BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
by David Denby
In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s most ambitious and complexly organized film yet, the principal character, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a rich, distinguished doctor, is faced with the kind of dilemma that he thinks occurs only in movies. The woman who has secretly been his mistress for the past two years has gone crazy. A harried loner whose cigarette ash drops to the floor in mid-conversation, Dolores (Anjelica Huston) can wait no longer for Judah to leave his wife. Enraged, she threatens to talk to the wife, expose Judah’s financial misdeeds, even commit suicide. Dolores dogs his every step, and Judah, too weak to even confess the affair to his wife, begins to listen to his gangster brother (Jerry Ohrbach), who proposes that Dolores be gotten rid of.
Judah and the pathetic Dolores have what could only be called a destiny. So does an unlucky New York woman in the movie, a lonely divorcee who advertises in the personals columns only to wind up with a date who ties her to her bed and defecates on her. (To be dumped on is nothing if not your destiny.) In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the characters may be faced with terrible choices or they may fall into ludicrous and humiliating misadventures, but either way, they aren’t merely neurotic, like the tremulously self-conscious wraiths in Allen’s three earlier serioso efforts, Interiors, September, and Another Woman. (Crimes and Misdemeanors is serioso with laughs.) A glum drizzle of lassitude and inanition fell on those movies. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is vigorous and lively. The movie suffers from patches of poor writing, from occasional obviousness (the minor characters who “stand” for one thing or another), but it’s still extremely entertaining—swift, resourceful, exciting, with surprising twists and turns.
Woody Allen, to our relief, has decided to embrace the movies—a story, dramatic tension, complications—rather than “art,” with the result that he’s more of a moviemaker and perhaps more of an artist than before. The movie-ness is explicit: There are repeated scenes of Allen’s character, an embittered documentary filmmaker, going to old Hollywood features. One of the pictures he sees is the forties thriller This Gun for Hire, and it’s satisfying to think of Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is filled with passionate obsessions and lightning flashes in the night, as Allen’s film noir. Sometimes a director has to go through a lot of “non-narrative” experiments before he realizes the moral power of stories all over again. This time, when Allen introduces a philosophical debate, the ideas don’t rattle off the walls of an angst-lined echo chamber, they’re woven into the plot—in fact, they are the plot. Crimes and Misdemeanors asks such things as, Is there any real punishment for crime? Is God, or anyone else, paying attention and keeping score? If someone is murdered or humiliated, does anyone care? To Judah’s amazement, life turns into a movie—but will it end like one? The resolution to these questions is the movie’s main line of suspense.
Another Woman was pretty bad, but at least Allen was developing a remarkably fluid way with structure. He folded scenes within scenes; he used flashbacks to introduce fresh characters who then turned up later, and so on. Crimes and Misdemeanors is even more supple. Allen now moves from one character to another with no apparent strain; he’s become the master of casually linked exposition. The milieu of Crimes and Misdemeanors is upper-middle-class Jewish life in New York and Connecticut, and a whole web of relationships is established, a system of manners and ethics exposed.
The silver-haired doctor with his lurid, scandal-sheet love affair might have seemed banal if he were the whole movie. But there’s also a highly developed subplot, which begins, we think, as comic relief but develops its own rather painful fascination. Lester (Alan Alda) a big-shot TV producer—the glib creator of many Emmy-winning sitcoms—tries to do his sister a favor by getting her filmmaker husband, Cliff (Woody Allen), a job. Public television, it seems, wants a documentary on Lester the genius, and Cliff needs work. After Cliff accepts, both he and Lester start pursuing Halley (Mia Farrow), the lovely (and available) producer of the documentary. Desperate for success, Cliff wants to use the film to do in Lester while making off with Halley. But Cliff is such an envious little creep—can he pull it off? Is he gauging Halley’s attitude correctly? Allen gathers all these characters at the beginning of the movie, disperses them in twos and threes, and then gathers them again for a wedding celebration at the end.
