even if I'm not as passionate about it as you are.

I agree it would rank among his darkest films, though I don't know if it ought to be called THE darkest film that Woody Allen ever made. Nearly all his masterpieces involve humour on themes that are sacrosanct to many, themes like religious belief, god, unrequited love, infidelity, trust & betrayal, family bonding, human life & existence, etc. But yes, by introducing a subtle yet palpable commentary on morality here, the film certainly took Allen's oeuvre in an altogether new direction.

As you mentioned, the film does contain some fantastic moments. The flashback sequence was quite brilliantly done, and not just Allen's other movies, it also reminded me of a similar scene in Bergman's Wild Strawberries. It showed how trapped one can be in one's past, so much so that one even starts interacting to people who perhaps played integral roles in defining who the person (Judah, in this case) is today.

I do admire the kind of admiration you have for Woody Allen's films, and your deconstruction of his body of work. I too have admiration for Allen's genius and his propensity towards, as you aptly mentioned, using art for exploring his personal reflections. Cinema, for him, is thus a mostly an intensely personal medium for expressing his mind and evaluating his thought-processes. In that I feel, some of the greatest works of some of the greatest filmmakers like Scorcese, Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, etc., are in essence personal journeys for these filmmakers. And I feel that would hold well for the other mediums of art as well, perhaps more so.

I'm quite glad that you provided such a vivid and detailed analysis of the film. I love reading what fellow cinephiles have to say about a film, especially ones that I have liked. And your take on Crimes was indeed an extremely enriching and memorable read. Thank you so much for sparing so much time in revealing your views on the film, its context, its themes, and also on Woody Allen's filmography in general.

Thanks a lot Dennis, and I sincerely hope to see you more often at this humble place of mine.

Dennis Polifroni said...


I aprec iate the warm thanks, but I'd have done the same on any site that featured this tremendous film...

The difference from this site to those is simple...

You are an extremely gracious host and, as I and others have seen on my home-site WONDERS IN TH DARK, you exude a friendliness that is recognized in your writing almost immediately. I was honored that you'd invite me to say a few words here at your place.

As for CRIMES, the film has haunted me for many years since I first layed eyes on it and some of it's singular moments have penetrated my sub-conscience forever after. I remember being particularly struck by the honesty of Allen's dioloque in some of the key dramatic sequences of the film (most notable the argument Judah has with Deloros in the car during the rain storm). I have been through a few nasty break-ups in my life and I felt a kinship with the emotions on display in that scene. As for the rest, I cannot think there is a person alive in the world today that hasn't at least fantasized about doing away with an enemy and the slow, gradual realizations that come over Judah and his recognition to his anger and fear are universal feelings that creep up on us all at some point in life.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with your references to Bergman and, particularly, WILD STRAWBERRIES and I am instantly reminded of the same exact sequence you speak of in that great film from Sweden every time I see CRIMES.

I think what Woody Allen is trying to say, ultimately, is that people, for the most part, have an evil side to themselves and it onoly really surfaces when the greedy tendencies to get what we want hit a fevered and hysterical pitch. Like Judah, we can all act violently and viciously when backed into an uncomfortable corner like an animal struggling for survival.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot Daniel for the good words. Thank you for the kindness. I'm quite glad and honoured too, that you liked my humble site and posted your critical opinions here. It sure has been a pleasure reading them and being part of this conversation. I've already forged a great relationship with Sam Juliano, and it really great that I might be on the verge of striking a solid acquaintance with another member of WitD, a site that I'm really fond of and love visiting,

Yeah, the film's honesty is surely something that one carries with oneself for a long time after viewing it. And by juxtaposing a tragi-comic story with a deadly serious one, the moralities & themes propounded by the latter felt so much more impacting. In fact, even the tragi-comic storyline gained a lot of poignancy thanks to the juxtaposition.

I agree the basic motif of Judah's story is as universal and it is eternal. In moments of rage/panic/desperation, one often thinks of doing the unthinkable. And some even go ahead with those carefully laid-out plans. Only later, when the debilitating cause for worry subsides, and one gets to reflect, does one ralise the true extent of his action, and desperately tries to hang onto something despite knowing full well that his actions can not be undone.

So, even though I've never been in Judah's situation or faced the kind of predicament that he faced, I completely understand what he did, and why he did what he did. And in a sense, I wasn't really aghast at what he did. After all, at the end of the day, one has to look out for oneself and one's closed ones. And though a crime, sometimes that does become a necessity, a real politic if you will.

Thank you again Daniel. Do keep visiting. I look forward to having more such conversations with you in the future.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, this is a comment thread for the ages Shubhajit, and one that I just got to today, sorry to say. But I've read through Dennis's brilliant observations on this film and on Allen in general and am further enriched, even while know where he stood (and where I stand too as a long-time admirer) Your original capsule of course peeled away the gauze.