Top 50 Countdown – #16



Crimes and Misdemeanors

Year: 1989

Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen: “I just wanted to illustrate, in an entertaining way, that there is no God and that we’re alone in the universe, and there is nobody out there to punish you. That your morality is strictly up to you. If you’re willing to murder and you can get away with it and you can live with it, that’s fine.”

Woody fully understands that a universe devoid of God cannot have an absolute/objective moral structure and that without such a structure moral rules can be no more than arbitrarily agreed upon conventions, mere human constructs which render notions of right and wrong utterly meaningless. Whether one chooses to observe a particular moral rule, say, thou shall not murder, becomes an entirely subjective matter, no more obligatory than, say, the rule instructing us not to split infinitives. In a godless universe everything, Dostoyevsky wrote, is permitted. And nothing, I would add, ultimately matters. The bleak implications of nihilism are more than most can bear, and religion and morality are the boards and beams out of which great bulwarks of comforting delusion are constructed against the harsh truths of nihilism.

But Woody is not interested in providing comfort, and the film’s theme, that God and morality are mere figments, couldn’t be bleaker. Few filmmakers dare to consider this issue, let alone base an entire film around it. That Woody Allen, one of the screen’s great comedians, should grapple with so troubling an issue with such uncompromising rigor is a testament to his intellectual courage. It is a theme Woody has been preoccupied with for years, but never has he explored it as profoundly as he does in Crimes and Misdemeanors, a bold, thought-provoking masterpiece about injustices big (crimes) and small (misdemeanors).


The weightier of the film’s two stories (both in terms of subject matter and screen time) introduces us to renowned ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). In the opening scene he is being honored for his “philanthropic efforts” at a banquet with family, friends and colleagues. Judah, you see, is a pillar of the community – a charitable man, a good family man, an important man. So, then, why does he look so uneasy? In flashback we learn that the good doctor has been living a double life, carrying on a clandestine affair with a highly unstable woman, Dolores, who is now threatening to expose his dirty secrets – not just marital infidelity but financial indiscretions too. Worried and confused, Landau seeks the counsel of two very different people: his rabbi friend and patient (who is, significantly, going blind) and his mob-connected brother. The rabbi talks to him about a “moral structure to the universe” and urges him to come clean; his brother has a more pragmatic solution: deep-six her. In the end Judah rejects the rabbi’s “moral structure” because he simply values his marriage, his stature in the community, and his privileged lifestyle more than Dolores’s life. “I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman,” Judah declares, and so he hires a hitman to dispose of his troublesome mistress.

After the deed is done Judah, wracked by guilt and tormented by thoughts of eternal damnation, endures a few long nights of the soul. But his crisis of conscience, triggered by long dormant religious beliefs he has rejected, soon passes. One day he wakes up and realizes that nothing is going to happen to him. He is not going to be punished. He has gotten away with murder. His life returns to normal, as if nothing had ever happened, as if Dolores had never existed. And he’s happy. In a flashback Judah remembers a relative of his commenting about a hypothetical murderer: “if he can get away with it and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free.” Judah is living proof. The title of Woody’s film recalls Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but although both novel and film deal with murder and its (moral) consequences Woody’s handling of the issue departs radically from Dostoyevsky’s by removing the “punishment” from the narrative equation: there is no higher form of justice to which Judah can be held accountable because God is simply not part of the fabric of reality in Crimes and Misdemeanors. In such a cold, indifferent universe, where innocent life can be snuffed out and sucked into the vacuum of eternity without consequence, where can one possibly find solace? In romantic love, perhaps?


Alas, Woody casts a suspicious eye even at romantic love in the film’s other story, which stars Woody himself as a serious-minded but financially strapped documentarian, Cliff. Out of financial considerations he reluctantly agrees to shoot a documentary profile of his brother-in-law, Lester, an egotistical, superficially charming, and hugely successful producer of TV sitcoms. Lester’s lofty opinion of himself, however, is matched by Cliff’s low opinion of Lester. Cliff regards Lester as a pompous ass and a phony and holds him in utter contempt, even as he envies his wealth, success and popularity (especially with the ladies). But Cliff, whose marriage is falling apart, thinks he’s found a kindred spirit in Halley (Mia Farrow), a television producer who takes an interest in the “important” documentary Cliff is making about an obscure philosopher (who espouses a life-affirming philosophy of love and ends up killing himself); even better she seems to see through Lester’s superficial charm.

But in the most emotionally devastating moment in Woody’s work, Cliff has his worst fear realized when he sees Halley and Lester arrive together at a social event. Speechless and dumbfounded, Cliff can only impotently stare at the couple as he tries to process the stunning reality of seeing the woman he loves on the arm of the man who represents everything he loathes. In this heartrending moment of crushing disillusionment Woody Allen demolishes the concept of True Love. How, Woody seems to ask, can we possibly believe in genuine romantic/spiritual love when our affectations are so often determined by the superficially pleasing attributes of others (looks, charm, wealth, success etc.), when men seemingly come equipped to deposit their seed in the nearest nubile young thing (Cliff’s documentary catches Lester hitting on beautiful actresses) and when women, no matter how independently minded they may be, tend to gravitate toward “alpha males”, no matter how shallow and conceited they may be?

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The two stories dovetail beautifully in the great final scene between Judah and Cliff, who strike up a conversation during a chance encounter. Their meeting might sound like a contrived narrative device, but in the film’s context it feels absolutely right and necessary. Unlike the blind rabbi, Judah and Cliff have had their eyes opened and see the world the way it really is rather than the way they would like it to be. Their discussion inclines toward the philosophical when Judah describes a movie plot about a man of wealth and privilege who gets away with murder. When Cliff suggests that the man should turn himself in at the end to give the story tragic proportions, Judah scoffs at the notion, “if you want a happy ending you should go see a Hollywood movie.” In Crimes and Misdemeanors, no Hollywood movie, Woody peals away human delusion and exposes a most unpleasant truth: we’re flailing away blindly in an amoral and godless universe bereft of cosmic justice, spiritual love and ultimate purpose. Oh yeah, it’s funny too.

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