CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) – Review by Pauline Kael

Crimes and Misdemeanors, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a sad, censuring look at the world-famous doctor and other crooks in high places who (in Allen’s view) have convinced themselves that they can do anything, because they don’t think God is watching.

by Pauline Kael

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Martin Landau is an eminent ophthalmologist who’s trying to get rid of his hysterical mistress (Anjelica Huston) in order to save his reputation and his marriage (to Claire Bloom). His course of action raises serious ethical issues, which he discusses with his rabbi friend (Sam Waterston), who’s going blind. That going blind is quite a touch! No, it isn’t meant to be a giggle. It’s part of the film’s controlling metaphor. When the doctor was a boy, he was instructed at home and at the synagogue that “the eyes of God are on us always.’’ Crimes and Misdemeanors, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a sad, censuring look at the world-famous doctor and other crooks in high places who (in Allen’s view) have convinced themselves that they can do anything, because they don’t think God is watching.
Landau is at his best when the doctor, trying to calm down the tiresome woman, can’t help showing a New Yorker’s nervous impatience. He brushes aside her claims that she’s made sacrifices for him and he hasn’t kept his promises; you feel the intimacy behind the arguments, and you can see the signs that his blood pressure is rising. This is the preliminary bout—it’s preparing the audience for the crime to come— and Landau’s actor’s instinct not to waste any time meshes perfectly with the doctor’s need to get away from this accusing monster. (We aren’t asked to have any feeling for her; we see the situation strictly in terms of her threats to break up his marriage and expose his financial manipulations.) The doctor’s predicament is so stale that Landau’s gestures of impatience are the only saving elements.
Convinced that he has been forced into it, the doctor takes action to save his hide. Then he agonizes over what he has done, and in his disordered thoughts he revisits his childhood shut and attends a Seder at his childhood home; he listens to the old wisdom (If a man commits a crime, he will be punished), and he hears it crudely challenged. Now the impatience is ours. Woody Allen isn’t a clone of Ingmar Bergman this time; he’s a clone of Arthur Miller. Of course, there’s a difference. In Miller’s plays you can see the wheels grinding but what happens has some punch. Allen keeps a polite distance. The doctor’s self-torture has been worn smooth by generations of playwrights—it’s ponderously abstract. And there’s a difference befitting the era. Miller’s guilty father in All My Sons (1947) killed himself. Allen’s much admired doctor who cheats on the most basic human decencies is meant to be symptomatic of the Reagan eighties. He learns to live comfortably with his lack of conscience. (And we can feel morally superior to the “successful.”)
The tediousness of Woody Allen’s attempt to deal with weighty questions is that he poses them in conventional, sermonizing terms. He appears to be pinning contemporary greed and crime on man’s loss of belief in God. The movie represents a peculiarly tony form of fundamentalism. The sets, the clothes, and Sven Nykvist’s cinematography all take the color out of color; there’s no vulgar vibrancy here. And the cutting is let-the-edges-show modern. But Woody Allen seems to be telling us that believing there’s a God who’s watching us is our only safeguard against committing murder. He opens another possibility by introducing a boring humanistic thinker—Professor Levy (Martin Bergmann), a survivor of the camps—who tells us that it’s we, with our capacity for love, who give meaning to the indifferent universe. But this possibility is given a flip finish: the professor’s philosophy doesn’t sustain him. The picture is saying that God may not exist but man needs to believe in Him in order to find meaning in life. (The professor goes the way of Alain Cuny as the voice of reason in La Dolce Vita.) Meanwhile, the plot line shows us that the doctor isn’t punished, so he stops fearing God. It was only fear that kept him “moral.”
In a parallel story line, where the misdemeanors take place, Woody Allen himself appears as a grubbing-for-a- living documentary filmmaker—a man trying to be true to what his camera eye sees. His wife (Joanna Gleason) keeps denigrating his accomplishments, and can’t even be bothered sleeping with him. She’s a well-connected woman: her two brothers are the rabbi and a darling of the media, a celebrity TV producer, played by Alan Alda. This egomaniac who is taken for a creative genius is the movie’s satirical villain: he’s tall, he’s facile—he’s everything that the little- guy documentarian fears and despises. And at first the little guy’s raging jealousy is quite funny; it’s the comic rage of the harmless—he’s so preoccupied with exposing the producer’s phoniness that he can’t get anything else done.
