In the beginning of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, a highly respected New York ophthalmologist is at a banquet in his honor, about to receive an award from his community. (I'll be talking about the entire movie, including the ending.) We've seen this story before; it's the stuff of basic tragedy: introduce a character who is on top of the world, and then wreck him. But that's not what happens in this philosophical picture. Dr. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has a thriving practice, two very nice homes—an apartment in the city, a spacious home in the country— a smart, sophisticated wife whom he's been married to for decades—and, as is the cliche, in art as well as life, a mistress (Angelica Huston). And as happens in life, she is at the stage of the mistress relationship where she demands "Either your wife or me" and threatens to talk to his wife and tell her everything if he won't leave her. In short, she's an inconvenient woman to the man whose life has been nothing but convenience. So what to do? What do you think? After some perfunctory soul searching, he has his shady brother (the late great Jerry Orbach) call in his Mob connections to take care of it. He will have her killed.
The film is considered one of if not the bleakest and morally questioning pictures Allen has ever done. But after I saw it, contrary to majority opinion perhaps, I actually found it hopeful and an affirmation of life. Woody Allen has been so long misread by the media and casual fans as a nihilist. He's always said after this life there is nothing, and that's always been taken to mean that he thinks life is terrible. But in this film and in the companion Hannah and Her Sisters, we get in clear bracing terms Allen's philosophy and worldview. And surprise surprise: they're humanist. Allen believes not that the universe is out to get you and that life is one woe after another. No. Instead he lays out in this film, pretty much has someone narrate it to us, that the universe is indifferent to us so that means we must be good to each other and find ways to provide our own joy. In Allen's philosophical cosmology, we're it, baby, and, importantly, the attitudes we bring to our lives matter a great deal. In fact, those attitudes help us to to live and thrive, or die and become unhappy.
The key character in the film that is the thematic representation of this is the rabbi played by Sam Waterston. (No, alas, he and Orbach don't share a scene.) He's Judd's friend and the two have been having intellectual chats for years. Before his final decision, before that's even a possibility, Judah confesses the affair to him and asks his advice. He says that he can't possibly tell his wife because she'll leave him. The rabbi disagrees. He says tell her and maybe the marriage will grow stronger and richer over time. That's the key concept—time. At the end of the film, after he's done the deed, Landau is at a friend's daughter's wedding, and he encounters and speaks to Woody Allen's character.
Let me segue into talking about the parallel plot to the movie. Like Hannah and Her Sisters, there are two stories—a lighter more comedic one to counteract the heaviness of the main narrative. In both movies they're about a comical, hyper articulate nervous man played by Allen himself who gets into a situation that he finds terrible and that we find hilarious. In Hannah, it's a producer who gets a health scare and wonders what the point of life is. In Crimes, it's an unemployed writer-director who has to work for his much more successful TV producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a favor the latter did his for sister. He considers the guy a jerk, a gasbag, someone who will drone on and on and give arbitrary orders to his employees, like Mussolini. But he's charged with making a documentary about the guy. He meets a lovely long-time colleague of the guy (played by Mia Farrow), and the two bond over movies and the words of this Holocaust survivor-philosopher Allen is interested in making a documentary of. Allen thinks Farrow's character is way too good, intellectually and in every other way for her boss, Alda, who does constantly hit on her, and she constantly rebuffs him. They also bond over how much of a jerk Alda seems to be. Allen starts to fall in love with her, but he's married. To a wife who is rapidly losing respect for him, but marriage is marriage. So what does he do?
These are the dilemmas in the title. The "Crime", the actual crime, is in Judah's story. The respected and liked doctor, the scholar, the intellectual, the elite, the sophisticated man-about-town who could use his words and pedigree to influence people and get whatever he wanted (he did so in getting the mistress)—he can't use them to solve a problem he is sure will ruin his life, so he does what the lower orders do and commits violence. He kills a person. There's a scene where during the middle of a dinner party, he gets the call from his brother that's the problem has been taken care of. . He tells his brother "What have we done? There's no going back on this. God help us." Then he goes back to the party. Close up on Landau's face as he sits down and the chatter over cocktails of the other guests recede. His face is shocked and ashen. He feels he has to see the crime, he can't be in his rich NYC world when he ordered a poorer woman to be killed. Well, he explains it was for wiping any evidence that he was in her apartment, but I'd like to think the first was the real reason. So he goes over to her place, goes in the apartment and sits on a chair. Camera, with a knee level shot, slowly pans from him across the living room to Huston's dead body, a pool of red liquid next to her head.
