Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) offers perhaps the most complex study of the relationship between film and reality in all of Woody Allen's work, not excepting the lighter treatment of the theme in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In Crimes and Misdemeanors, film and reality interact on multiple levels ranging from the commercial to the philosophical. They also interact through a blend of genres that includes the noir crime drama, romantic comedy, social satire, and the documentary. Along the way the film enthusiast is treated to a dazzling variety of interwoven film clips from Hollywood genre films, darkly humorous newsreel footage of a blustering Mussolini, and arresting talking head interviews with fictional philosopher Louis Levy (played by Martin S. Bergmann, the renowned clinical psychologist and author of The Anatomy of Loving). Allen uses these film-within-film conceits to dramatize a central Dostoevskian (and 20th century) theme: the consequences of a god- absent universe.
A crucial film/reality intersection occurs in the final sequence, a first meeting between the central characters of the paralleled "crime" and "misdemeanor" plots: Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a highly successful late middle-aged ophthalmologist and Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), an obscure documentary filmmaker whose one claim to fame is an "Honorable Mention" at the Cincinnati Film Festival. Aware that Cliff is a director of sorts, Judah pitches him a murder mystery plot based on recent experiences in his "real life." Ironically, Cliff rejects Judah's plot as too implausible, shapeless, and amoral to work as a movie even though it is a large part of the movie that Woody Allen as director has just presented, a twist familiar to viewers of Robert Altman's The Player (as well as to readers of Borges, Nabokov, and a slew of lesser post-modern fiction writers).
The meeting between Judah and Cliff takes place at a wedding celebration for the daughter of Ben (Sam Watterston), a rabbi who is Judah's long-time friend and Cliff's brother-in-law. Previously, the only link between the two plots comes from Ben's repeated visits to Judah's office for monitoring of a progressive eye-disease. In an early scene in the doctor's darkened examination room, Ben listens to Judah's confession of marital infidelity, financial indiscretion, and fears of exposure from his unstable mistress, Dolores (Angelica Huston), who refuses to be dumped after a several year relationship. What Judah does not confess is the means he uses to resolve his dilemma: the murder of Dolores by a hit man hired by Judah's underworld-connected businessman brother, Jack. For a time, like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Judah suffers agonies of guilt for initiating the taking of a human life, but eventually he "awakens as if from a dream" to find that rather than being punished he continues to prosper, a perverse irony that seems to belie his religious father's conviction that "the eyes of God are always watching us" and that "whether in the Old Testament or Shakespeare 'murder will out.'"
The Woody Allen character, Cliff, is an unsung and largely uncompensated maker of intellectual documentaries. An obsessive film buff, he prefers to spend most afternoons at the movies with his niece and most evenings in his low-budget cutting room rather than face the reality of his unhappy marriage and nowhere career. Alan Alda plays Cliff's other brother-in-law and nemesis, Lester, a thoroughly obnoxious but prominent writer and producer of TV sitcoms. The antagonism between these two characters is sharpened when Lester, as a favor to his sister, hires Cliff to shoot a TV documentary about Lester himself for a "Creative Minds" PBS-style series. The show's Associate Producer, Halley (Mia Farrow), becomes the object of a courtship rivalry between Cliff and Lester. Since Cliff is married and Lester is an obvious philanderer, this romantic triangle forms the "misdemeanor" segment of the film's plot - adultery and licentiousness having long been stricken from the contemporary urban world's list of cardinal sins.
Cliff's work on the Lester documentary allows Allen to satirize the TV-centered culture that lionizes a figure like Lester but offers scant recognition or reward to the subject of his documentary work-in-progress, Professor Levy (or, by extension, to Cliff himself). Although he has some moments, Lester is an easily deflated buffoon - a self-satisfied font of reductive and repeated bombast ("if it bends it's funny; if it breaks it's not funny.") Unfortunately, he can only be deflated in art. In "real life" Lester not only has the power to keep filling the airwaves with pap, but to fire Cliff and - most depressingly - to seduce and marry his dream girl, Halley. If Judah finds the absence of moral order comforting, Cliff is totally nonplussed by reality's harsh artlessness, but then, as Judah advises him: "If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie."
Despite its plot resolution, Crimes and Misdemeanors is rescued from utter nihilism by its ritual comic ending and by its final shot of the now completely blind Ben dancing happily with his daughter. Despite the literal place of darkness he has entered, the rabbi embodies the affirmative element in Professor Levy's vision, eloquently expressed in these words: "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." Alas, the uplifting imagery of the film's ending is counterbalanced, though not thoroughly undercut, by the recollection of Professor Levy's personal response to "the indifferent universe": he exits it via self-defenestration, leaving only a suicide note that reads "I've gone out the window."
Crimes and Misdemeanors is as close to pure tragicomedy as Woody Allen gets anywhere in his work, and it is one of his most essential and finest films.
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