He’s out there. Yes he is. And he’s far scarier than Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Anton Chigurh, or any of the other cartoonish murderers served up by American cinema over the last three decades or so since slasher and serial killer films came into vogue. The reason is because he is far realer. There are more of him out there, in real life. He is not some freakish killer who hides in the corner of society, doing ghoulish things and masturbating over it. No. He is in the mainstream, and for every person, in real life, that is killed in the Hollywood style depicted in films that star the above named ghouls, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of human beings killed in the very way that he killed. They are murdered, as a way of doing business, as a seeming necessity for someone to retain their privilege. There is no indulgence in the passions and perversions that the gory monster sort of killers in cinema indulge in. No, they are strictly business-like. Efficient, emotionless. Professional. They are all exemplified in perhaps the most realistic embodiment of murderous evil put on to the silver screen. That character is Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau, in Woody Allen’s masterful 1989 film, Crimes And Misdemeanors- a work that far supersedes the work of art it is almost always compared to, Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Crime And Punishment, and provides a glorious capstone to Allen’s greatest decade in film, one which opened with his phenomenal 1980 masterpiece, Stardust Memories.
The film opens with an awards dinner for a noted New York City ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). We soon find out that, despite being married to Miriam (Claire Bloom), Judah is having an affair with a younger stewardess named Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). It has gone on for a couple of years, and while Judah wants to end things, Dolores gets increasingly obsessive and demanding, claiming that he promised her things, she gave up things for him, and that she wants him to end his marriage. In many ways, this aspect of the film superficially resembles 1987’s Fatal Attraction, save that it is far more realistic; even in the scenes where Dolores harasses and stalks Judah’s family, then demands he meet her down the road from their home, in the midst of a thunderstorm. This is where Judah has turned to his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a man with connections to Underworld figures, and who owes favors to his older brother. In a deftly scripted scene, Judah invites Jack up from Manhattan to his suburban home, and the two men walk out to his guest house. Once there, Jack suggests he confess the affair to Miriam, but Judah says she has too much invested in their marriage and her position in the community. Perhaps the film’s lone minor flaw is that we never see any of Miriam’s life, so the viewer can only assume his wife is as vain and shallow as he proclaims. Nonetheless, Jack suggests that Dolores can be gotten rid of. Judah feigns shock at the suggestion, but clearly he has invited his brother up for just that purpose, so he can let Jack be the ‘bad’ guy in the scheme of murder he was hatching all along. This is because not only is he worried of the affair, but Dolores knows that he was involved in ‘questionable’ handling of financial affairs at the hospital he is affiliated with. Her plan is to blackmail him into a divorce and marrying her. It’s not until the threats escalate to the scene in the rain that Judah decided to phone his brother, and proceed with what they discussed.
But, Judah has not only confessed his affair to his brother, but also to a family friend named Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is under Judah’s care, for he is going blind. Interestingly, both the criminally murderous Jack and the virtuous rabbinical Ben give the exact same advice to Judah, to confess his affair to Miriam, and it is Judah who rejects that, displaying that he, as well as his brother, has a depraved soul. Judah feels the cosmos has no order and is hostile, whereas Ben believes that the universe has a moral order and a compassionate creator. Ben has two siblings, Lester (Alan Alda), a successful millionaire tv producer of lowest common denominator schlock. He is the typical slick, insincere, Hollywood hack that real artists loathe. Ben and Lester also have a sister named Wendy (Joanna Gleason), who is in a dying marriage to an obscure documentary filmmaker named Cliff Stern (Allen). Because of his financial struggles, Lester tosses a bone to his sister’s husband, and wants him to direct an episode of a PBS show dedicate to Creative Minds. Cliff is aghast, but takes the job. Both he and Lester soon begin a pursuit of a divorced producer for the television series, named Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Cliff is married, but a nice guy, and Halley constantly rebuffs his advances, preferring to concentrate on possible funding she can get for him to do another episode for her show, on a philosophy professor named Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann), a Holocaust survivor, seen only in film clips, where he spouts off on assorted subjects.