And then that's it. The rest of the movie is the Allen story. Allen one day kisses Farrow and tells her to go away with him. He'll divorce his wife. That's the "Misdemeanor" of the title, an infraction, but a much less serious one than the crime of murder. And is it really a wrong if his marriage is dead anyway and if he has a chance to be happy? At that moment of his kiss, Allen's attitude, different from the timid and resentful one he displayed earlier over working for his brother-in-law, surely a contributing factor to his wife hating him, is courageous. He takes a shot. Not a violent literal shot, but a shot at love. And...Farrow tells him she is going away to London. So strike out. When he screens the movie he made about seemingly boorish Alda, he lets him know by film how he feels about him. He has Alda looking like an ass—going on and on about what a funny joke is, seducing women, and interjecting newsreel shots footage Mussolini in comic effects. Alda is appalled. It's not a moment of self-recognition; through all his life Alda believed himself to be charming and very likable. But his jerk brother-in-law just made him out to be a fool. Does he suffer a moment of painful self-realization. No, he thinks the piece is a lie, not at all like him. So he fires Allen.
This story takes advantage of the theme of eyes that is prevalent throughout the picture. Almost character in one context or another mentions eyes. Waterston's character is losing his vision. What is his attitude? He's fine with it. His own eyes were what Oedipus destroyed when he found out the crime he had inadvertently committed. They're the literal way of seeing the world and yourself. They're representations of the mental way of seeing the world. Of attitude. That's why the rabbi is not broken up about losing his vision: his attitude is a very healthy one, based on love and wonder and a balanced philosophy. He's like a Stoic but milder and happier. Whatever happens, happens, and everything might happen to you, but that doesn't mean you can't dance joyfully at wedding, which is what he does. ( Seeing correctly is in Allen's story: All this time we accept Allen's verdict of his BIL as a jerk, but the guy seems to have a great, carefree life, while his critic is annoying his own wife and miserable. This is confirmed when Farrow comes back from London engaged to Alda's character. Allen hurtfully asks her what she could see in the man they both mocked earlier. She replies that he's not really at like what they both thought . And probably he isn't. Maybe it's the opposite: the nebbish is the jerk and that's why he has the problems he does. Allen had the wrong way of seeing. He saw others and himself incorrectly.)
So at the wedding that closes the film we return to Judah and his story. He meets Allen and propose a fantastic tale for the unemployed writer. It's the one we've been seeing, about an affair that can ruin a respected man, and a murder. So what happens to the guy, Allen asks. Was he punished? Did God punish him? No, Landau says. In fact, he and his wife (still in the dark about the other woman) have moved on, and now, they're actually happier, and he's happy. He thought the crime would wreck his soul, but time heals all things and now he can't wait for his own daughter's wedding and grandchildren. In fact, the crime may have been the impetus to live much more fully.
This the ending people refer to when they say the film is dark and indicative of Allen's worldview of a cruel world and powerless people. After all, the criminal does not get punished. The man who was on top at the beginning of the film does not fall. He doesn't poke his eyes out. He uses them for more life, more seeing, and he sees an even more beautiful world.
Is Allen condoning the crime by not punishing the criminal? Not at all. Remember that the universe is not controlled by the gods. It's indifferent. People do and have gotten away with literal murder for as long as there have been men on Earth. Doesn't mean murder's not wrong. The action-in-itself has to be looked at by itself. By itself, a wrong action is a wrong action. Effects don't matter and they don't morally decide and judge what came before. But that doesn't mean people can't change, going from criminal to saint. It doesn't happen here, but it is a basic principle: time heals all wounds, and it overcomes all difficulties you thought you would be lost in. We have to go by what the rabbi said when advising Landau at the beginning of the picture: if he had told his wife the truth, maybe she wouldn't have left him, and they could have had a richer marriage. Certainly in that in course of action, poor Angelica Huston wouldn't have died. And, you know what? Once Landau had the courage to break it off with her, time would have happened and she would have moved on too. But now with the course of action that did happen, she is no more, ironically what that the rabbi prescribed happened anyway—his marriage did become richer—but on the opposite cause, the cause of murder instead of communication and work.
So things aren't as bad as we see them when we're deep in the weeds, and they will lessen with time. That's attitude, and it's essential for life, Allen says. At the end of the film, the holocaust survivor/philosopher (perhaps modeled on Primo Levi) takes his own life. Allen's character says, every day he woke up as a holocaust survivor knowing what he went through, and he was happy—until the day he woke up and he wasn't, and then he killed himself. That's attitude, too. But the philosopher's words over the end of the film, over the montage of the wedding, belie his final fatal attitude: they say that while the universe is indifferent, we are not, and that we have love and passions and bonds and friendships and those are the things that make life worth living. And those things are based on how we look at life, our dispositions, our going to the movies, which are pleasures, too. The film, rather neatly and winningly, has old movies Allen's character sees with his thirteen year old niece act as a Greek chorus to the action: after a scene about an idea and plot point, there's a clip of a movie talking about the same idea and plot point. Movies make life worth living as well, and they are expressions of problem-solving attitude: the hero always resolves his dilemma over time, two hours, and you the viewer leave feeling refreshed and energized. That's the correct attitude to have in solving what you think are intractable problems. Not killing people. We should all strive to be Sam Waterston or Alda. Their characters had the best attitudes in the film. And they were happy.