Alda plays the enemy with a smug, screwy abandon; it’s almost like an Ernie Kovacs turn. At a party this genius gives, he’s suddenly struck by the brilliance of something that has come into his head and, afraid of losing it, he pulls out his tape recorder to preserve it. Alda is the one actor in Crimes and Misdemeanors who doesn’t seem to be on automatic pilot. His performance may remind you that he used to be a member of Second City (in New York), and that before his eleven years on “M*A*S*H” he took on challenges like Caryl Chessman in TV’s Kill Me If You Can. (He may have become too professionally affable in “M*A*S*H,” but he didn’t really earn his bad name until he went overly earnest in movies like Same Time, Next Year and California Suite, and in the ones he directed, like The Four Seasons.) The other actors perform very proficiently, yet (except when I was watching Landau’s nerves being rubbed raw and seeing how intently Jerry Orbach played the doctor’s shady, subdued brother) I didn’t feel caught up in anything they said or did. (That includes even what Claire Bloom said and did: she has no more than a glorified walk-on.) Woody Allen’s once sharp powers of observation seem*dulled here. But the whirlwind TV genius is alive and making an ass of himself. The character is cheaply satirized, but you like him for his self-infatuation.
Did Woody Allen know that he was letting Alda steal the picture? I think he must have. There’s a wide streak of masochism running through this movie. The documentarian is worse off than Zelig: he falls in love with a Public Television associate producer (played by Mia Farrow), and they have a rapport, but he can’t compete with the pontificating genius. The documentarian is the man with impossible ideals, the total loser; it’s the villains who win. Woody Allen is tweaking his own high-mindedness, yet he also appears to be revealing himself more nakedly here than in his other movies; he appears to be saying, “This is who I am.” But it may be a false nakedness—a giving in to the safety of weakness, to the feeling that nobody wants an honest man. His bald masochism in the later part of the picture is a betrayal of his jokester’s personality.
The two halves of this movie don’t fit together in a way that sets off reverberations. You can intellectualize connections between them, but you don’t feel a connection. Woody Allen’s abrupt changes of tone as he moves from one set of characters to the other, and overlaps them, keep you from getting restless; he has become a skillful director. But he’s making the film equivalent of a play of ideas, and the ideas have no excitement. He’s telling us not just what we already know but what we’ve already rejected. And it’s awkward to see him playing the pathetic failure—standing in his editing room against a Chaplin poster and trying to make time with Mia by showing her footage of the wise, aged professor who lived through the Holocaust. (When he had a date with Annie Hall and took her to see The Sorrow and the Pity, it was a better joke.)
If Woody Allen were interested in drama (rather than pi­eties), he wouldn’t make us reject the emotional plight of the doctor’s mistress. The camera loiters on her rear end, as if to dehumanize her; she’s presented as hulking and insistent, like the knife-wielder in Fatal Attraction. So the doctor’s final acceptance of his crime against her has no horror. The film’s emphasis is confusing: the spectator has more anxiety about the doctor’s possibly revealing his crime to the authorities than about what he does to her. And if you don’t care about this woman—or about the little suffering documentarian—this is just one more of Woody Allen’s class-act movies. It comes complete with reassuring words about how most human beings have the capacity “to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
There’s no avoiding the recognition that Allen has been coming up more and .more with praiseworthy themes. Sam Waterston, having played Oppenheimer and Lincoln and William L. Shirer on TV and Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields, is perfectly modulated as the blind rabbi, the good, moral man afflicted by fate. How can the funnyman who assembled What’s Up Tiger Lily? resist putting dirty words in that exemplary mouth? The answer is that Waterston’s performance here suggests a blue-blooded Woody Allen. And the documentarian, when he’s lost everything and is humbled, looks more dignified than before. Allen himself is turning into a rabbi. The years that he’s been railing against the universe without definitive answers must have worn him down, so now he’s supplying them.

The New Yorker, October 30, 1989


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