Meanwhile, Judah and Jack’s murder plan is carried out, with well-edited scenes of a hitman stalking Dolores to the tune of Schubert’s String Quartet No.15. Judah then starts having a mental breakdown, to the point of almost confessing. There are several great scenes that illustrate his breakdown- getting a seemingly imaginary phone call in the middle of the night (Dolores’ wraith?), flying off the handle at his family, and a bravura scene where he goes to her apartment to retrieve incriminating information that could link him to her murder. There, he sees her lifeless, open eyes, and is impinged upon by them. Cliff, meanwhile, takes vengeance on Lester for his pursuit of Halley by slanting the film on him negatively. In a hilarious scene, he intercuts footage of Benito Mussolini and Francis the Talking Mule with surreptitious footage that shows Lester as the avaricious and libidinous slimeball he is. Lester fires Cliff, who pursues Halley even more, until she decided to spend a few months in London. Additionally, Levy commits suicide by leaving a simple note, ‘I’ve gone out the window.’ This is a nice nod to La Dolce Vita, wherein that film’s intellectual, Steiner, also abruptly kills himself (albeit Steiner also kills his children), thereby invalidating the seductive messages both imparted to their devotees.
After a few months pass, the film has all its characters winding up at the wedding of Ben the rabbi’s daughter. There, Cliff finds out that Lester followed Halley to London, wooed and won her heart. This shatters Cliff's illusions about her and life. His own marriage has also come apart, and Wendy tells Lester of this, and he is ecstatic. After a confrontation with Halley, who confirms Cliff’s worst fears about her nature, he heads off to be alone, and is joined by Judah. Once there, Cliff tells him how he’d love to murder someone (presumably Lester or Halley), and Judah counters that he has a great and chilling murder tale for a movie, having heard that Cliff makes films. He relates basically all that the viewer has seen to that point, then fills in the details the passage of time has not shown. He and his family went on a European vacation, and instead of being punished by the cosmos, he prospered, and one day, he was no longer gnawed at by guilt. The murder of Dolores was attributed to a drifter who had murdered some others, so what the hell was one more? Cliff then suggests that Judah’s hypothetical character’s worst fears are thus realized- there is no God and evil prospers. Judah counters that he warned him the tale was chilling. Cliff then says that the hypothetical killer should turn himself in to the police, for then he becomes his own God, and the tale takes on a tragic element. Judah responds that that is fiction, not real life, and that he’s seen too many Hollywood movies. He then joins Miriam, and leaves Cliff behind, as the final scenes of the film play out to this outro from Professor Levy’s film: ‘We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.’ The final visuals of the film are on the callow and deluded Ben the blind man dancing with his daughter, oblivious to the unfairness and evil that surrounds him in his temporal bubble of joy.
It is a perfect end to as close to a perfect screenplay as ever penned, and having watched it, for maybe the eighth or ninth time since its release, it is almost a perfect example of why intellectual excellence is a necessity for great art, whereas emotional power is not. Emotions like joy and love are far too transient and subjective to base any deep art upon, whereas vision, insight, and intelligence are both fodder and tools for art. That’s not to say that the film lacks emotion. It has it; but its greatness rests on its intellectual heft, for intellectually based great art always fills the mind and seeps down into the soul, as well. But films that, based in emotion primarily, even if they have some excellent elements, almost never achieve the reverse, seepage up from the soul to satisfy the intellect. This is because, while human beings can viscerally react to sensory input on an emotional level- bright colors, large sounds, dramatic moments, they do so animalistically. But, when confronted with art that is based primarily on a great idea, well executed, and one that uses emotion as a tool, not the main thrust, viewers react in essentially human ways- with their curiosity stirred. Think about it- when humans have their animalistic passions stirred, how often are they capable of turning philosophic about whatever it is that stirred them? But, when a person is excited intellectually, a pleasure and satisfaction ensues, and these serve as entrees into joy and other emotions. Simply put, animalistic emotion is easy, whereas human cogitation is not. But, the thing that achieves the latter has an easy path down into the former. If one can run a mile swiftly, a hundred yards is nothing. The reverse is not true.
While the film serves as a great example, externally, about the utility of intellect in art, internally, it is a great discourse on ethics and morality, and the differences between the two. I have long argued that morals are a belief system alien to humans, imposed from without by a religious framework, whereas ethics are an immanent belief system that springs from internal sources, and is grounded in a human commons (excluding psychopaths). Proof of this is served up in this film, albeit in a roundabout way that twists the notions of religion and psychopathy back upon themselves. No ethic condones willful murder, and clearly, Dolores’ death is murder. But there are moralities that condone murder for far less- think of the cuckold killings legally allowed in Latin American and Moslem nations, which derive their law from Christianity and Islam. Similarly, Judah does not engage in an ethic in his quandaries over the Dolores situation- even his well scripted dream conversations with his father and aunt are arguments over ‘morality.’ And Judah’s morality is clearly flexible, and serves his needs- the mark of a psychopath.
