, 104 min, 1989
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Bill Bernstein
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is an existential dramedy about no less than the Silence of God in an unjust and immoral universe. Here, he is truly working in the upper echelons with his idol Ingmar Bergman.
Allen takes two separate stories, gives them equal screen-time, and then dovetails them at the end. We first meet Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), an opthamologist who has partaken in some shady business dealings, and has been carrying on an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). When Dolores gives him an ultimatum about leaving his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), Judah panics and must find a way to shut her up. He has few confidantes, including Ben (Sam Waterston), his rabbi who is gradually going blind, and his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a thug with criminal connections who may be able to solve Judah’s problems with a perfect murder. But could he live with the guilt?
On the relatively higher moral road, there’s Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), a down on his luck, unhappily married schlub of a documentary filmmaker who has had little success in his career; as the film opens he’s in the process of shooting a film about an old philosophy professor. His wife (Joanna Gleason) asks her smarmy, lecherous brother Lester (Alan Alda), a successful TV producer, to throw her husband a bone by letting him direct a public access TV documentary profile of him. Cliff begrudgingly accepts, meets a quick-witted and quirky associate producer named Halley Reed (Mia Farrow, Allen’s ill-fated real-life paramour), and is so smitten he contemplates adultery.
What we have here then is a profoundly successful family man who is willing to contemplate the ultimate evil to extricate himself from an implacable moral dilemma, regardless of the consequences, and another man who is less-than-successful, wants what he can’t have, and is too self-constricted to do what is necessary to make himself happy. It is this kind of high-and-low “class” system juxtaposition that Shakespeare used to make so elegantly.
The performances are all pitch-perfect, from the trademark wise-cracking nebbish that Allen plays so well, to the egotistical Alda, to the tortured Landau and the clever Farrow.
Writer-director Woody Allen has had many phases in his career, including zany comedies (Bananas, Sleepers), dour dramas (Interiors, Another Woman) and serious contemplations of romantic relationships (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters). Here, the comedy comes largely from the Cliff story, and it is Judah’s story that, inevitably, is the memorably thought-provoking one. Working with cinematographer Sven Nykvist (a veteran of such Ingmar Bergman films as Persona and Fanny and Alexander), Allen here contemplates some of the same questions that Bergman himself once considered: Is there a God? If so, how can such evil be abided? Why does he stay silent?
In these two tenuously connected stories, Allen has created his most profound film (also one of his funniest), and has reinvented himself yet again. This is one of the year’s best films.