Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors was released twenty-five years ago this week. Not only is it arguably his most artistically accomplished work, but it also dramatizes a red pill view of life and male-female relationships.
The film was the twenty-third Allen had written after What’s New Pussycat (1965), so he was some way into his career at its conception. By the early 2000’s, before his habit of putting out a movie a year led to a string of less-than stellar productions like 2003’s Anything Else or 2004’s Miranda and Miranda, it was common to divide his output into “the early, funny ones” – Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and Sleeper – and the “serious” ones like September and Another Woman.
But the truth is more complex. Allen has always been a serious dramatist stuck in a comedian’s body, striving for the profundity of Ingmar Bergman but forever falling short, in his mind at least, despite the fantastic success of funny-serious pieces like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Interviewed in 2005, he stated that he would never make a film as good as Bergman’s The Seventh Seal: “I feel that level of greatness is not in me. It may just not be in the genes, or I just don’t have the depth of humanity to do that.”
Spoiler alert: spoilers below
Allen’s worldview has always been bleak. Speaking to the press at the release of this year’s Magic in the Moonlight he said:
I firmly believe . . . that life is meaningless. I’m not alone in thinking this – there have been many great minds far, far superior to mine, that have come to that conclusion. And unless somebody can come up with some proof or some example where it’s not, I think it is. I think it’s just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’m not saying that one should opt to kill oneself. But the truth of the matter is, when you think of it, every 100 years, there’s a big flush, and everybody in the world is gone. And there’s a new group of people. And this goes on interminably towards no particular end, no rhyme or reason. And the universe, as you know from the best of physicists, is coming apart, and eventually there will be nothing, absolutely nothing. All the great works of Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Da Vinci, all that will be gone. Now, not for a long time, but shorter than you think because the sun is going to burn out much earlier than the universe vanishes . . . So all these plays and these symphonies, the height of human achievement, will be gone completely. There’ll be no time, no space, nothing at all, just zero.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is his most successful wedding of this worldview with his comic impulse. It contains some very funny moments, but it is essentially a drama that rips away the “pretty lies” that society proliferates about relationships between the sexes, morality and religion.
The plot concerns two main characters: Judah Rosenthal, a successful ophthalmologist played by Martin Landau; and Clifford Stern, a failed film-maker played by Woody Allen. Their stories are told in counterpoint.
As the movie opens we see Judah being honored for his services at a New York society dinner. He is with his wife and family, the picture of respectability. But all is not well beneath the façade. Judah has been having an affair with a flight attendant called Dolores Paley for the past two years. Doleres, played brilliantly by Anjelica Housten, is an unstable woman prone to hysteria, unable and unwilling to accept her position as mistress and becoming demanding.
Coming home after the ceremony, Judah is lucky to intercept a letter from her to his wife, telling her of the affair and asking if they can meet. Judah, who has been married for twenty-five years, has no intention of breaking up his family, but in spite of his promises to find a way to make everyone happy, it is clear that Dolores is serious in her intention to reveal their secret. Worse, she threatens to lift the lid on his “embezzlement”—what he insists were essentially honest “financial irregularities” associated with his practice earlier in his career. Terrified that the comfortable life he has built for himself will be destroyed, Judah calls his brother Jack, a small-time crook, for help.
Meanwhile, Clifford, a failing filmmaker in a sexless marriage with a nagging wife, is offered the opportunity by his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a successful TV producer, to make a documentary about his life. From the outset, Alda portrays Lester as a classic alpha—he is powerful, men defer to him and he attracts sexy female groupies. He is also brash and spends all his time on vapid commercial projects.
Clifford, in contrast, is a serious documentary maker who wants to make a film about Professor Louis Levy, a philosopher. But he has no choice but to take on the Lester documentary for the money. During filming he meets and develops oneitis for Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), an executive for the TV company. In a subplot, Judah is treating Lester’s brother Ben, a devout rabbi who is slowly going blind.
Underlining Allen’s ambitions, the film was shot by Sven Nykvist, a cinematographer who had worked extensively with Bergman. On screen it looks very clean and straightforward, almost like a TV movie. But the plot systematically and ruthlessly undermines the audience’s expectations. Jack tells Judah that the only way he can escape his situation is by having his mistress dispensed with.
At first Judah is shocked—in Allen’s words “his first reaction is the stereotypical reaction dictated by his social milieu.” But soon enough, after Dolores threatens to come over to his house, he decides to proceed with the plan.
