What’s been great about reviewing a handful of Arrow’s re-releases of Woody Allen’s back catalogue is that it’s made me realise how much I love his work. I’ve largely been cherry-picking supposed ‘on-form’ Allen movies, but they’ve never failed to impress or entertain me. I watched Cafe Society the other week and was less enamoured by it, but perhaps watching all of these upper tier Allen titles mere days previously raised my standards a little too high. It certainly didn’t put me off exploring more unwatched titles from his hefty filmography though. Crimes and Misdemeanors was next up and I’d heard very good things about it, so expectations were high.
Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two stories. One sees happily married ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) tormented by threats from his mistress Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston) to tell his wife about their affair. Judah has grown weary of Dolores and realised he loves his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), so he doesn’t want her to be hurt and leave him. When it all gets too much for Judah and the threats get more serious, the solution suggested by his mobster brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) is to have Dolores killed. The film’s second central story is that of Cliff Stern (Allen himself). He’s an unhappily married, unsuccessful documentary filmmaker who’s offered a chance to make some money making a film about his successful TV comedy writer brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda). He hates the job, but is consoled by the fact that he meets a woman he falls madly in love with, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Having recently got divorced, she’s reluctant to start another relationship though. Undeterred, Cliff stays close to her as a friend and gets her involved with the more respectable documentary he’s trying to produce on the side, with the hope that she’d be swayed eventually into his arms.
With two stories to tell and many characters to juggle, it could have all gone very wrong, but the film is perfectly handled and very effective. Frequent flashbacks are also utilised whilst jumping between the two central plots (including one that merges a dream of the past with interaction from the present), yet it never gets messy or confusing. The two main threads are tied together nicely too in a rather dark finale.
There’s a perfectly balanced juggling of genres/moods too, fusing drama, comedy and even film noir. Judah’s story is largely devoid of humour, whereas Cliff’s side goes down a more overtly comedic route. There are a few subtle gags in the former, but it’s largely a dark and serious noir melodrama. Clearly this mixing of genres is something Allen purposely set out to explore, making a comment on the differing sides of his work he’d developed over the years. The script often discusses the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Allen mocks the cliched quotes on this subject though through the Cliff’s reactions to Jack’s pseudo-lofty speeches as he documents the insufferable man’s work. Instead his film as a whole studies the idea in more depth than any trite soundbite.
The noir elements are fairly minimal and only present in Judah’s story, but Allen goes to town with them in a couple of scenes when he throws in low key lighting and the crashing of thunder and lightning. These stylish flourishes are largely replaced by a natural look elsewhere which is classy, but not as attractively shot as some of Allen’s more visually distinguished work.
Landau is excellent as the anchor of the film’s serious plot-line. He perfectly captures the tortured soul of his character. It’s a wonderful cast in general, with a mix of Allen regulars and fine character actors like Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston who hadn’t worked with him before, but went on to work with him again. It’s the underrated Landau, in his one and only role for the director, who really impresses though.
It’s an incredibly rich film, on and under the surface, with several ideas being explored such as faith, the duality of tragedy and comedy, and also the idea that it’s the decisions we make which define us. On top of and possibly because of that, the film is hugely engaging throughout, very funny at times and refreshingly human. It’s certainly one of Allen’s best and I’m even more eager to carry on digging through his work. Luckily for me there’s plenty of it.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is released as part of the Woody Allen: Seven Films – 1986-1991 Blu-Ray set out on 20th February in the UK, then on its own on 3rd April, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality is excellent.
As is the norm with Woody Allen’s films, there are no special features included. Arrow have included a booklet though, as usual. I haven’t been sent this to read, but they’re usually well worth a read and equal to any featurette.