Thursday, August 27, 2015

Crimes and Misdemeanors

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS             A                    
USA  (107 mi)  1989  d  Woody Allen

I think I see a cab.  If we run quickly we can kick the crutch from that old lady and get it.
―Clifford Stern (Woody Allen)

The 80’s was a particularly good decade for Allen, arguably his best, with films like Stardust Memories (1980),  A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), ZELIG (1983), my own personal favorite Broadway Danny Rose (1984), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), RADIO DAYS (1987), SEPTEMBER (1987), and ANOTHER WOMAN (1988), a time when he discovered the incomparable Mia Farrow, making this their 9th of 13 films working together, mirror images of one other with all their pent-up anxiety and inner turmoil, ending the decade with this film, doing away with the feel good Hollywood ending, where the edgier, more pessimistic tone was a direct response to Allen’s feelings that he had been too “nice” to the characters at the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, though arguably this may be his most openly Jewish effort, much like the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), as each is a journey that attempts to fathom the essence of their Jewish soul.  While some of the basic ideas for the film were stolen outright by Noah Baumbach in While We're Young (2015), a film that attempts to deal with the overall ethics and moral responsibilities of artists, it was Allen who was the original trailblazer, paying homage to Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Bergman among others, but the film is so undeniably and uniquely Allen that it could not have been made by any other director.  According to Roger Ebert in his 1989 review, Crimes and Misdemeanors - Roger Ebert , “Who else but Woody Allen could make a movie in which virtue is punished, evildoing is rewarded, and there is a lot of laughter ― even subversive laughter at the most shocking times?”  Since Dostoyevsky’s title was already taken, this is Allen’s flipside to Crime and Punishment, a moralistic film that searches for meaning throughout, guided by God, religious teachings, and the lessons of philosophers, only to discover this can all be thrown out the window for people of wealth and privilege, where ultimately the laws of God do not apply to them.  Money apparently offers them divine privilege and protection for their crimes, as after a brief period of agonizing guilt afterwards, the feeling dissipates and the man’s conscience can be clear, no longer feeling the slightest tinge of guilt, literally getting away with murder.  At its most outlandish, it asks what would the world look like today had the Nazi’s won?  Jews that survived the Holocaust have a unique relationship with God, perhaps best expressed by Elie Wiesel in his book Night, his personal take on surviving Auschwitz as a child while watching his entire family and nearly everyone else around him die.  A devout religious student as a child, throughout the ordeal he kept asking himself, where was God at Auschwitz?  How could he allow that to happen?  Apparently these same kinds of questions haunted Allen as a child, where this film represents a seemingly futile search for faith in the moral wasteland represented by the Reagan years (1981 – 89).   
According to David Evanier from the Jewish Book Council, January 28, 2014, David Evanier on Woody Allen's references to his Jewish ...  
Woody Allen became a comedy star at a time when every preconception about American life came into question. He entered a social milieu that somehow was waiting for and anticipating him. He was the antithesis of the traditional male hero: the archetypal schlemiel with a whining, high voice. His humor was very personal and unique; it was not interchangeable with other comedians. There was a presumption, whether it was true or not, that he was telling you something more personal and autobiographical about himself and his experiences.

It almost strains credulity that a Jewish comedian and film actor who placed his Jewishness front and center and consciously proclaimed it, utilizing constant references to his Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, and with ambivalent ways of defining gentiles (white bread and mayonnaise were the most popular reference) could capture the imagination of and even beguile a huge audience as Woody Allen has done. Jack Benny, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, and Groucho Marx preceded him, but these were not comics advertising their Jewishness; it was implicit and polite. Borscht-belt comics were open about their ethnicities by the 1950s, but they were entertaining largely Jewish audiences. Allen was a national comic from the start.

Allen’s boyhood was lived during the Holocaust from afar and he is obsessed with it. He wrote in Tikkun of his rage when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night: “Wiesel made the point several times that the inmates of the camps didn’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War Two and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horrors Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.”

