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Posts Tagged ‘Anjelica Huston’

There’s a long old spectrum when it comes to comedy and drama – at one end you will find things which are utterly broad and/or frivolous, at the other are things which are completely bleak and harrowing, and it’s quite possible to pitch something at any point along that line. There’s no neat cut-off point where comedy ends and drama begins.

Which is, I think, curiously illustrated by the filmography of Woody Allen over the last forty odd years – here’s a film-maker who started off making some of the most knockabout comedies imaginable, and then proceeded to make a long trek towards the realm of serious drama, covering just about every intervening mixture of the two. Allen’s reputation these days is that of the great misanthropist, but even so one occasionally comes across a film which is so strikingly dark that it’s still a surprise.

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Bringing us to Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which opens by looking not entirely dissimilar to any of Allen’s other affluent-New-Yorkers-have-trying-personal-crises comedy-dramas. Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, a celebrated doctor and philanthropist, whose happiness is unexpectedly endangered: for some time he has been having an affair with a younger woman (Anjelica Huston) and now she is threatening to tell his wife – the fact she is privy to some questionable financial dealings he’s been involved in is also a concern. With his mistress insistent and refusing to listen to reason, Rosenthal is forced to contemplate resorting to extreme measures in order to secure her silence.

Running in parallel with this is the story of Cliff Stern (Allen), who as you’d expect is in many ways another iteration of the classic Allen character: neurotic and intellectual. This time around he’s a struggling, unhappily-married documentary film-maker who unwillingly accepts a job making a hagiographic profile of his wife’s insufferable brother Lester (Alan Alda), a pretentious TV comedy producer. He finds this fairly dreadful job is made more bearable by the presence of one of the associate producers (Mia Farrow), with whom he is much taken. But Lester seems equally interested in her, much to his chagrin…

The story with Allen is recognisably cut from the same cloth as earlier films like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, but the plotline with Landau is something new and strikingly different: not to put too fine a point on it, someone is murdered, and a bloodied corpse appears on screen. The juxtaposition between the two is wrenching, and it’s only in the closing stages of the film – this is the only point at which Landau and Allen meet – that the connection between the two is clear, and it is a thematic, philosophical one rather than anything more grounded in the narrative.

As I say, Woody Allen’s intellectual bent is well known, with his admiration for Ingmar Bergman being especially obvious. Watching Crimes and Misdemeanors, however, the main influence seems to be the great Russian authors whom Allen so cheerfully lampooned in Love and Death. The main plot with Landau is essentially a restatement of the theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – that of the effect of guilt on a criminal, and the ramifications of a universe without an underlying moral structure. (This is debated at some length by various characters in the course of the film.) Crucially, however, Allen’s conclusion is the opposite of Dostoyevsky’s – and here perhaps I should include a small ‘Spoiler ahead!’ alert – in that the film appears to suggest that the virtuous go unrewarded and the guilty go unpunished, with moral rectitude providing no guarantee of lasting happiness.

Most of the time, however, the film isn’t quite as heavy as that sounds – while the Landau plot is more of a drama than a thriller, it’s still very engaging, and the scenes with Allen are mostly as witty and charming as anything else he’s done in this vein (although at one point, not relevant to the plot in any way, he gives himself the line ‘A strange man defecated on my sister’, which must hold some kind of record for sheer oddness). Even the Landau material is not without a few of the classic Allen tropes, chief amongst them being the one about the learned and virile older man who is irresistible to poorly-educated and attractive younger women (one has to wonder about the extent to which Allen is mythologising himself up on screen at this point).

That it remains very watchable and even gripping throughout is mainly a tribute to the strength of the performances. Landau is simply very good as Rosenthal, nimbly avoiding the melodramatic pitfalls offered by the part, and there are also moments which remind you what an extremely accomplished straight actor Allen can be given the right material – there’s a moment near the end of the film where he’s suddenly confronted with the fact that his worst nightmare has come to pass, and his utter shock and despair all appears in his face, no dialogue being necessary. Even the performers in less-developed roles, like Huston and Alda, manage to avoid making them into caricatures.

Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t a film you would sit down to watch strictly in order to be entertained – the conclusion is just too downbeat, for one thing – and I would imagine that many people will disagree with the thesis of the film on principle. But the writing is solid, the performances are excellent, and the film articulates its arguments with some deftness, in addition to finding the balance between real drama and more comedic elements. Definitely towards the top end of the Allen canon.

