100 Greatest Films of all time – 11: Crimes and Misdemeanours

by Laurent Kelly

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)  Directed and written by: Woody Allen  Starring: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Claire Bloom  OSCAR COUNT (0) – Nominated for Director, Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Landau) 

Crimes and Misdemeanours portrays two loosely linked stories which each show how life affirming notions of virtue and morality serve no real function in a world ruled by the rich and powerful. What makes the film outstanding is that its narrative leads one to anticipate that a sense of justice will prevail only to then to subvert this tone with a cruel ending that mirrors the harsh nature of everyday society. That Allen’s script also manages to incorporate deft comedy within these tragic tales without nullifying the impact of the drama speaks volumes about how masterfully it is crafted.

The two stories go back and forth throughout the film with the first scene introducing us to a highly acclaimed ophthalmologist named Judah who is accepting a prestigious award in front of the admiring eyes of his loving family and the adulation of the entire room. He doesn’t share their enthusiasm however because earlier in the day he has opened a letter intended for his wife from the woman he has been having an affair with named Dolores. Not only does the secret threaten to tear apart his comfortable family life but Dolores also knows about Judah stealing funds for projects which could also ruin his honoured reputation.

Judah goes through a period of torment over the issue culminating in a conversation with a rabbi patient who tells him that confessing to his wife could ultimately change their relationship for the better and that living in a world without moral rules is unthinkable. Judah considers confessing but instead decides to let his hitman brother make the problem go away by having Dolores killed in her apartment after pretending to deliver flowers. His brother tries to convince Judah that the woman was merely a dot on the planet whose death has kept his reputation safe but the man is haunted by his religious father’s words that “The eyes of God are always watching us.” In an important scene he then visits his childhood home and watches an old family conversation in which his aunt argues with his father about the ethics of life. His father maintains that he will always believe in God over the truth and that no man can wipe away sin from his mind whereas his aunt maintains that if a man is not guilty about his wrongdoing then morality pretty much serves no purpose. The man follows his aunt’s principle as he comes to realise that the passing of time makes his guilt start to fade and his life remains the same without any repercussions. A previously convicted motorbike rider is accused of the murder that he conducted and at the end he says that “What is one more murder to him?”. He has beaten the system and beaten the notion of evil intended to shy society away from perceived acts of wrongdoing.

The stench of injustice does however resonate with the viewer and the poor woman who became romantically involved with a successful man and then tried to seek vengeance in a world beyond her limits. It is heartbreaking to watch the flashbacks in which we see her falling for the married man and her gradual realisation that he is not going to leave behind his family and his rich lifestyle even at the price of seeking genuine happiness in her company. What makes it even more chilling is that there are no ramifications for her cold blooded murder despite the escalating guilt that starts to haunt the perpetrator. In the end the story showcases the reality that it is possible for the human mind to justify any incident that might otherwise haunt them and tear them apart.

The other story establishes a similar theme as a man falls for a woman who chooses to further her career rather than settling for the like minded warmth of a loving companion. Woody Allen plays a down on his luck documentary film-maker named Cliff Stern who sells his artistic soul to make a documentary about his wife’s successful but talentless comedian brother, Lester. On the set Cliff meets a likeable executive producer named Halley Reed and the pair take an instant shining to one another sharing a love for cinema and stimulating conversation. They also share a contempt for the womanising, pompous ass that they are making a film about which inspires Cliff to reveal to the star a final picture which makes a mockery of its subject instead of glorifying his wisdom and his accomplishments. Cliff is fired from his position but laughs throughout the screening, happy that he maintained his artistic integrity instead of helping to praise someone whose work and personality he detests. The joke is on him however as Halley accepts Lester’s advances safe in the knowledge that a relationship with the star will help her to be creative and advance within her own career even if she doesn’t really love the man she’ll most likely go on to marry.. Cliff is utterly distraught that she would sell herself out in this manner with the pair reuniting in a beautifully written scene in which she returns his carefully written love letter and in spite of his heartbreak Cliff concedes that he plagiarized most of it from novelist James Joyce which is why “it contains so many references to Dublin.”

Finally the two main characters engage in conversation as members of the same wedding party and sum up the thematic drive of the story as Judah confesses his sins to Cliff but disguises the content as an idea for a film. Allen is perplexed by the injustice that emanates from the tale but Judah informs him that it resembles reality and that if “you want a fairytale then you should stick with Hollywood.” Crimes and Misdeameanours is indeed the anti-fairytale, about how most people will choose materialism over real pleasure and how happy, justice-ridden endings do not really exist. Of the two victims of the story, one loses her life and the other his wife, a woman he loves and the job that might have given him opportunities to develop a name within the industry that he has a passion for. The film shows that sometimes it’s better to just play by the rules as unfair as they may seem because the alternative can often result in a far greater tragedy.

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