Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

PG-13   |    |  Comedy, Drama

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Poster

An ophthalmologist's mistress threatens to reveal their affair to his wife while a married documentary filmmaker is infatuated with another woman.




  • Woody Allen and Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  • Mia Farrow in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  • Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  • Caroline Aaron in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  • Martin Landau and Claire Bloom in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  • Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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18 October 2015 | film-222
| Fatal flaw in premise of otherwise excellent movie on microcosm of NY
This is a deftly made movie with parallel stories and portrayal of the world of Jewish New Yorkers. The angst over whether there is a true morality from an omnipotent God makes the film thought-provoking and, to some, disturbing. Allen has grappled now twice with this idea of getting away with murder and whether one can go on to live a good life without fear of retribution. He explored it in this film, and then again in Matchpoint. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the issue was whether God was watching and if the guilty character could live well with his conscience. In Matchpoint, retribution is a matter of random luck.

The conclusions of both films can seem brilliant to some, but quite troubling to others. The reason this is so, is because Allen's main question, "Can the murderer get away with it?" hinges on one important assumption: that all rewards and punishments occur in this life...and that moral behavior is subject to rewards and punishments. This is in fact a very Jewish point of view (hence the family debate in their Midwood, Brooklyn, home). Jews do not believe in Heaven or Hell, so all has to be achieved in this life. Within the logic that emerges from the above question is inevitably a morally confused universe and cynical point of view. What's worse is that the movie assumes the rewards are things like wealth, career success, love.

If murderers do not get found out and do not suffer punishment, does that mean there is no moral God watching over us? No, their crime or misdemeanor is still wrong, because it caused harm to someone. If they have no conscience and they are not caught, it is still wrong. If there is not a God meting out rewards and punishments in this life or the afterlife, what makes it wrong? Does it not matter if one decides to murder for personal gain? Is not the rule to follow simply dog eat dog and every man for himself? Allen has not progressed in questioning the assumption, whether material rewards are the appropriate measure of morality.

To get past his ongoing conundrum, the next time Allen takes on this theme, he needs to consider how society as a whole would break down if no one subscribed to any code of morality. There would not be anything to get away with, since everyone would subscribe to the law of the jungle: who ever eats, wins. Without a common code of morals, we would be reduced to a primitive state.

Allen is very literary, but to address moral issues, he needs to go beyond the individual and consider social systems as a whole. Morality is a matter of relationships to our fellow human beings, not of individual success in life. One might argue that societies have a long history of sanctioning, through the law, behaviors we find abhorrent today, so morality is still all relative and there is no moral absolute. I think, rather, that human societies evolve as we learn from our mistakes, and we find out these mistakes because indeed there is a moral absolute that reveals them to be wrong: gradually it becomes recognized that it is not okay for women to be an underclass to men; that racism violates the rights of people; that lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering result in a breakdown of the trust required to engage in transactions and the economic health of a society; that crime is a symptom of a lot of social ills, from economic inequities to mental illness to social pressures that sway the individual's moral compass. Obviously, there are sociopaths and criminals who have no empathy for their victims and no conscience about gaining at the expense of others, including murder -- we now have clinical terms for them, and even can link aberrant, deficient behaviors to parts of the brain. Judah's brother is such a one with no twinges of conscience. Judah enjoys the trappings of success very much because those around subscribe to a moral code to which he must pretend.

Criminals are put in jail to punish them, to protect society from them, and to reform them. Society's sense of morality evolves in the effort to achieve some social order that is sustainable. If someone gets away with murder, the goal of the law is that society does not implode with everyone doing the same as some norm of behavior. One does not need a God to tell us what works or not. Our different beliefs in God or not, meanwhile, color how we codify our morals in social conduct and the law.

Good movie, within its narrowly defined universe, but Allen needs to expand beyond that small universe to truly answer the question of moral absolutes. I hope he reads my review somehow, as I get the sense that his is indeed a very troubled man.

P.S. To those who analyze the film in terms of Utilitarianism and Kant, my above take based on human relationships draws from Asian philosophy and Confucianism, and the concept of societies as complex systems.

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