‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ – Looking back at Woody Allen’s existential drama


I first saw this movie at Charley Grey’s, Devonport in 1990. It was memorable for several reasons – but mostly because my sister-in-law, Mary, was nearly carried off by an apoplexy upon hearing Woody Allen complain, ‘The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.’  That was Woody, the writer/director/actor, letting the handbrake go on this rollercoaster ride from comedy to melodrama. And he further summons up James Joyce and Adolf Hitler to decorate this almost Brechtian process of engagement and disengagement with his audience; Drama defaulting to comedy.

And it works fine. Watching the movie again last night, I was impressed by the details of its characters’ lives; Drawn in by the nuances of their faults, their venality, their humanity. At the heart of the story is an unforgettable performance from Martin Landau. His Judah, wealthy and successful, needs an impediment to his life removed but is fearful of an all-seeing God. What to do?

This is where Allen’s meticulous approach to his narrative pays off. He goes into that dark place that so many story tellers fear to go; The conscience. And he asks, ‘What would you do?’  ‘Is this okay?’ ‘How do you feel about doing this?’ But the movie is not ambiguous. It plays on the certainty of our ambiguity and the art of Landau’s ability to portray the realisation of The American Dream filtered through a glass darkly.
The movie has its problems. Alan Alda’s bumptious womaniser seems to be not much more than Hawkeye Pearce grown older. But to some extent this is mitigated by Allen’s script allowing Mia Farrow to invest some warmth and gravitas in Alda’s film producer with whom she is involved. Allen’s own performance, too, sometimes appears to lampoon his stock, angst-ridden neurotic. But I readily concede that this may be deliberate and serving as grist to the point/counterpoint mill.
I haven’t seen everything that Woody Allen has done but this film is certainly the best of what I have seen. It is rich, complex and troubling. It is a massively satisfying watch.

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