What holds the two disparate stories together is not the occasionally overlapping characters but Woody Allen’s fascination with the drama of winners and losers—the strong and the weak—in a world without safety nets. Interiors trembled with the unwanted triumph of two talented and beautiful sisters (Diane Keaton and Kristin Griffith) over an untalented and plain one (Mary Beth Hurt). In September, a self-confident battle tank of a mother (Elaine Stritch) crushed her anxiety-plagued daughter (Mia Farrow). Allen seemed to admire the vulgar strength of his obstacle-smashing characters while offering his sympathy to the insulted and the injured. But now I’m not so sure. His attitude has become harsher.
Judah Rosenthal is the kind of success—a lion of the Jewish medical-philanthropy circuit—who can hide his sins behind an ivied façade of respectability. When Martin Landau was young, his lean angularity and deep-set eyes made him seem odd-looking, almost sinister, but now, heavier, with thick, patriarchal brows, he’s craggily handsome, a middle-aged monument. Landau gives a strong, detailed performance; his doctor, normally masterful (in a ponderous sort of way), retreats into stuffy outrage when his mistress makes more demands on him than he can handle. Landau brings out the selfishness in Judah’s most self-righteous moments. And when Judah passes from simple deceit into criminality, Landau suffers, but without much pain. Judah’s suffering becomes a form of luxury, a way of assuring himself he has moral reflexes.
From an occasional look at Judah’s anxiously proper wife (Claire Bloom), we can see that volatile Dolores gave Judah an emotional charge lacking in his long, prosperous marriage. But after two years, Dolores has become a weepy, blackmailing woman. The normally glamorous Anjelica Huston, pacing and smoking furiously, races ahead, biting off her words; she looks pale, almost frumpy, and, for the first time, awkwardly large. It’s a flaw in the movie that Allen doesn’t give Dolores the kind of big scene that would make us understand her better. Except for a few flashbacks, where she appears loving and relaxed, she’s seen distantly, through Judah’s eyes, as a squalling, misery-inducing crank. Since Judah is a coward protecting himself, neither of them is in the right.
It’s not that Allen has become pitiless, but he’s making a stem effort to see things for what they are. Is the movie ever funny? Yes, but in an intentionally curdling way—the jokes are there to expose the weakness of the joker. Allen’s own character, Cliff, is a witty man yet also one of the bitterest studies in failure ever put on the screen. High-minded Cliff, who makes documentaries about toxic waste, puts himself and everyone else down. Rolling his eyes in disgust, Allen gives Cliff sarcasm without courage, intelligence without self-knowledge. Cliff falls in love with Halley but can’t see that his pitch to her is based almost entirely on making fun of another man’s success. And every time he ridicules Lester, he’s drawing on Lester’s energy while offering nothing of his own. Again, a simple rooting interest has been replaced by a more complex judgment. Cliff deserves a comeuppance. And Lester? As Alan Alda plays him—exuberantly, noisily, head bobbing—he’s an egotistical jerk. But you also see why he’s such an all-American success: He pleases people; he brings them to life; he’s generous as well as self-important.
In Allen’s new view, the strong, by definition, are great at shucking things off and moving on; they have talent, and they see the way to their own advantage in every situation. They beat down the weak—who get stuck in the glue of their own tastes, their own sense of honor—or merely discard them. Fatalism has replaced pathos.
And who is to stop the stone-crushers? A kind of pained ethical debate runs through Crimes and Misdemeanors, a debate between two visions of life. In one view, upheld by a stoic rabbi who is going blind (Sam Waterston, who makes goodness almost comically saccharine), and also by Judah’s Orthodox father, seen holding forth at a seder long, long ago, the world is morally coherent. Evil is punished in one way or another, either by God or through the suffering of the guilty. In the competing view, expounded by a German Holocaust survivor Cliff has been filming, as well as by Judah’s freethinking Socialist aunt, who also holds forth at that memorable long-ago seder, the universe is coldly indifferent and morally neutral; and belief in right and wrong, however admirable, is just a personal myth that people use to make sense of their lives. Dostoevski chewed over such ideas a full 120 years ago, but originality may not be the point. Woody Allen brings the old arguments dramatically to life. I don’t want to give away which view prevails, but I’ll interpret the title for you: More pessimistic than ever, Allen gives us a pleasant social world in which crime goes unpunished while misdemeanors are greeted with a scorn close to annihilation.
New York Magazine, October 23, 1989