Program Notes: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
There always have been two Woody Allens, one wearing the grinning mask of comedy and the other the anguished visage of tragedy. Today those two Woodys coexist quite nicely – but it wasn’t always so.
Prior to 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the Woodman tended to be either hilarious or dour, but neither at the same time.
His comedies were almost always well received. But his straight-faced dramas – Interiors, September, and Another Woman – tanked with both the critics and the public. At best these “serious” movies seemed little more than self-indulgence by a comic master who, we grudgingly admitted, had earned the right to make the movies he wanted – even if they were glum and laughless.
But the Woodys achieved a precarious, breathtaking balance in Crimes... The film is really two movies, one comic and one serious, but so cannily woven together that they cannot be pulled apart.
The “serious” story centers on Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful eye doctor with the respect of his colleagues, a loyal wife (Claire Bloom), a loving family and his fingers in several major charities.
Beneath that perfect exterior, though, Judah’s life is crumbling. For some time he’s had a mistress, a high-strung former flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). Dolores is tired of being a kept woman and keeps trying to confront Judah’s wife and family. Moreover, she knows that Judah has appropriated some of that charity money for his own use.
Judah’s lowlife brother (Jerry Orbach) matter-of-factly suggests hiring a hit man. Judah is aghast at the idea, but slowly comes to believe it’s his only option.
The second story – the funny one – centers on Cliff (Allen), a failed filmmaker who lands a job directing a PBS documentary about his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a successful maker of TV comedies.
Cliff despises Lester (who is prone to pronouncements like “If it bends it’s comedy; if it breaks it isn’t”) but he needs the gig. And at least he makes the acquaintance of Halley (Mia Farrow), a charming PBS producer.
Unfortunately for Cliff, the predatory Lester has an eye out for Halley as well, and a penniless documentary maker can’t compete with a millionaire “genius.”
Linking the two stories is a rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is connected to both Judah’s and Cliff’s families. He is the very image of a moral man – charitable, compassionate, and devoted to his religion.
He is also going blind, a condition which within this tale carries allegorical implications.
The Judah/Dolores plot is genuinely creepy. Landau captures precisely the attitudes of a seemingly good man who has been corrupted by power without even realizing it. Huston is simultaneously pathetic and maddening as the clinging mistress.
Meanwhile the Cliff/Lester rivalry provides vital comic relief while dealing with similar (though not so deadly) ethical issues.
This film has it all – the brainy comedy Allen’s fans have come to expect, plus a genuinely unsettling look at the potential for evil in each of us.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is being shown as part of the Searching the Psyche Through Cinema series co-sponsored by the Greater Kansas City and Topeka Psychoanalytic Center.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.