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When I write about a film, one of the things at the back of my mind is that I’m only supposed to be writing about the film, not the situation in which I saw it, my opinion in general of the genre or people involved, or anything I might know about the circumstances in which the film was made. Sometimes this is very easy, but sometimes…

Woody Allen’s 1993 movie Manhattan Murder Mystery doesn’t so much sit easily in the director’s comfort zone as occupy it, close the borders, erect fortifications and refuse to countenance any attempts to persuade it to move. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but we’ll come to that.) There may be good real-world reasons for this, but the effect is still a little disconcerting.

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It opens with titles in the familiar Allen font and a classic standard, leading to a series of beautiful panoramas of New York City by night. We then meet a middle-aged couple returning home after a night out – they are played by Allen himself and Diane Keaton, and while the characters are named Larry and Carol Lipton, they could just as easily be slightly older versions of Alvy and Annie from Annie Hall, or Isaac and Mary from Manhattan, so familiar are their personalities and the dynamic of their relationship. Their grown-up son has left home and one gets a sense they are still coming to terms with how this is impacting their marriage.

In short, this is a barrage of familiar Allen characters, themes, locations and images, all following on one another so closely that it’s quite disconcerting – almost as if the director is frenetically pastiching himself. The film continues in a very similar vein, on one level at least – Carol worries that their marriage has grown too stale and comfortable, and is looking for a new adventure. Will this be opening a restaurant, or perhaps indulging in a mild fling with their friend Ted (Alan Alda)? (Allen, typically, is equally unhappy about both ideas.) Larry, on the other hand, finds temptation of a sort in poker-playing work acquaintance Marcia (Anjelica Huston). All this unfolds through the usual scenes of affluent Manhattanites hanging out in restaurants, bars, and each others’ apartments, with a running soundtrack of finely-honed Allen one-liners (complaining after a trip to the opera – ‘I can’t listen to that much Wagner, I start getting the urge to conquer Poland’ – and many more).

There is, of course, slightly more to the film than this, as the title Manhattan Murder Mystery might suggest. The only thing that really makes this film distinctive within the Allen canon (other than, perhaps, the use of a slightly annoying roving handheld camera in a number of scenes) is the way in which it blends Allen’s usual quasi-naturalistic comedy-drama with a full-on genre storyline – in this case, an amateur (and in Allen’s case, highly amateurish) investigation of the possible murder of one of Allen and Keaton’s elderly neighbours.

You may be thinking that these two elements would never sit comfortably together in the same film – and Allen seems to have been thinking the same thing, because the murder mystery plotline feels almost intentionally underpowered and soft-edged – two people get killed and someone else gets kidnapped, but it never feels completely serious and certainly never grips or thrills (although the climax, a gunfight in a hall of mirrors, gives Allen the opportunity for the priceless ‘We need to call the police!’ – ‘Yes, and a glazier!’). It is almost as if Allen was aware that the rest of the film is really doing nothing new at all and inserted the murder plotline in an attempt to give the film the appearance of novelty (although I understand this script started life many years earlier, as the intended follow-up to Love and Death, its place eventually being taken by Annie Hall).

On this occasion, can one really begrudge Allen the chance to do something comfortable and familiar? This is the film which immediately followed his much-publicised and hugely acrimonious split with Mia Farrow – Farrow was originally intended to play the Keaton part – and bearing this in mind it’s sort of understandable he was reluctant to push the boat out too far creatively. That said, I’m not sure that serious personal problems are really an excuse for mediocre film-making, and even less sure that being a film-maker would be a good enough excuse for some of the things Farrow publicly accused Allen of at the time.

Is this an actively bad film? Arguably not: by this point Allen could do affluent Manhattanite comedy-drama in his sleep, and while the genre element is hardly sparkling stuff, it hangs together and is actually grafted on to the rest of the story reasonably skillfully. But it’s a very ordinary one, nevertheless – I originally saw it many years ago, but other than the odd one liner had no memory whatsoever of what it was actually about. I doubt this second viewing will change that much, which is a rarity as far as Woody Allen movies go. It’s not without its charms and points of interest, but it shares all of these with other, considerably more accomplished movies. Probably for Allen completists and nostalgists only.

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