Tuesday, September 13, 2011
CANON OF FILM: CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
Director/Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Part dark tragedy, part dark comedy, or is it all comedy? It’s certainly all dark. Considered by almost everybody as one of Woody Allen’s very best films (although I’m not sure Woody would agree), “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” wasn’t his first dramatic film, that was the Bergman-esque “Interiors,” and it certainly wasn’t his last comedy, yet it clearly represents the moment in Allen’s career when he started to abandon comedy in favor of drama and tragedy. Well, maybe “abandon,” is the wrong word, but he certainly began to lose interest. (One of his recent comedies, “Whatever Works,” was taken from an old script he wrote in the seventies.) The dramatic part of the movie involves a beloved ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau). He’s rich, lives in the Hamptons, his family loves him, his wife loves him, and he’s beloved in the community. He had an affair with a stewardess however (Angelica Huston) and while he’s tried to break it off, she’s started trying to call him and send letters to his wife, and threatening to talk about some minor embezzlements he was involved in. It would devastate his wife if she found out. He talks to his brother (Jerry Orbach) who has some mob connections and has her killed, but he is now filled with guilt. He confesses to one of his patients, a rabbi whose going blind (Sam Waterston), sometimes he’s really confessing, sometimes he imagines him, trying to justify his position and deal with his guilt. The comedic portion involves Cliff (Allen) a documentarian of films featuring the meanderings of a well-regarded philosophy professor. He is set up with a gig to shoot a PBS special about his brother-in-law, a famous network sitcom producer (Alan Alda). Cliff hates Lester because he’s a pompous, arrogant successful producer who records any random idea for TV shows he has into a handheld tape recorder when he’s not womanizing, and considers him evil incarcerated. It’s not that he’s wrong, but he’s also jealous, and despite his behavior, Lester is actually talented. While filming, Cliff develops a crush on one of the PBS producers (Mia Farrow). She’s closer to his ideological match than his wife (Joanna Gleason), but he’s too loyal to leave her or even try, despite a year of neither having sex with each other. The lower-class character struggles with his inner self and discusses his romantic problems with his niece, who he takes to see old movies, while the upper class discuss murder and religion over old memories of Passover Seders, that in truly Allen fashion, Judah can interject his own thoughts into his own memories. At the end of the movie, all the particulars come together for a wedding, and in one of the greatest conversations in film history, Cliff and Judah sit down away from the primary party, that not only gives us a surprising and brilliant ending that challenges the conventions of film while dissecting ideological differences between film and reality, and murder. To go back to Bergman for a second, I recently dived headlong into his so-called “Absence of God” trilogy where in one film God is prevalent but motionless (“Through a Glass Darkly”), in another he’s doubted (“Winter Light”) and finally in the third, he’s absent (“The Silence”). In a strange way, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, feels like Allen’s version of all three. There’s two God characters in the film, one’s a Rabbi who going blind, and the other a philosophy professor in one of Cliff’s film whose expositions talk about the greatness of life. His demise is more tragic, and strangely more comical. Allen has said that he regrets even adding the comic storyline to the film, saying now, he only would’ve told the dramatic story. (Some could argue with his recent masterpiece “Match Point,” he did). Normally, I’m not in favor of duality of man either, Kubrick exception, but in this case, we get the two sides of Allen’s persona combating to see how the rest of his career will eventually play out. He’ll still do a comedy, and he’ll still do a drama, and occasionally, he’ll even combine them like his underrated masterpiece “Melinda and Melinda,” but we rarely get the sense anymore that he loves comedy, and that his more darker more cynical and/or ironic view of the world is more prevalent. (His recent “Midnight in Paris,” though might be a sign that he’s turning back to comedy.)
“…My murder story has a very strange twist…let’s say there’s this man whose very successful, he has everything....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…” the rest of that monologue and conversation is what makes Woody Allen one of the great screenwriters of all-time. Only he could combine cynical realism with poetic irony so perfectly. It could also explain why Woody Allen’s best recent films retain that dark view of society, but I think it’s just one more side of his persona.