Crimes and Misdemeanors

Dan Jardine

What if Fyodor Dostoyevsky had consorted With Oscar Wilde? They might have produced something like Woody Allen’s sharp and darkly amusing Crimes and Misdemeanors.

There are two plots in Crimes and Misdemeanors, which oddly parallel and reinforce each other. In one story (the ‘Crime’ story), Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, an apparently happily married and successful opthamologist whose life is on the verge of disintegration because Delores, his paramour of two years (Anjelica Huston), wants to reveal their relationship. Judah (Landau is brilliant in this role) is not a religious man, yet he consults Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterson) whose advice to confess and seek his wife’s forgiveness Judah rejects. He knows it would destroy his wife and consequently their marriage. Out of ideas, he turns to his ‘connected’ brother, played with subtle creepiness by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach, to make the problem disappear.

The second plot (the ‘Misdemeanor’ story) is much lighter, but no less important to Allen’s message. Here, Allen plays Cliff Stern, a failed documentary filmmaker who is arm-twisted into producing a biographical film on his loathed and highly successful television producer brother-in-law Lester (a fine, oily performance by Alan Alda). As Cliff’s marriage falls apart, he finds himself attracted to PBS producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who is also being pursued by Lester. This love triangle provides the film’s funniest lines, as it becomes clear that while Cliff is clearly the better man, Lester is the kind of fella who never loses.

When the two plots merge at the end of the film, and it becomes apparent that in Allen’s world, evil is rewarded and good punished, the film’s desperate theme becomes clear. It is a wonder that Allen is able to wring so many laughs out of this bleak psychic landscape, but as Lester himself says, “Comedy is just tragedy… plus time.”

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