Friday, February 17, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.13: Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Grade: 94 (A)
Woody Allen indulged in faux-Bergman snorefests with September and Another Woman. Both eschewed the half-comedy/half-drama approach of Hannah and Her Sisters in favor straightforward drama, yet neither of them had half the impact of the earlier film. Allen’s final film of the 80s, 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, was a more worthy follow-up to his 1986 hit- same half-comedy/half-drama approach, but in this case with more polar storylines. Allen conceived Crimes and Misdemeanors as a response to Hannah and Her Sisters, which he felt had ended too neatly and happily given the complicated problems at the center of the film. Accordingly, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a much darker, more melancholy film.
The film is split into two seemingly unrelated storylines. In the first, more dramatic half, Judah Rosenthal (an excellent Martin Landau in an Oscar-nominated turn) is a wealthy ophthalmologist and a pillar of his community. He has nice home and a nice family. Judah also has a mistress, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), whose affection for Judah has blossomed to full-blown love. Dolores has threatened to tell his family about their affair if he doesn’t do so first, and she also has information about Judah’s embezzlement from his humanitarian organization. Panic-stricken, Judah turns to his shady brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who only sees one solution: murder. Judah is appalled, but as pressure from Dolores increases, he agrees to hire someone. After the deed is done, Judah struggles with guilt and wonders how he can go on with his life.
 In the more comedic half, Cliff Davis (Allen) is a struggling documentary filmmaker whose marriage is on the fritz. Cliff wants to finish his documentary on a philosopher (the fictional Louis Levi), but he needs money, so first he much make a film about Lester (Alan Alda), his blowhard brother-in-law and a producer for the exact television entertainment that Cliff despises. Cliff and Lester both vie for the attention of Halley (Mia Farrow), a gorgeous, divorced producer. The two stories are connected by one character: Ben (Sam Waterson), a kind-hearted, moral rabbi at relative ease with his rapidly progressing blindness, Lester’s more tolerable brother (the one Cliff likes), and a patient of Judah’s.
Allen flaunts his ambition right up front: the title is a play on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which a man wrestles with his guilt over a murder he committed for “just” reasons. Allen had played with guilt as a theme in the Russian literature send-up Love and Death, but he handles the subject here with much more gravity. The struggles with morality recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, among other films, but Allen doesn’t push to be Bergman. Rather, he handles the subject matter with far more grace than he had shown before. Allen remembers to bring levity and life to the serious half of the film without trivializing it; at the same time, he brings gravity to the more comedic storyline without losing its mostly comedic tone (best Allen one-liner: “The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty”). The result is one of his satisfying and mature works.
Most of the film’s funniest moments come from Alan Alda’s hilariously pompous television producer, Lester. Originally conceived as a minor character, his performance was so funny that Allen expanded his part as a send-up of the kind of pompous characters artists meet in the entertainment business. Reportedly based on a former colleague that both Allen and Alda despised, Lester produces the most inane garbage passed for “serious” work one could find on a television, including a show based on an ACLU lawyer with a conservative husband (“we can tackle real issues!”). He thinks very little of his brother-in-law (“you weren’t my first choice…this is a favor for my sister”), and he condescends to him left and right (“I have a closet full of Emmys”). He’s known to give nonsensical explications on the nature of comedy such as “If it bends, it’s funny…if it breaks, it’s not” or “comedy is tragedy plus time”.
Lester hits on any young starlet he comes across, and when he finds Halley, his pick-up lines are barely disguised sleaziness. Halley brushes him off at first and spends time with Cliff, watching Singin’ in the Rain and some of Professor Levi’s lectures on life together (more on that later). Cliff isn’t the most confident person in the world (it is Woody Allen), and his jealousy for Lester’s success is clear, but he’s a good man. Sadly, it doesn’t matter: Cliff is sensitive, caring, intelligent, and has deep love for art…but he’s not what Halley is looking for. Lester, for all his boorishness and stupidity, is a rather shrewd, charismatic man, and when he schmoozes Halley with Emily Dickinson and career opportunities, it isn’t surprising that he charms her in the end. Love worked out alright in the end of Hannah and Her Sisters. It isn’t always so.
