On Screen: The Joke’s on the Secularists

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Written and directed by Woody Allen

An Orion Release

Woody Allen’s latest film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, is not a farce (though it has a few gags), not a satire (though it contains a few of Allen’s customary targets), nor a straightforward drama. In fact, it is not only unlike any of Allen’s other movies but is different in form from most of the work of western dramatists of the past few hundred years. The best comparison I can conjure up is with a Jacobean play called The Changeling, which utilizes two plots, one grim, the other entirely facetious, and two sets of characters, each of which is confined to one of the plots. Not until the very end of the play do any of the characters from one plot wander into the other story. This is also true of Crimes and Misdemeanors.

By adopting this dramatic form, Woody Allen is not making things easy for his fans. He has, in fact risked offending them both in his method and, as we shall see, with his subject matter. But, in doing so, he has produced a remarkable movie, nearly a great one.

The protagonist of the somber plot is Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a wealthy Jewish ophthalmologist in late middle-age. He has sunk very deeply into the plush of professional success. He values his elegant wife not for her full humanity or even her physical attractiveness (though Claire Bloom is still a heart-stopping beauty) but because she is the linchpin of his comfortable household and, in her elegant presence, another testament to his prosperity. The last is also true of his daughter, handsome and well-educated, who has found herself an equally handsome and well-educated husband. It is nearly unthinkable that anything gauche could ever attach itself to the trim, elegant Dr. Rosenthal.

But there is a mess in his life. He has a mistress, Dolores (Angelica Huston) who now wants all of Rosenthal for herself and is threatening to take action if he doesn’t come across. Dolores isn’t a threat merely to Judah’s marital comfort; she knows enough about some shady accounting he’s done to send him to prison or at least to tarnish his image in the eyes of his social peers. This mistress isn’t a gold digger. If she were, her lover could easily buy her silence. She’s an hysteric, and she can’t be reasoned with.

Rosenthal is an atheist, but he has enjoyed a long-lasting argumentative friendship with a rabbi, Ben (Sam Waterston), who is firmly convinced of the objective existence of God the Merciful, God the Judge. When Ben gives Rosenthal the usual sound advice about levelling with his wife, etc., Rosenthal knows this won’t work because Mrs. Rosenthal values her husband for the same social reasons that he values her. If he embarrasses her, she’ll leave him. And then there’s the matter of those juggled books….

From rabbi to hoodlum. Judah now seeks advice from his brother, a semi-hood played by Jerry Orbach. This brother is shrewd enough to perceive that his sibling is really asking for something more than advice. Orbach tells his brother that he knows a person who can “take care” of Dolores. Judah is first appalled by the proposal, then entertains it, then takes advantage of it. Dolores ceases to exist. Judah’s brother tells him to “put it all behind you.” Can he? For a while, Rosenthal seems to be in torment. He grows morose and edgy, blowing up at his wife and daughter in public, and embarrassing them even more with his proclamation that he now believes in God. But will this period of remorse last and what mode of conduct will it take? We have to wait until the movie’s other plot, the comic “Misdemeanors,” is concluded before we learn the fate of Judah Rosenthal.

The hero of “Misdemeanors” is Cliff, seemingly the usual Woody Allen surrogate, hapless in love, professionally desperate in his career as documentary filmmaker. Cliff is married to a cold woman (Rabbi Ben’s sister) who stirs herself enough to talk her other brother, a hotshot TV producer, Lester (Alan Alda), into getting Cliff a job making a documentary celebrating the wit and wisdom of Lester. Cliff, despising his crass in-law, would much rather do a documentary about a significant philosopher called Levey (inspired by Primo Levi?) about whom Cliff has already compiled quite a bit of film footage. The attractive producer of the Lester documentary (Mia Farrow) also professes to despise Lester and shows interest in Cliff’s pet project.

Soon, Cliff’s interest in her becomes more than professional. By the time he speaks his love, Farrow is on her way to do some work in Europe for four months. When she returns, she is ready for love and marriage all right —to Lester!

The counterpoint of comedy and tragedy in this movie is both unsettling and piquant. But we must finally be gripped by the inherent interest of each of the two stories. How well does Allen succeed in this regard?

The Rosenthal segments are completely gripping. The writing, casting, staging, and photography unite to create a world orderly, polite, nearly antiseptic, yet trembling on the verge of violence. Even when some emotional violence is transpiring on screen (no physical violence is ever shown), Allen’s camera observes it all from a discreet distance. During a shouting match between Rosenthal and his mistress in which they move from room to room in her apartment, the camera stays in one place even when the quarreling pair momentarily leaves the camera’s field of view. It’s as if the camera-as-spectator were afraid to see the way these two hammer away at each other yet couldn’t tear it’s eye away from the combat zone. At another point, Dolores, shouting at Rosenthal in her kitchen, moves behind a light fixture, so that what the camera takes in is a seemingly decapitated woman who can still shriek. The effect is startling and would be garish if allowed to continue a second longer than it does.

