Published on March 6th, 2017 | by Clint Davis
Crimes and Misdemeanors 
Summary: Woody Allen channels Fitzgerald and Dostoyevsky in one his most inspired films. Tension and laughs come in nearly equal measure. Every performance is flawless.
R | 104 minutes
Director & Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow
Distribution: Orion Pictures
In HBO’s The Sopranos, the apartment of Christopher and Adriana felt like a tomb. It was claustrophobic, with tight hallways and thick blinds that were always drawn, allowing no natural light into its rooms. It was a brilliant use of visual foreshadowing, signaling the fates of those characters long before they were revealed. In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the apartment of Dolores Paley gives you the same feeling of dread.
In the 1980s, Allen made some of the best movies of his career. Films like Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig and Radio Days showed Hollywood’s most tireless writer-director at his most inspired. But he capped the decade with a true masterpiece.
Crimes and Misdemeanors follows a pair of men connected by troubled marriages and a feeling of desperation that accompanies that situation. Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, a wealthy and highly respected ophthalmologist whose mistress, the aforementioned Dolores, played by Anjelica Huston, is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. Woody Allen plays Cliff Stern, an idealistic but unsuccessful documentary filmmaker who suddenly falls in love with an intellectual movie producer named Halley, played by Mia Farrow, whom he can’t persuade into a romantic relationship.
The movie bounces back and forth between these two men—who only share one scene but are connected by a similar social circle—but Crimes and Misdemeanors is an ensemble film, filled with juicy supporting characters. In addition to Landau, Allen, Farrow and Huston, veteran actors like Alan Alda, Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach play substantial roles. In fact, there really is no “lead actor” in this film, as the Academy would claim when it nominated Landau for a best supporting actor Oscar despite him dominating the screen time … but we’ll get back to the Oscars in a bit.
Obviously this cast is impeccable but Allen’s directing was clearly in top form because every performance in this movie is flawless. Every scene contains an interaction between at least two actors at the top of their game. Allen is a notorious perfectionist and a demanding director and the fact that many of the scenes in Crimes and Misdemeanors are long, single takes loaded with dialogue makes the final product all the more impressive to watch.
For the script—which was nominated for an Oscar—Allen takes thematic cues from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, while I also saw elements of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Judah is successful man, at the top of his profession and with a loving family at home, but his wandering penis threatens to destroy the protected life he’s built. Enter Judah’s brother Jack, played by Jerry Orbach, a career criminal who owes Judah a favor and assures him his mistress, and his problems, “can be gotten rid of.”
Meanwhile, Cliff and his wife Wendy, played by Joanna Gleason, haven’t had sex in a year. He’s an angry, unfulfilled man who’s deeply resentful of his brother-in-law Lester, played by Alan Alda, a millionaire producer of TV sitcoms. Lester does Cliff a favor by hiring him to direct an “upbeat profile” of himself for a public television series about “creative minds.” While working on the project, Cliff gets close with Halley, becoming infatuated with her but obsessed with fear that she’ll end up dating Lester.
The stories of Judah and Cliff are fascinating character studies but perhaps my biggest knock against Crimes and Misdemeanors is I feel they don’t blend together perfectly. I feel Judah’s story is strong enough to carry its own film and is certainly the more arresting of the pair but Cliff’s story provides comic relief and a bit of romance, which balances out of the pitch-black tone of Judah’s plot nicely. In the end, I had a hard time connecting the journeys of the two men, other than to say that they both see their deepest fears about the nature of the world come to pass.
Aesthetically, this is a gorgeous film to watch. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist complements the tone of the story perfectly. Allen has made a career out of shooting New York and this movies features a few shots of the city that made me want to pause the action and gaze around the frame. But the close-up one-shots of Landau in his darkened home by a dying fire and of Allen reconsidering his place in the world in the film’s closing minutes are where Nykvist earns his money. This film probably should have counted best cinematography among its list of Oscar nominations.
In 1990, the Academy committed its own crimes and misdemeanors by not awarding this film with a single Oscar win. Crimes and Misdemeanors was nominated for three awards: best directing and original screenplay for Allen, best supporting actor for Landau. Neither this film or Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing were nominated for best picture, which Driving Miss Daisy won in one of the worst Oscar travesties of recent memory. As an aside, the best original screenplay category that year is staggering to look back on today, as Crimes and Misdemeanors was nominated alongside Do The Right Thing, Dead Poets Society (the winner), When Harry Met Sally and Sex, Lies and Videotape. These are legitimately five of the best modern American movies and the fact they were all nominees in a single year is incredible.
But I digress … On its surface, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a look at how men wield success and power. But between the lines, this film is as philosophical as anything Allen has ever created. Religion, faith, disbelief and nihilism are all at play in this story, with the latter two turning out to be virtues.
The two devoutly religious men in the film, Judah’s father Sol and Cliff’s other brother-in-law Ben, a rabbi who is also Judah’s patient, are painted as wise men who don’t necessarily prosper. Ben, played by Sam Waterston, offers Judah the most obvious solution to his problem: Confess to your wife of 26 years and hope she understands. But Judah refuses to give his wife any credit, likening himself to a deity in her eyes and saying it would crush her to know the truth. We only see Sol, played with wonderful dignity by David S. Howard, in flashbacks to Judah’s childhood. Sol’s lasting message to his son is that “The eyes of God are on us always.”
But do the eyes watching everyone in this upper-class New York story belong to God or, as Fitzgerald posited, do they belong to the soulless Dr. T.J. Eckleburg? It’s no coincidence that Judah spends his days working as an eye doctor.
By the end of the film, Ben is completely blind, his sight taken by a disease. It’s never clear what became of Sol but it’s assumed he died some time after Judah’s adolescence, as the only memories we see are from Judah’s youth.
From the film’s opening scene, we hear Judah profess that he never was a religious man. But, as he considers his final solution to the Dolores problem, his mind is flooded with the teachings of his father about God’s unwavering attention. “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah tells an imaginary Ben in one fantastic scene. But religion isn’t seen as a luxury in the world of Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s apparently a liability. It’s something that instills an unshakeable feeling of guilt in people who’ve done immoral things, rather than simply letting them move on and compartmentalize the bad deed in their own way.
It’s unclear where Cliff falls on the issue, but his admiration for Ben suggest he’s been open to faith throughout the story. But his revelation at the end of the film that human nature is as shallow as he feared—and that his heroes turned out to be disappointments—signal to me that he may swear off any belief in a higher power. After all, in a world where a misogynistic and self-important windbag like Lester can become a world-renowned authority on culture, described as “warm” and “charming” by a discerning, independent woman like Halley, how could one believe in anything?
“History is written by the winners,” Judah’s aunt, an atheist, says in a flashback to a family Seder meal. The sobering final scenes of Crimes and Misdemeanors seem to confirm her belief.
Watch the trailer for Crimes and Misdemeanors below