Cliff’s documentary on Professor Levi reveals a fascinating character: Levy believes that God cares about humanity, but that he demands morals. The universe is a cold place, but love can persuade us to say. Cliff admires that through all the hard times in Levi’s life, he’s always said “yes” to existence. No doubt it gives Cliff one of the classic Woody Allen “reasons to live”: Cliff has a sister, an adoring niece he takes to the movies, and a woman he’s fallen in love with (even though his marriage isn’t over yet). But Halley chooses Lester, Cliff loses his job when his uncomplimentary documentary on Lester compares him (hilariously) to Mussolini, and one day Cliff is shocked to learn that Levi, for one crucial day, said “no” to existence: he committed suicide. The great man’s final note: “I’ve gone out the window.”
Professor Levi’s musings on God’s relationship with humanity and morals extends to Judah’s story. Here is a man who was given everything: wealth, love, family, a successful and fulfilling vocation. Yet this was not enough for Judah, and his adulterous relationship with Dolores has turned sour. Much like the relationship between Max von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters, Judah acts as a teacher for the younger woman. But in this case it is the pupil that smothers the teacher, and the consequences are far more serious. Judah confesses to Ben despite his lack of faith. He feels terrible for his wrongs (although he tries to justify it left and right). Ben suggests he confess to his wife, but Judah feels he would never be forgiven. He turns to a less saintly guide: Jack, his morally dubious brother, who doesn’t hesitate to suggest that Dolores can be “taken care of”.  Judah can’t believe it, but when Dolores continues to threaten him, he sees little choice. His next conversation with Ben is far more serious: Ben knows what Judah feels he must do. “It’s a human life. God sees.” But, as Judah says, “God is  luxury I can’t afford.”
Allen had used classical music in previous films (most notably Bach in Hannah and Her Sisters), but his use of Schubert in Judah’s story is nothing short of masterful. Judah had taught Dolores about Schubert and tried to expand her understanding of classical music; he described Schubert as “the sad one”. It’s an appropriate description, given what will come: when the act of “pure evil” is carried out, it hits Judah hard. Jack assures him it will look like a “small burglary”, but Judah drives to Dolores’ apartment to see. Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 plays as Judah discovers the “godawful mess”: Dolores, dead on the floor, her eyes wide open. Judah recovers certain incriminating items to avoid suspicion; when the police contact him, it is because Dolores was a patient, not because they suspect him. It’s a clean getaway.
Or so it should be, but Judah is wracked with guilt. The next conversation with Ben sees Judah lying, claiming that Dolores backed down. Ben is satisfied, saying that sometimes “good luck is the best plan”. Judah’s guilt is not assuaged: he revisits his childhood home and, in a scene reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, he witnesses a conversation on the nature of morality and God from his youth. Judah’s father, a rabbi, hosts a Seder, which his atheist, Leninist sister denounces as “mumbo-jumbo superstition”. She does not believe in Rabbi Rosenthal’s “moral structure” of the world: Hitler killed 6 million Jews and got away with it. Rabbi Rosenthal insists that murderers will be punished, but his cynical sister believes that if a man can get away with murder and not be bothered by ethics, “he’s home free”. One final moment: even if there is no God, the rabbi insists that it is better to believe, and that he will always choose God over truth. It’s a deeply moving, thoughtful sequence which shows Allen grappling with questions of morality and theology with as much intelligence and heart without ever becoming didactic. The argument shows the all-powerful moral and ethical dilemma at the heart of Crimes and Misdemeanors: can we do evil if we will not be punished, and if so, can we live with ourselves?
In the end, Judah is not punished. The murder is attributed to a drifter, and the final sequence shows Judah at the wedding of Ben’s daughter. There, he meets a hopelessly dejected Cliff, who has recently learned that Halley, with whom he had fallen hopelessly, passionately in love with, is engaged to Lester, his worst nightmare come true. Cliff jokes to Judah that he’s planning “the perfect murder.” Judah proceeds to tell Cliff a chilling murder tale of his own, and Cliff doesn’t believe the ending. How can a decent man live with the horrible decision he’s made. Judah’s answer: “we rationalize and deny to go on living.”
It’s one of the greatest, most admirable accomplishments of Allen’s career, a film which, along with Hannah and Her Sisters, perfectly realizes Allen’s dramatic ambitions without collapsing under the weight of imitation or self-seriousness. For all the darkness, Allen does not condemn these men, but rather leaves us with a final bit of wisdom from Professor Levi:
“We are all faced with throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been 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 to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

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