For Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen devised a gimmicky but commanding two-for-one deal for his fans. Within one alternating bifurcated narrative, you get to see one of the director’s stark, overtly symbolic morality dramas as well as one of his comparatively fizzier self-conscious romantic dramadies. The drama follows Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist with a perfect upper-class family and all the attendant luxury and respectability one would reasonably expect, including the obligatory mistress, Dolores (Angelia Huston), who’s pushed over to the sidelines when she becomes a nuisance. Being a Woody Allen female, Dolores is driven mad with hurt and abandonment, inspiring Judah to arrange for her murder through the services of his criminal brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach). The plan works, but Judah’s spiritual center is brought into temporary (and superficial) disarray, as the success of this murder proves to Judah the fundamental untruth of the notion of a morally ordered universe as taught to him by his Jewish father. In the tradition of the classic self-absorbed and self-delusional heel, it doesn’t occur to him that something might exist without conforming to his precisely defined notions of instant gratification.
The bittersweet comedy portion features the director as Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker struggling with the usual Woody Allen protagonist problems—namely, that no one’s immediately cowed over by his integrity and good taste. Cliff’s trying to get a film about a respected professor off the ground, but he’s financially forced to shoot a doc about his successful brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), a TV comedy producer who has that natural sense of charm that drives borderline socially inept introverts like Cliff bananas. Cliff looks at Lester and sees a man who’s resolutely about nothing, and who’s embraced by the world for being unchallenging, while he’s always suffering and struggling because he’s about something (though Cliff might be hard-pressed to define that something). Cliff’s suspicions of the unfairness of life are confirmed when Lester steals a girl from him, even though the former’s obviously married to Lester’s sister and shouldn’t have any license to see himself as a victim anyway.
This structure offers a remarkably blunt and lucid filleting of the filmmaker’s hang-ups. As an artist, Allen sees the world from the vantage point of a metaphorical little man, the perpetually rejected. This isn’t even subtext in the comedies, which explicitly derive their energy from Allen’s persona of the nebbish who attempts to even himself on the playing field of the charming and good looking with his mind and his quick-silvered tongue. It’s less inherently obvious in the dramas, including the Judah portion of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it’s there in the reduction of the female characters and in the broad stereotypes of poor working-class religious people. Allen’s dramas often follow self-made successes, and so they’re imagining a nebbish transformed and theoretically unburdened of the baggage of a humble upbringing and of a past as a man on the margins of accomplishment. These powerful men are united with the nebbishes through an inescapable self-loathing, and they won’t allow themselves to be brought back to what they see to be a stature of nothing.
Judah resents Delores for the reason most of Allen’s female characters are resented in his films: for daring to take his accomplishment for granted. And the damage Delores is willing to do to Judah is less a problem than the implicit insult it presents. Allen’s women believe, often frivolously in the films’ opinions, that emotions trump the brick-by-brick attempt the heroes have made to build themselves as men of respect in order to yield accomplishments that are, ironically, intended to “earn” the affections the women might be willing to give the heroes anyway. What do these attractive women know of needing respect? They have the power of attractiveness, and, in the mind of an Allen hero, who has rarely felt attractive, this is a taken-for-granted power that merits hostility. (It rarely occurs to the Allen hero that attractiveness is yet another potential social trap.) This need for respect haunts everything Allen has given us, including that interview in which he famously and wrong-headedly equated comedy with sitting at the children’s table.
Lester merits the same contempt as Delores, because he’s a man of style, he’s on cruise control for a living. This contempt is also extended to Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the woman Lester ultimately wins from Cliff. In lesser Allen movies, this contempt isn’t held up for examination, but Crimes and Misdemeanors, with its obsessive needling into the ultimate functions of religion and art and morality, sees that Cliff and Judah are more fraudulent than the people they see as adversaries. Cliff tries to play Halley more than Lester does, just in an opposing fashion: He attempts to play to the pathos of the nerd, and while the emotions are legitimate, they’re still presented in a manipulative fashion that’s more insidious than Lester’s obvious good-time Charlie routine. Cliff can’t understand why Halley would go for Lester, but we can: He’s charismatic and he’s fun.
Charismatic and fun don’t scan with the prototypical Allen hero, because they can’t be measured in merit, and since the heroes hate themselves, all of life has to be measured in something tangible—particularly good taste and erudition. In this film, Allen detonates that disastrous mythology certain introverts like to indulge about extroverts as somehow being inherently less real or less connected to life’s pain. No, extroverts are simply different, and perhaps their embracement of life’s social dimensions reflects not obtuseness, but a form of bravery that’s more laudable than the Allen hero’s bleak assumption of life’s inherent futility. In this film, Allen wrestles with the fact that his heroes are his films’ biggest hypocrites without judging them or coddling them, and he earns his almost-meta ending in which Lester and Cliff meet in a moment that suggests a dialogue between Allen, the filmmaker, and his characters. Stripped of their pretentious evasions, they arrive, by implication, at the only existential question that presently matters: What now?
The image is sharper than on the MGM DVD, but room for improvement remains, though that could potentially be a testament to the film’s inherent soft graininess. Background detail is also occasionally shallow, though, and there’s a prevailing lack of vibrancy. The English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix favors foreground effects, but is generally clean and scrubbed of audial ticks. Thoroughly competent, but this presentation could be more robust across the board.
An isolated music and effects track, which doesn’t make much sense for such an intrinsically talky film, and the trailer.
Woody Allen’s most inadvertently personal film receives a competently barebones Blu-ray initiation. It’ll do for the director’s completest fans, but Crimes and Misdemeanors merits a more eventful home-video presentation.