Crimes and Misdemeanors has two different storylines. The main story follows Judah (Martin Landau) a man who has it all. His mistress played by Anjelica Huston, is threatening not only to bring up the affair to his wife but to expose his shady business practices. Judah asks his criminal brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) to kill the mistress. After Judah has to deal with the moral implications of his actions after he gets away with murder. The second story follows documentary filmmaker Cliff (Woody Allen). Cliff is down on his luck and gets hired on as a favor to direct a documentary on sleazy producer Lester (Alan Alda). Cliff hates working for Lester and is competing for the attention of producer Halley (Mia Farrow).
Waaaaaay back when I was first getting into film and learning about Woody Allen (farther back then I now want to admit on paper) I’ll admit my appreciation didn’t come quick. I saw Annie Hall and Manhattan and my feelings were complicated and I kind of stayed away from other stuff. But then I decided to give it another go and checked out Crimes and Misdemeanors and it was one of those “Wow“ moments.
And really, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a film that shouldn’t work so well for me. I normally would not like a film that is so heavy with its themes and in this movie, Woody Allen is practically sitting you down and having a discussion on morality. I guess it works because, at least watching it the first time, I wasn’t quite sure where the movie was going. It starts off pretty normal with Judah worrying about Huston’s character exposing an affair. No biggie right, especially given other movies Allen has done and how he’s approached infidelity. But then the curveball is thrown in about possible theft and Judah is considering murder and it feels like a thriller. We are wondering if Judah will get away with it and when he does will he be so wrecked with guilt that he will confess. And intercut with all that, we get these lighter scenes with Woody Allen and an absolutely brilliant Alan Alda as the ultimate smarmy douchebag. It is almost like directoral slight of hand to distract you from the fact several times the audience is sat down for deep philosophical discussion.
This movie also felt honest in how the story played out at least in Judah’s scenario. There was no tell tale heart or anything like that to bring Judah down. Judah does not believe in God or in a divine set of morality and was able to live through this experience. When Cliff tries to re-write the story by saying it would be more tragic if the man turned himself in, Judah shoots him down with “This isn’t a movie.“ The message was so audacious and honest and I was taken back by it.
Martin Landau is fantastic in this movie. He plays someone being torn apart by the decisions he makes but you also see this dark side to him. There is a scene where he invites his brother to “discuss“ the problem of his mistress and he has to fake disgust while at the same time ask his brother to kill her.
What makes this movie complete is the subplot involving Allen. Not only is it a nice tie in thematically but it is a much welcome respite from the heaviness of Landau’s plot. As mentioned before, Alan Alda is just great as the minor villain. He is the embodiment of the greedy sellout know it all and Alda chews up the scenery with relish. Cliff just can’t see life being fair with this know-nothing being a rich producer and eventually getting the girl while Cliff can’t even make his small documentary culminating in the discussion between the two leads.
I had not seen this movie in a while but I was reminded again of how much I love it. This still is my short list of favorite Allen movie. This was what turned me into a Woody Allen fan to begin with. If you haven’t seen it yet check it out.