Martin Landau as Judah, the honored citizen and secret murderer, appears civilized in every fibre of his body. Landau has a way of using his large, strong hands when he pleads or remonstrates that reminds me of a rabbi or a yeshiva student trying to refute or defend some Talmudic argument. His are the gestures of a man who exists through civilized discourse, who uses words and words only to persuade, prescribe, cajole, offer, and take. When he kills, the deed will be set in motion by a few words of consent over a phone. Concurring in a crime that is a negation of everything his father believed, taught, or stood for, he is still, in some ineffably horrible way, the spoiled darling of a loving family, a fastidious, cosseted child now grown into an even more fastidious, self-cosseting man: a man who will murder to keep mess out of his life as long as he doesn’t have to commit the murder himself.

Landau’s most subtle and disturbing feat of acting is in the scene when Rosenthal goes to Dolores’s apartment after her death in order to remove anything that might link him to the murder. The corpse is lying on the floor. The camera fastens on its face and staring eyes as if the director were shocked by the murder of his own fictional character. But when the camera pans away to take in Rosenthal, the murderer isn’t at all transfixed by the ghastly sight, but is scurrying around like a maniacal housecleaner. In his frenzied hunt for his effects, Rosenthal can’t even muster a morbid fascination for his own victim. This man may be a monster, but he is also a worm. Yet he never ceases to be a moral agent, and Allen insists on showing us the full trajectory of moral abdication.

Before the crime, Rosenthal sits in his darkened living room, pondering his options. Atheist though he is, he needs a witness to his inner struggle. He mentally summons a phantom of his friend, Ben. The rabbi tries to dissuade Judah from murder by using nearly the same words that Judah’s father was fond of saying: God watches us. At this point, Allen cuts to a close-up of the telephone on the table in front of Rosenthal. Why? Rosenthal has neither reached for the phone nor even looked at it. As we stare at the phone, we hear Rosenthal say, “I can’t afford God.” Ben: “Now you’re talking like your brother.” Rosenthal: “He lives in the real world.” And his hand moves into the frame for the phone. He commissions the murder.

As soon as Rosenthal grants greater weight to sheer expediency than to the possibility of a moral center in the universe, he has put himself on an automatic course toward murder. That explains the close-up of the phone, the instrument of murder. This thing, this object, is more worthy of visual dominance than the face of a man who has stripped himself of conscience. The deed of murder is just waiting for Rosenthal to do it once he has made himself a slave to things.

But Allen isn’t satisfied to show merely the immediate causes of the crime. He also wants to show the moral environment out of which such a deed may grow. After the crime, the tormented Rosenthal visits the one-time home of his parents and sees the memory of a seder presided over by his father and attended by family and relatives, including his teen-aged self. His aunt, a middle-aged woman with a sour face and a taunting voice, flaunts her cynicism. Against Papa Rosenthal’s avowal that God watches and judges, this aunt repeats the adages that “history is written by the victors,” and “might makes right.” The patriarch reproves her, connecting her cynicism with her belief in Marxism, her atheism, and some disappointment in love. When pressed by the aunt as to whether he would blind himself to a valid argument against God, the father replies that “between truth and God, I would take God.” But what kind of religious position is it that accepts the either/or of God vs. truth? Is it so surprising that a child, witness to this argument, would grow up believing in God as a luxury not affordable by those who wish to live in the “real world”?

So much for the crime. What about the misdemeanors? What are they? Who commits them?

Is Lester the perpetrator? He bullies his staff. But those flunkies put up with it willingly enough and are well paid to do so. He makes lousy sitcoms. But aesthetic malpractice isn’t necessarily moral folly. He lusts after starlets. But he has seemingly honorable intentions toward Farrow, and many a lecher has settled down after matrimony. He takes Cliff’s film project away from him, but can he be expected to keep his hands off a piece of work designed to mock him? Anyway, Lester’s right to re-edit was in the contract that Cliff foolishly did not read. Perhaps Lester’s real misdemeanor is the theft of Mia Farrow’s affections? But Farrow isn’t abducted, ravished, or even seduced. She enthusiastically becomes Lester’s fiancee.

Well, then, in her faithlessness, is she the villain of the story? In murdering Cliff’s hopes, is she the comic counterpart of Rosenthal, the physical murderer? But, for a true parallel, we should have been taken into Mia Farrow’s thoughts the way we are taken into Rosenthal’s. We could have watched her lose interest in the nice but masochistic Cliff while she falls into a fascination with Alda’s power and wealth. But is it his material power that attracts her? Near the film’s conclusion, she tells Cliff that she now finds Lester endearing. Is she telling the truth? If she is, she is being stupid, not mercenary; purblind, not callous; she is committing no crime of the heart nor even a misdemeanor, but only a folly that might ultimately hurt her (if Lester returns to philandering) more than Cliff. We can’t tell if she is telling the truth because Allen never gives Farrow a scene of her own but always shows her as an enigma seen through the eyes of Cliff.

