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Posts Tagged ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’

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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