Woody Allen is up-front about the themes of his 1989 comedy-drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, but so clear and insightful about them that we don’t mind the direct approach. It is an argument about God. Where is He? Does the world adhere to moral certitude according to His laws? Or is it chaos, a nihilist mash-up of mankind’s basest, most cynical impulses? I last reviewed Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which poses the same question but seems more optimistic about the answer. Where Bergman saw at least the potential for redemption..
Woody Allen is up-front about the themes of his 1989 comedy-drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, but so clear and insightful about them that we don’t mind the direct approach. It is an argument about God. Where is He? Does the world adhere to moral certitude according to His laws? Or is it chaos, a nihilist mash-up of mankind’s basest, most cynical impulses? I last reviewed Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which poses the same question but seems more optimistic about the answer. Where Bergman saw at least the potential for redemption, Allen’s gaze is colder, darker, harsher; he imagines God’s vision as obscured, if it’s there at all. Cheaters can prosper if they choose to prosper. The “real world,” as he references in cynical terms, is a ruthless entity.
The subject is bleak, but the film is not so. It is witty and makes more than an abstraction out of its existential angst. Its characters and stories are organic and not mere props in Allen’s subverted morality play. The filmmaker casts himself as the last hold-out: Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker who still believes that substance should prevail over style. And how better to illustrate his dilemma than to make his rival his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a producer of television sitcoms! Is there a dichotomy that more perfectly captures Hollywood’s internal conflict?
Allen turns the camera in on himself. He includes references to films and filmmaking that interrupt his narrative: Cliff watching old black-and-white movies with his niece or his new love interest, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). I am reminded that during Hollywood’s Production Code era, which began in the 1930s and didn’t end until 1968 upon the adoption of the MPAA ratings system, filmmakers were strictly regulated in the moral content of their films; virtue must be rewarded, and sin must be punished. Twenty years later, when Allen made Crimes, Hollywood no longer imposed its institutionalized system of values, leaving Allen free to ask, what is the role of film? Does it reflect a true moral order, or are Hollywood endings just a comforting lie? Cliff discusses this in a pivotal scene with the film’s other main character, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), who was raised in a devoutly Jewish home, grew up secular, and now isn’t so sure.
Eyes are an important symbol, so it is fitting that he has made his protagonists a filmmaker and an ophthalmologist, respectively. The film opens with Judah accepting a prize from his peers. In his acceptance speech, he discusses lessons from his father, who taught him in absolutes: the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, and God’s eyes are always upon you, watching. Now a doctor of vision, he questions and analyzes God’s sight. He is married to Miriam (Claire Bloom) and has adult children, but he has carried on an affair for two years with a flight attendant, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), who now threatens to expose his infidelity. How will he save his marriage?
Judah seeks counsel from a patient and friend, Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who gives him sober advice: tell the truth, and hope for forgiveness. He gets different advice from his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), a low-level criminal who suggests another solution: kill the mistress, and hope not to get caught. The brother lives in the “real world,” where practicality trumps morality, and to Judah he seems to see things clearly. The rabbi, who represents God, is rapidly going blind. The eyes have it.
There are a pair of subjective scenes that could have come right out of Bergman. The first is a dark night of the soul: Judah wrestles with the lessons of his childhood and imagines a philosophical argument with Ben. The lighting is dark and foreboding; guilt and fear weigh heavily upon him. (The cinematography is by Sven Nykvist, a frequent Bergman collaborator.) The second is a visit to his childhood home: Judah recalls a dinner party where his father argues with Judah’s aunt about faith. The adult Judah unexpectedly enters the conversation and argues with his memories.
Judah’s aunt wonders, what kind of God could allow the Holocaust, and here Allen gets to the crux of the film. Adultery and murder. Guilt and acceptance. Hope and cynicism. Meaningful art and disposable sitcoms. Every question has its basis in this discussion of the Holocaust. It may me mankind’s greatest demonstration of evil, and it has shaken faith down through generations. Will God strike down Judah even though He allowed Hitler’s genocide? Will Lester continue to be rewarded for his phoniness, while Cliff’s documentary about a Holocaust survivor will never see the light of day? Comfort could once be found in God, but in light of atrocity Judah’s aunt recounts a joke about a prizefighter: “His brother turns to the family priest and says, ‘Father, pray for him.’ And the priest said, ‘I will, but if he can punch, it’ll help.’”
This is a great and wise film. Woody Allen writes with acid wit but also a social and spiritual consciousness that gives Crimes and Misdemeanors its echoes of Bergman. Is there moral order? Is there God? Maybe, Allen’s film suggests, but learn how to punch, just in case.