In fact, if we aren’t distracted by Woody Allen’s usual nebbish charm, we can begin to see that Cliff is the perpetrator of the “misdemeanors.” In fact, he commits misdemeanors in every aspect of his life. As a filmmaker, he aspires to honesty but is ineffectual. In his marital life, he schemes to leave his wife but is too indecisive to do it. Even his otherwise charming relationship with his fatherless niece is marred by his blathering on about his love life.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, his hero worship of the philosopher Levey seems rebuked by Levey’s unexplained suicide. Levey, from the fragments of his discourse that we hear when Cliff plays them on his movieola, has no belief in an objectively existing, all-seeing deity, but believes humans must struggle to endow an otherwise empty universe with justice and meaning. Yet Levey —in good health, well-respected, jovial in manner — throws himself out of a window one fine day, leaving behind a meaningless suicide note. So much for endowing the universe. And so much for Cliff’s hero worship.

Cliff and Judah finally meet in the last scene; to long-time Woody Allen fans this final view of both men may come as something of a shock.

Judah, whom we last saw a nervous wreck lurching down a road towards a wintry horizon, now looks tanned, fit, and friendly. He leaves the wedding party and approaches the brooding Cliff: “Ben told me you’re a filmmaker. I’ve got a great idea for a movie.” He then proceeds to tell the whole story of the “Crimes” section of the movie but without revealing, of course, that the protagonist is himself. He also relates the story’s aftermath, which we haven’t seen on screen: after suffering a near-breakdown, the murderer wakes up one morning, the sun is shining, life seems warm and friendly, and his family is doing well. Why torment oneself for something that is over and done with? The man takes a European vacation, and when he returns, the murder seems like something that happened on another planet. The End.

How does Cliff like this story? He rejects the ending and proposes another. The protagonist, agonized by the silence of God at his crime, turns himself in so as to perpetrate the justice that God doesn’t provide. “That would make the story tragic,” avers Cliff. Rosenthal, startled, even a bit miffed, calls Cliff’s alternative a Hollywood ending. Rosenthal’s wife, waiting under an arch at the end of the hallway and looking beautiful, calls to the ophthalmologist who wishes Cliff all the best, gives Mrs. Rosenthal a warm embrace and leaves the party with her. Cliff is left with his drink while, in the next room, his wife informs her brother Lester that she has found a lover. Lester congratulates her.

The Rabbi, a firm believer in an objective, all-seeing God, dances with his daughter, the bride. Under Dr. Rosenthal’s care, Ben’s sight has been deteriorating throughout the course of the movie. Now he is stone blind. As the father and daughter dance, we hear the philosopher Levey’s voice on the soundtrack telling us that we must hope that the next generation will learn a little more wisdom so that the world need not be “an empty place but a just and moral one” — an odd quotation from a man who has just made the world a little emptier by destroying himself.

The rabbi’s blindness is not, I take it, a refutation of his belief that God exists and watches and loves us. Rather, the blindness is an index of his psychological myopia. When still sighted, he told his old friend Rosenthal that, deep in Rosenthal’s heart, there had to be some recognition that the world is guided by a just God. That seemed to be a justified insight when Judah was at first filled with remorse over his crime. But, finally, material comfort proved enough to drive this anguish, and fear of God, away. Ben’s philosophy serves himself well but doesn’t help him recognize a man whose real god is creature comfort. In the dark of his blindness, Ben can continue to see the face of God. But he has never had an eye for the perfidy and torment revealed and concealed by the human face.

But the blindest character of all is Cliff: blind to his wife’s infidelity, blind to his lover’s real needs or real fickleness, unable to protect himself from predators like Lester, unable to perceive that substratum of despair in Levey that would drive this survivor of the Holocaust and advocate of a sort of godless spirituality to take his own life.

Woody Allen has always played schlemiels whom we could root for. When he made snide remarks about various flakes and bullies, we laughed with him. But now he himself has chosen to play a sort of flake: a would-be artist in search of truth who cannot recognize evil even when it sits down next to him at a party and explains itself. Isn’t this blindness to evil more than just a misdemeanor? Isn’t this at least a minor crime of the spirit? How can victimizers fail to flourish in a society in which the victims are so blind?

After flourishing by delivering well-placed kicks to very easy targets, Woody Allen has reserved his latest kick for just the kind of person who enjoyed his earlier comedies: the cynic who sneers at religion and absolute morality. It would be presumptuous to say that Allen has undergone a spiritual conversion. I would guess that he is still a humanistic skeptic. But, judging by what he has put on the screen, our secular society is one of the things he is now skeptical about.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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