Crimes and Misdemeanors

August 22, 2012

Just what kind of contract does Woody Allen have, anyway? The Woodman, one of our most talented and thoughtful directors, seems to be able to do exactly as he pleases–without regard to box-office viability–even though he hasn’t had a big commercial hit in years.

And Allen’s films seem to get smaller, more intimate, as he goes on. September and Another Woman were chamber dramas, while his hilarious segment in New York Stories was, of course, just a short. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen shows no sign of raising his sights. The issues are large in terms of ethics and philosophy, small in terms of story.

The film follows two stories, linked only intermittently. The larger of the two is about an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) whose lover (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom). The lover becomes crazy enough that the doctor considers having her done away with.

The other story is about a documentary filmmaker (Allen) who gets hired to shoot a self-serving portrait of his big shot brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an unctuous TV mogul. The film doesn’t turn out so well—Allen cuts in shots of Mussolini during Alda’s speeches—but Allen does meet an attractive producer (Mia Farrow) during filming.

This side of Crimes and Misdemeanors contains the film’s laughs, which are prime Allen (he remembers to the day when his wife stopped having sex with him; it was April 20, Hitler’s birthday). As they weave together, the two different stories examine the various moral choices people make, from the major to the minor.

It is all interesting enough, and many of the funny moments are superb. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Allen is repeating himself in many of the movie’s situations; the courtship of the Mia Farrow character is familiar enough to be stock. And there are conversations that continue the overdone tendencies of his last few films, in which characters spell things out in labored theoretical terms. Does Allen know people who talk like this, or do these discussions take place in his head?

Still, there is Allen’s scrupulous visual sense (with help from cinematographer Sven Nykvist), and a lovely unforced performance by Martin Landau, fresh from his supporting Oscar nomination for Tucker. Landau nicely captures the turmoil of a man living in two worlds, trying to figure out the difference between a crime and a sin.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1989

Always meant to watch this movie again, but haven’t had a chance in the last 23 years. 23 years? Jesus. In any case, it’s highly regarded by many Allen fans, and it’s one of the films to bring his streak of misogyny to the surface.