The DVD, put out by MGM, is the usual bare bones Allen release, lacking any extra features, save the hour and forty-four minute film’s original theatrical trailer. The film is well transferred, and presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Ingmar Bergman’s long time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, does a good job in a film that requires no great cinematography, since the landscapes etched are internal. Yet, scene where Judah is alone at night, and conversing with the image of Ben the rabbi as his conscience, or when he returns to his family home to engage with the wraiths of his past, are lit to reflect the darkness and warmth of their respective emotional import.
But, through and through, this film is the perfect visual evocation of its incredible screenplay. The great quotes from this film, deep and comic, are almost endless:
When Cliff finds out of Professor Levy’s suicide: He left a note. He left a simple little note that said ‘I’ve gone out the window.’ This is a major intellectual and he leaves a note that says ‘I’ve gone out the window.’ He's a role model. You’d think he’d leave a decent note.
Cliff on the death of his marital sex life: Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.
Professor Levy: You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox. The paradox consists of the fact that, when we fall in love, we are seeking to refind all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted upon us. So that love contains in it the contradiction: The attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.
Judah, to Cliff, on his own tale, disguised as a perfect murder mystery screenplay: And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse- an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person- a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn't even matter. Now he’s scot-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
There are dueling quotes that represent the yin and yang of the film’s posit. When in conversation with his conscience, draped as Ben, Judah says, ‘God is a luxury I can’t afford.’ And when he is in conversation with his conscience, masqued as a memory of his family’s seder, Judah’s memory of his father declares: ‘If necessary, I will always choose God over truth.’ But, my two personal favorites are both from the comic side of the film. One is just a simple quote. Lester is asking Cliff to do the documentary on him, and whips out his tape recorder to take a note, an idea for a farce, as Cliff equivocates: ‘A poor loser agrees to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.’ The look upon Allen’s face is priceless.
Then there’s likely the funniest sequence in the film. Cliff’s lonely sister, Barbara (Caroline Aaron), falls to pieces as she tells him how she took a man she met from a personal ad home and he tied her up then gave her a Cleveland Steamer. Cliff cringes, then, when he gets home, gets undressed, while his wife, Wendy, is reading in bed. he puzzlingly states, ‘A strange man defecated on my sister.’ His wife, unmoved, rejoinders, ‘Why?’ Cliff shakes his head and replies, ‘Is there a reason I could give you that could answer that satisfactorily?’ Wendy, still unmoved, puts the book away, and rolls over to sleep, not flinching in the least. Not only is it a very funny sequence, but it serves a dramatic purpose, as well, for it ties Wendy in with two sets of brothers; Judah and Jack Rosenthal, as someone utterly lacking empathy for others (although not to a murderous extent), and it contrasts her tripodally, with her own two brothers. She is utterly unemotive and cold, whereas Lester is an insincere phony and Ben an almost naïve total feeler.
The screenplay, aside from its quotability, also deftly depicts human reactions to evil and injustice, far more realistically and deeply than does the work of art it’s almost claimed to be derivative of, Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Crime And Punishment. Unlike the novel, the film does not end poorly. Secondly, while the works exhibit a superficial connection in dealing with evil, the film is far more realistic, because for every callow and anomic thrill killer like Raskonikov, there are a thousand Judah Rosenthals. It is, as I said, as close to a perfect screenplay as I’ve ever witnessed; and it’s all the more impressive because it is in such a classical form, the novel on film (ala his own earlier Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters, and later Husbands And Wives), Shakespearean contrast of the high and low (rich and poor, royal and peasant) that is character and dialogue driven. While the more oblique screenplays of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Last Year In Marienbad are impressive, their very daring, structurally, makes them both less appreciated as great by the masses, even as, to a select few, they are accorded greater props for their daring, and given more cover for any flaws. A film like Crimes And Misdemeanors, by contrast, has no such easy out. It risks being called formulaic and having any flaws more easily pointed out. Yet, it never devolves into sheer darkness, for just when one thinks it might head that way, along comes another Cliff segment to antiphonally lighten the mood (even in the Cleveland Steamer sequence).