Jack hires a hitman and Dolores is murdered. The scene where Judah, having been informed that the deed has been done, goes to her apartment and sees her corpse in a pool of blood to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 is genuinely shocking: real, visceral violence has penetrated Judah’s safe, middle-class existence. He is stricken with guilt and fear for months, and considers turning himself in. But a detective questions him and isn’t suspicious. In the end the crime gets pinned on someone else. Judah, who had been drinking heavily, starts to relax.
Meanwhile, Clifford, in love with Halley, takes her to see movies and shares Chinese takeout with her. But Lester is interested too—in her first scene we see him ask her out confidently, only to be rebuffed. Soon, though, they are working late together at her apartment. In this strand, Allen gives us a masterly presentation of beta game and the friendzone. Clifford believes that because Halley is interested in his documentary about Levy, and because she too is artistically-inclined, she will be attracted to him.
Even though he doesn’t believe for a moment that his special snowflake would succumb to the boorish, unsophisticated Lester, he is dimly aware that he is a threat, and so ridicules him with her. (“After all, he is an American Phenomenon.””Yeah, but so is acid rain.”). In a wonderfully painful moment at his apartment we see him try to kiss her, only for her to turn her head and come out with the usual excuses—“I’m not ready,” “It’s me – I’m serious about my career at the moment,” and so on.
Both narratives play with the audience by setting what “should” happen against what actually does happen. Brought up on Hollywood movies, viewers are conditioned to think that Judah should be punished for the terrible deed that he has committed and that Clifford, the hardworking artist with integrity should get the girl. But neither of these eventualities is to play out.
The movie’s key themes are articulated in a masterly scene where Judah, cracking up, visits his old family home in Brooklyn. Here he recalls a Passover dinner from his childhood where his father and his aunt argue over the possibility of a godless universe. His father is adamant that guilt will win out, and that no crime goes unpunished. His aunt, though, has this to say:
If he can do it (a crime) and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free. Remember, history is run by the winners. And if the Nazis had won, future generations would come to understand the story of World War II quite differently.
The aunt’s point is essentially atheist: there is no god and no moral structure to life at all.
Swallowing the Red Pill
The story culminates in a wonderful scene set at the wedding party for Ben’s daughter. Judah is there with his wife and is happy again. Clifford is also present with his wife, although they are soon to be divorced. He hasn’t seen Halley for months as she has been working in London. She arrives at the party with Lester unannounced: they are now a couple.
The close-up on Clifford’s face as he sees them together is highly affecting, one of the finest shots in the film, expressing the surprise and pain of the disillusioned beta perfectly. In that moment, Clifford effectively swallows the red pill: his special snowflake was nothing of the kind, just as susceptible to the flashy but superficial bad boy charms of Lester as any of the cheap actresses he also seduced.
Worse, Clifford had accumulated no relational equity with her in all their shared moments, with all the movies he had watched with her, through their common aesthetic appreciation. In the end, she turns out to be just another woman attracted to success (and money?) and alpha dominance.
Clifford sits drinking alone at the bar. Judah joins him. It is the first and only time the two principle characters will meet. Judah says that he has “the perfect murder story – a great plot,” and—without suggesting that it is true or concerns him—describes Dolores’s murder and its aftermath:
And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
In this way his aunt’s point is illustrated and confirmed. There is no god; there is no moral order to the universe: just as the “nice” guy doesn’t get the girl, so bad people are not punished for their crimes.
In revealing pure, undistilled red pill truth, the movie’s climax feels bleak. The final shot is of Ben, the rabbi, dancing with his just-married daughter. In the background, we hear Professor Levy’s voice:
We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.
This voiceover (which reflects Freud’s assertion that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” and the basis for happiness) seems to strike a more optimistic note —until we remember that Professor Levy had committed suicide at the onset of the third act, both scuppering Clifford’s documentary plans and brutally undercutting the hopeful tone established here. In the end, even love and work may not be enough in the face on an indifferent cosmos.
The theme of blindness is a central metaphor in the film. Judah is an eye doctor who cannot see his own moral reprehensibility clearly. Ben is a rabbi who believes in a just universe, but who is going blind—underlining the fact that he literally does not see life clearly. Clear sight of unvarnished reality is in short supply, as is happiness.
Perhaps surprisingly, for such an atheist story, the most contented character is Judah’s father. When someone asks him at the flashback dinner party how he would feel if it turned out he was wrong about God, about pursuing his faith, he says “Then I’ll still have a better life than those who doubt.” Even though religious belief is self-inflicted blindness, those who have it are somewhat insulated from the harsh meaninglessness of the universe.
In its portrayal of female sexual agency and in its assertion that life has no moral framework, that each man is answerable only to his own personal code of morality, Crimes and Misdemeanors is defiantly red pill in nature, is Woody Allen’s finest moment, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in a dramatic representation of existential themes.
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