After the amuse bouche of Oedipus Wrecks comes the main course in terms of existential crisis and bravura filmmaking from Woody Allen: Crimes and Misdemeanors. This is one of my favourite of his films, and it is often held up as one of the director’s very best. I think it was the first of his films I ever owned, an old pan-and-scan VHS copy, and it was a pleasure to watch again this week on DVD. It’s not only endlessly intriguing on so many levels, both as a beautifully constructed film and as a philosophical discussion, but it is also consistently enjoyable.
Like Hannah and her Sisters, the plot of this film covers the tangled relationships between family members, colleagues and friends in contemporary New York. Judah (Martin Landau) is a highly respected ophthalmologist who turns to his gangster brother in desperation when his mistress threatens to undo his perfect life. Meanwhile, Cliff (Woody Allen), is a struggling documentary filmmaker who agrees to make a puff-piece on his highly successful (and highly vain) TV producer brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda).
Going against all of his religious upbringing, Judah arranges for his mistress to be murdered. At the same time, Cliff falls in love with his documentary producer, Halley (Mia Farrow). Spoiler alert for a film that’s now 25 years old: neither story pays off as expected. Judah gets away with murder, and in fact is not even bothered by immorality of it by the end. At the same time, Cliff’s worst nightmare is realised when Halley falls for the vacuous Lester.
Woody Allen has said in various interviews that he wanted to make this film to demonstrate that there is no god. For me what is even more remarkable than that ambition, or whether or not he succeeds, is that with such a guiding theme the film could be so entertaining. And it’s entertaining not so much as a traditional thriller (like Match Point), but as an unexpected comedy. There are a host of wonderful one-liners and funny scenes with Cliff’s story that counterpoint with the overwhelming existential problems that Judah must consider.
In the end both stories come together at a wedding, where the two main characters finally meet and Judah relays his plot to Cliff as a good idea for a murder film. Cliff won’t accept it, while Judah insists that wicked deeds going unpunished is more like what happens in real life every day. Interestingly when I loaned a copy of this film to a movie director who hadn’t seen it, that’s what appealed to him the most: that unlike the stories we tell ourselves and the films we watch, evil triumphs.
By now in his career, Woody the director was just as inventive and surefooted as Woody the writer. Not only do the multiple strands of plot weave together, including several subplots I haven’t mentioned above, but there are flashbacks and memories that are very subtly executed. Judah will stare into space and think about his mistress, or sitting at the dinner table as a boy with his very religious family while his father insisted that always, ‘murder will out’. Speaking of murder, the lead up to the murder scene is edge-of-the-seat stuff, with a Schubert quartet taking over the soundtrack very effectively.
Then there is the way Woody explores his theme of eyes and watching. Judah is an eye doctor who doesn’t agree with his mistress (played by Anjelica Huston) that the eyes are the window to the soul; later her cold dead eyes will stare up at him. A rabbi (played by Woody regular Waterston) is going blind; a metaphor for the fact that he can’t or won’t see the uncaring universe around him. Cliff sees Lester through his documentary camera lens; and when the documentary compares him to Mussolini, Lester can’t believe others could see him like this. And then there’s the final song on the soundtrack: ‘I’ll be Seeing You’.
“The eyes of God are on us always,” Judah remembers his pious father telling him. Crimes and Misdemeanors argues that may not be the case. Lester, meanwhile, repeats his universal truth: “If it bends it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.” This film both bends and breaks. It might just be Woody’s best at bringing together so many of his grandest themes with pitch-perfect performances across the board realising some of his most engaging and wittiest characters. Unlike so many of his so-called serious films, Crimes and Misdemeanors is one that lingers in your mind, and one that stands up to multiple viewings.
Next week: Alice