A good example of why the screenplay is so great is the character of Dolores Paley, played by Anjelica Huston. She is a minor character; in essence serving as the ‘in’ to Judah Rosenthal, but Allen does not skimp. She is a fully realized character. Look at the scene where she is recalling her past with Judah, and we then see her soberly staring off into the ether. The door bell rings, she runs to it, and embraces Judah. We get the memory, which is positive, her reflection, which makes her seem to rue it, her desperation in running to the door, and then her blackmail threat. In a minute or so we get a complex arc of a character. But, while fully developed, she is also used as a device to get the viewer to sympathize with the amoral Judah. Her whininess, pettiness, self-importance, self-deceits, threats to Judah and his family, all make us dislike her, well rounded or not, and subtly make us actually want Judah to off her. Thus we are subliminally made to feel what Judah feels, and thus a small sense of complicity and guilt is rooted in most viewers. Yet, Allen does not settle for the easy out of having us totally on Judah’s anti-heroic side, either. He is not Godzilla, and we do not totally want him to step on and/pr fry the scurrying little Japs that flee from his rampage. Instead, we see that he is a hypocrite and coward, unwilling (until the film’s end) to accept his amorality. I earlier mentioned the scene where he invites his brother up to his home, just so he can pawn off the first mention of murder on Jack (who, in a great moment, exasperates that Judah was never comfortable playing ‘hardball’ in life), and this act is almost as repulsive as the act of murder he finances, and Judah is an even more despicable character than his brother, for he has the means to avoid such actions, and chooses not to.
Yet, the screenplay’s excellence is not out of tricks, even there, for we then get the film’s resolution, which clearly rewards and glorifies those people (unethical or not) who are strong and bold, and crushes those who are equivocal and weak. Amongst the lot of ‘winners’ are the Rosenthal brothers (especially Judah), Wendy Stern, Lester, and Barbara’s date. Amongst the ‘losers’ are Cliff Stern, Dolores Paley, Professor Levy, Barbara, and Ben the rabbi. About the only exception to the rule is the equivocal Halley, yet she is ‘won’ by Lester. All of the winners are decisive and create their own lives, whereas Cliff and his sister indulge in romantic fantasies (he’s an unemployed, married filmmaker, short and not handsome, and he really thinks Halley will choose him over the rich, single, and handsome Lester?). By contrast, the winners cut their losses, and look askance at the worst possible outcomes they could suffer. And they succeed.
Unusually, the critical reception of the film was almost wholly positive. The lone exception was the Chicago Reader’s ridiculously bad Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote:
The first “serious” Woody Allen film with Jewish characters (1989) might seem like an improvement after the pseudoprofundities of Interiors et al, but it can't be said to dig any deeper. Martin Landau plays a wealthy ophthalmologist who plots the murder of his mistress (Anjelica Huston) when she threatens to expose his adultery and embezzlement. In quasi-comic counterpoint is the plight of an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker (Allen) who's stuck in an unhappy marriage, goes to work for his obnoxious brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a successful producer of TV sitcoms, and falls in love with one of his assistants (Mia Farrow). The overall “philosophical” thrust—that good guys finish last and that crime does pay—is designed to make the audience feel very wise, but none of the characters or ideas is allowed to develop beyond its cardboard profile (though Alda has a ball with his part). With Claire Bloom and Sam Waterston (as the perfect all-purpose symbolic Allen character—a rabbi going blind).
Cardboard characters? Does not dig deeper? What film was Rosenbaum watching? I mean, he’s known for being both a poor critic and writer, but this is like claiming 2001: A Space Odyssey had bad special effects. It’s simply not tenable, whether or not he subjectively ‘liked’ the film.
No, Rosenbaum is as wrong as one can be, and Judah Rosenthal and Crimes And Misdemeanors are artistic creations on par with two of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest meditations on evil: the evil and victorious vice president in The Bad Sleep Well and the realism of the kidnapper in High And Low. The former film show the triumph of evil and the latter a realistic depiction of evil’s randomness, which contrasts with Allen’s film. And compared with two lesser takes of his own, on the same theme, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, this film digs deeper and ends far better. Those two films have potential, but drop the ball, in the end. Judah Rosenthal didn’t. He played the game, and won, and the next time he ever needs to really ‘win’ in such a game of life, there will be no self-doubt nor flinching. He learned his lesson; that power and influence can let one cheat and kill with impunity. That’s why he’s real. That’s why he’s scary. That’s why he’s one of the greatest villains in not only film history, but the annals of human fiction. Because there are no supernatural Freddy Kruegers nor superhuman Hannibal Lecters in reality, only in Hollywood films; no matter how outrageous the tales are that come out about the latest serial killer du jour. But there really are Judah Rosenthals out there. They are life’s ‘winners.’ And they simply do not care about you or me. And, as the film shows and argues, why should they?
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.