Crimes and Misdemanors (1989)

CrimesDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston

Given the relatively poor month for movies March has turned out to be, I have once again delved into the vault to review a film that is not a new release.  For this “vintage review,” I have decided to take another look at one of my favorite films form my favorite director.  If you follow my blog, you’ve probably noticed the eagerness that accompanies my reviews for Woody Allen’s films.  Since I started this site, I’ve been able to review To Rome With Love, Blue Jasmine, and most recently Magic in the Moonlight.  The merits of these films alone can be debated, but when one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen over time, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius. It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting. Thus, of all of the films Allen has made over the years, I am always surprised how engaged I am with his film Crimes and Misdemeanors. I see this as one of Allen’s most mature films, utilizing his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.

As in many of Allen’s films, the themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors are derived from a classic work of literature, in this case Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, this film is certainly not a remake of the classic novel. Instead Allen shapes it and molds it into a much different story told through the mind of Woody Allen. His knowledge of literature allows him to create an intellectually stimulating discussion on morality, basing it on the famous novel. The most obvious changes between Dostoyevsky’s tale and Allen’s film are seen in Allen’s altering of the title. First of all, Allen completely omits the word “punishment.” Crime and Punishment is about a man who suffers terrible guilt after committing a double murder. He is finally driven by his guilt to confess and goes to prison where he eventually does find redemption. Allen twists this “punishment follows crime” ideology and gives a contrasting view of a financially successful man who gets away with the murder of his mistress and finds solace without formal punishment. Guilt is the device that Allen recognizes as the force that is responsible for a crime’s outcome. In Crime and Punishment the protagonist is haunted by guilt at no end until he has no choice but to confess. However, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah (Martin Landau) is at first plagued with guilt, however as time passes so does his guilt. Here Allen says that guilt is a passing phenomenon and that people are overall morally detached and indifferent. The second change Allen makes to Dostoyevsky’s title is his addition of the word “Misdemeanors.” In law, a misdemeanor is usually a lesser charge for which one accused of a crime can plea. This addition of the word “Misdemeanors” suggests that although a crime is committed, it can be rationalized and categorized until it is no longer a crime and is now only a “lesser charge.”

Furthermore, it is with the addition of the word “Misdemeanors” that the character of Lester (Alan Alda) is introduced. Crimes and Misdemeanors constantly suggests similarities between Judah and Lester just as the title ties the word “Crimes” with “Misdemeanors.” Lester, like Judah, is a successful and smart member of upper class society. Both Judah and Lester have trouble keeping promises. Judah promises Delores (Angelica Huston) his mistress that he will leave his wife for her and Lester seems to entice women to bed with promises of success. However, guilt, again, marks the one main difference between Judah and Lester. While Judah is tormented with guilt after committing his “crime,” Lester hurts people, or commits his “lesser crimes,” without feeling any guilt; an example being the scene when he yells at one of his writers, who happens to have Cancer, on the basis that his jokes are not funny. Allen, thus, with the addition of Lester, has created a second separate plot. The first plot is a serious dramatic story of crime and guilt. The second is a series of comedic elements which allow the audience to relax their views of the harsh realities brought up in the first plot, thus further demonstrating Allen’s point on how people can eventually live with these harsh realities.

Mixing comedy with drama is how Allen successfully gets his point across, and it seems rather likely that Allen is speaking directly through Lester’s character. There is a scene where Lester makes the insightful statement that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” He follows this statement up by saying that “the night Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t joke about it. Now time has gone by and it’s fair game.” These statements seem to sum up Allen’s argument that time erases guilt and emphasizes a kind of moral neutrality and indifference in humankind.  One could further pontificate that Allen supports this view in his personal life as well, but this is a movie review, so we’ll leave it at that.

This second subplot also revolves around another character Cliff (Woody Allen). However, if Lester is Allen’s voice in Crimes and Misdemeanors, then what is the purpose of Allen’s presence in the film as the lovable loser Cliff? I think Cliff is Allen’s way of poking fun at his own (Lester’s) “crimes and misdemeanors.” It is through Cliff’s documentary that the audience learns about Lester’s bad qualities. Before the audience is shown Cliff’s finished product, they are exposed to very little of the pretentious behavior Lester exhibits. I think that Woody Allen is making fun of the pretentiousness that he has been accused of by critics in real life. However, his character of Cliff offers a look at the “real Woody Allen” just like Cliff’s documentary offers a look at the “real Lester.” Cliff, like Allen himself, remains an outsider for the entire film. He is constantly unhappy with the world around him, but he is also completely aware of how that world is pretentious and reliant on glitz and glamor.

Allen uses his knowledge of film to organize and eventually fuse these two plots together. Firstly, Allen literally uses other films to move along his narrative. Allen creates a parallel of the comedic subplot and the dramatic subplot with the other films he showcases within his film. Cliff watches somber Hollywood movies with his niece that include such subject matter as adultery and disloyalty, an obvious parallel between the themes of his own film. However, in order to make him feel better about life, Cliff says that he “…watches Singin’ in the Rain every few months.” This once again echoes the theme that comedy and laughter helps obscure the harsh realities of life in order to make them livable. Thus, Allen creates a subtle connection between the two subplots by using movies.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is a powerful and mature look at modern-day morality. Allen utilizes his knowledge of the genres of comedy as well as drama to create this well organized and structured story.  Allen’s ability to parody himself and to voice his opinions through other characters is impressive, and his knowledge of literature, film, and life emphasizes his ideas, helping to create a charged and engaging film.  A

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3 thoughts on “Crimes and Misdemanors (1989)

  1. Pingback: Celebrity | The People's Critic

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