It Isn’t Funny If It Doesn’t Break: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors 1As soothing as “separating the art from the artist” can be, sometimes the more useful course is to dive right into an artist’s output in the context of the allegations against them. (Swearing off the work altogether is another viable option.) Hitchcock is said to have been abusive and controlling toward his actresses, and looking at Vertigo through that lens only makes it more interesting as a despairing self-portrait. Something similar could be said about Louis C.K.’s most recent film, although its release was canceled after stories of his vile behavior became public knowledge. As for Woody Allen, the material is plentiful; few filmmakers have been as prolific, or as prone to putting themselves on screen, whether literally or by proxy. Manhattan will always be the biggest target in this regard, with its story of a man in his 40s (played by Allen) dating a seventeen-year-old girl. But I saw, and didn’t much like, Manhattan years before I learned about Dylan Farrow. Revisiting the film now might have a purpose, but I’m in no hurry. Crimes and Misdemeanors presents the bigger challenge — as a movie that has meant a lot more to me, and one that, through its dual structure, complicates the presumption that the protagonist is Allen by another name.

Crimes and Misdemeanors can truly be called a “comedy drama” or “tragicomedy,” with one storyline being the funny one and the other considerably less so. The film alternates between these two plots, with only the occasional subtle hint that they have anything to do with one another. But as the image on the poster/DVD case would imply, there’s something connecting Allen’s Cliff Stern and Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal. Both characters are married men who get involved with other women, but the simple fact of adultery, whether committed or merely desired, is not their biggest problem. The woman in each scenario is really more of an excuse for the man to unleash some of his darker, even hidden, impulses. Inadequacy, guilt and rage become self-feeding. In the end, there’s a profound feeling of emptiness, meaninglessness, after the relationships have come to an end. The difference is that one of the women is murdered and the other is not.

Crimes and Misdemeanors 2The make-or-break moment in this film comes less than twenty minutes in. Judah Rosenthal is an ophthalmologist examining the failing eyes of an old friend who happens to be a rabbi (Sam Waterston). Suddenly, Judah interrupts the examination to confess his affair with a flight attendant named Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). The rabbi insists that the best course of action is for Judah to tell his wife about it and seek forgiveness, but he doesn’t think that will end well. The difference of opinion can be chalked up to a difference in worldview, and the rabbi, chuckling, remarks concerning their argument, “We went from a small infidelity to the meaning of existence.” That’s it, right there. The viewer can either jump on that train of thought or scoff at it. Woody Allen has always been unique as a comedian with an abiding, overt interest in the philosophical questions of European art cinema. Here, he’s basically making a Bergman movie, going so far as to work with Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. He uses a pair of stories about romantic indiscretions to contemplate the impossibility of justice in a godless universe, or, on the flip side, anxieties about God in a world where justice doesn’t happen.

Crimes and Misdemeanors 3The failures of justice in the two stories have different impacts on the characters inasmuch as one is the perpetrator and the other is the (self-proclaimed) victim. Rosenthal, ensnared in his illicit relationship and trying to keep it a secret while Dolores seeks closure and an end to the lies, arranges to “get rid of” her. Unspoken but difficult to ignore about their relationship are the power dynamics: he a prosperous and beloved physician, she a working girl who meets him while in the process of serving him. He has the wealth and connections necessary first to have her killed and then to avoid anything beyond perfunctory suspicion for it, and she has no way of protecting herself. Allen uses long takes, the camera panning over a room as the actors play out a scene, and the technique serves him well here. One scene, nearly four minutes in duration, takes place in a single shot, panning from Dolores’s kitchen to the front door to the living room and back, catching almost every square foot of her apartment as she and Judah argue over the fallout of their affair. The next time we see Judah (after a little time spent with the Cliff Stern story), he’s at his home, consulting with his thuggish brother (Jerry Orbach) over how to handle his “problem” while walking past his private pool. For all the hand-wringing he does after the fact, Judah never really acknowledges that he gets away with murder because of who he is. Having such an elevated stature allows him to contemplate more theoretical questions, like whether, in the absence of physical punishment, the mere fact that he’ll carry painful memories locked inside himself for the rest of his life is itself a testament to God’s wrath. The Jewish faith of his youth begins to haunt him.

Compared to the fairly simple morality of the Rosenthal plot, the Cliff Stern story is a morass of self-mythologizing and self-revelation. In keeping with his serious aspirations in real life, the Allen character is a documentary filmmaker who shuns big Hollywood success in favor of unsung heroes and deep thoughts. Cliff’s brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) is his foil, a television producer who begrudgingly agrees to work with the struggling filmmaker on a self-aggrandizing project. Meanwhile, Cliff’s marriage turns cold and he finds himself attracted to another producer named Halley (Mia Farrow) who laughs at his jokes and seems to respect his ambition. The jabs at Lester’s vapid pomposity and insufferable cant about comedy (“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” and that sort of thing) are the funniest parts of the movie. Allen’s perspective is easy to share. At the same time, the mind reels when faced with a scene in which Cliff suspects that Lester is trying to use his position to coerce sex from Halley, while in fact they’re engaging in a consensual relationship. The twist here is that, although at first Lester would seem to be the analogue to the privileged Judah, he’s actually no worse than average. It’s Cliff who would like to have a person out of the way, Cliff who wrestles with a lack of faith in the moral structure of the universe.

Crimes and Misdemeanors 4The idea that you are your own worst critic is an insidious falsehood. True, no other person (besides God) can keep track of every single terrible thing you’ve thought or imagined. But we can cushion our faults and mistakes in any number of ways, sometimes unconsciously. We can sublimate them or distort them, even going so far as to justify them. So when Woody Allen puts some of his personal darkness on film, it’s intriguing, maybe even, at times, admirable. But making a movie also gets him more money, praise, and power. It’s nothing like accountability. Allen knows this, too, as shown in the final scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Judah meets Cliff and tells his story in the form of a hypothetical — a shallow substitute for confession, but a way to at least momentarily relieve the burden. Ultimately, there’s no rug big enough to sweep that kind of thing under. In a movie preoccupied with the symbolism of eyes and firelight and lamps (prominently placed in the warmly lit interior scenes that Allen favored, against Nykvist’s objections), another quote from the rabbi rings out: “Don’t you think God sees?”

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