Crimes and Misdemeanors

By Debi Lee Mandel

What is ultimately important to us in the recesses of our civilized souls: moral veracity or corporeal satisfaction? Some of us invest in the promise of an afterlife in which this life is judged, and deny ourselves the physical pleasures generally available, now. Others live only for these pleasures, even with the threat of eternal damnation looming ahead. The majority straddles the line, with the most creative among us inventing elaborate dances that crisscross the boundaries, hoping to obscure it completely. What is right and what is wrong? Better, how do we weigh what is right for us against what may be wrong for others?

If you have seen even one of Woody Allen's films you know he is preoccupied with death. More correctly, he is preoccupied with not dying. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the filmmaker explores the consequences of the choices we make, based upon how we see ourselves and others, in a much broader definition of "seeing." There are three main threads here, related to this concept: an ophthalmologist who loses the ability to "see" the line between right and wrong, a rabbi who sees that line clearly but is slowly going blind, losing sight of the "real" world around him, and an idealist who sees the greater good but denies the realities of others. The lesser characters have their blind spots as well. The ophthalmologist’s family is blind to his affair and his mistress doesn't see how her threats and actions will not lead to what she wants. The assistant producer loses her clarity about her subject's shallowness and falls in love with him. A philosophy professor and Holocaust survivor speaks about the necessity for optimism and suddenly commits suicide.

Martin Landau was justly nominated for his portrayal of Dr. Judah Rosenthal, a man who has it all: success and respect in his field, his family and his community. The story begins as Judah attempts to end his 2-year affair with the emotionally dependent Dolores (Huston), who has built her life around promises he may—or may not—have made to her. His appeals land in her blind spot; Dolores claims she cannot let him go and threatens to destroy all he has worked for. Distraught, he confides in his long time friend and patient, Ben (Waterston), a rabbi with a deep sense of morality. Ben encourages Judah (in that measured, rabbi sort of way) to confess the affair to his wife (Bloom), thereby neutralizing Dolores' threat. But the good doctor has already crossed the line between right and wrong when he participated in act of financial impropriety, which, unlike adultery, is punishable by law. This is the pivotal point of his anguish: Dolores is the only one who knows and includes exposure in her challenge. When Ben's moral advice fails him, Judah calls his estranged brother (Orbach), who has nefarious connections and offers a very different way to "neutralize" his problem.

In another thread, Allen himself plays Cliff, an idealistic filmmaker who struggles to produce altruistic documentaries. Financially strapped, he takes on a project he finds loathsome: a PBS-style segment about his wildly successful and basically superficial brother-in-law Lester (Alda), a decision he easily justifies as it will help raise money for his own, more dear undertakings. With his marriage on the threshold of failure, he falls for Halley (Farrow), a liaison on the project, but Lester has his eye on her as well.

The rabbi is the tie that binds the central characters together, both literally and figuratively. He is Cliff's brother-in-law and Lester's brother, as well as an old acquaintance of Judah's. More importantly, he is going blind, but Allen suggests his faith made him blind long ago. In Judah's darkest hour (interestingly, just before he acts on his fateful decision), Ben appears as the doctor’s conscience, but it is too late—Judah already recognizes that "God is a luxury I cannot afford."

Allen takes the extra step to make Judah's moral dilemma believable (how can a storyteller justify murder vis-à-vis adultery these days?) by adding embezzlement to his past. This "man of character" has already violated societal mores, easing his transition into moral decay. The idyll of being virtuous is not as black and white these days; as we question our faith, more complex issues arise. Cliff tells his niece, "I think I see a cab. If we run quickly we can kick the crutch from that old lady and get it." A joke, of course. But every day we make decisions that weaken our moral fiber; every breach leads us one step further from our ideals and the line we draw between right and wrong, shifts.

In a scene of sheer brilliance, the doctor returns to his childhood home and finds it alive with his memory of a certain seder of his youth in which his familial elders discuss the larger issues he now faces. Allen has done this before, but this time Judah breaks an interior "fourth wall" and interacts with his relatives in a discourse forbidden to him as a child.

With a tangle of philosophical questions, tightly-crafted characters and intelligent conversation, Woody Allen constructs a morality tale that exposes the latent amorality beneath our eroding veneer of ethical behavior. We abhor violence, yet justify it when WE deem necessary. Who decides?

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