The film wastes no time getting right into the heart of the action, as within minutes, Martin Landau as Judah Rosenthal is immediately identified as a “guilty man,” like a villain in a Hitchcock film, intercepting and reading aloud to himself a letter intended for his wife from his mistress of several years, airline stewardess Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), where she’s fed up with hiding and being alone and is ready to expose it all, which puts Judah in a precarious position, where much of this film is told through brief flashbacks, which act as his conscience, where he sees his life passing before his eyes.  As a successful ophthalmologist and a pillar of the community, this revelation could demoralize his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), who enjoys the privileges of being married to a successful partner and upset the stability of a loving family, as both parents are adored by their daughter Sharon (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and her fiancé Chris (Greg Edelman).  All this could be ruined if word gets out.  And there’s charges of embezzling as well?  The central dilemma is Rosenthal goes on a panicked tailspin, still trying to smooth things over with Dolores, who won’t give up easily, as she wants what’s been promised to her.  Anjelica Huston plays totally against type here, as she’s usually a strong, dominant character, but here she’s a long-suffering woman who’s continually been taken advantage of, who is reduced to nervous exhaustion in his presence, and grows neurotically angry and insecure in his absence.  Each of the scenes they play together is a flurry of heated emotions, where Rosenthal is concerned that the dam is about to break.  Alternating with Rosenthal’s ugly dilemma is the plight of a relatively unknown documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern (Woody Allen), something of a sad sack character who is involved in a loveless marriage with his wife Wendy (Joanna Gleason), where they haven’t had sex in a year (The last time I was inside a woman was when I was in the Statue of Liberty,” he quips), where the only satisfaction he receives out of life is taking his young niece to matinee revival movie houses, where clips from old movies have a hilarious way of commenting on the present, much like Rosenthal’s flashback episodes.  Cliff has discovered an aging intellectual, Professor Louis Levy, to be the subject of a film he’s been working on for some time but has yet to complete it.  Interestingly, Levy is played by Martin Bergmann, known personally as a friend and therapist by Allen, a clinical professor of psychology in New York University’s post-doctoral program, though his character appears to have been based on Primo Levy, Italian writer, essayist and Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz.  Once again, Allen uses Levy’s eloquent speeches as if summoning up the voice of conscience.  In the opening moments, we hear Judah’s conscience speaking during a testimonial dinner speech honoring his generous philanthropy.

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.”  The eyes of God.  What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like?  Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed.  And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

This is a film with plenty of one-liner zingers, like the Woody of old, where we appreciate the comic wit of this man, who is like an encyclopedia of Jewish humor going back to the vaudeville era when comedians had to suffer through the catcalls and boos of an audience that impatiently waited for the next girlie act to show up, yet by the end of the film Woody’s character is in abject despair.  An interesting counterpoint throughout is the use of vintage jazz music that sounds so upbeat and happy.  Allen’s nemesis is his wife’s highly accomplished and extremely successful brother, Lester, Alan Alda, introduced with Darryl Hannah on his arm in an uncredited cameo, a multi-millionaire TV producer who’s also something of a narcissistic egomaniac in the mold of Donald Trump, where he has to constantly be the center of attention, which irks Cliff to no end, as he can’t get anyone to pay attention to him or his films.  In reality, Allen loved Alda’s improvisational style and asked him for more, greatly expanding the role, which Allen wrote as they were filming, where his personality was supposedly based on comedy writer Larry Gelbart.  As a favor to Wendy, Lester agrees to hire Cliff, who’s forced to abandon his principles (a vow of poverty, apparently) by agreeing to film a documentary on the life of Lester for a great deal of money, where he meets one of the producers on the set, Hallie (Mia Farrow), as she fends off a series of romantic attempts by Lester.  Hoping to find a fellow comrade in arms in the war against Lester, they quickly become an alliance of two, where Hallie shows interest in his documentary, suggesting it could run in the fall television campaign, and of course they play hooky on Lester by attending old vintage matinee movies, where Cliff falls madly in love, though for Hallie it’s more of a budding friendship with a business acquaintance.  Meanwhile, Judah is eating himself alive and confesses his infidelity through the confidentially of one of his patients, Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi that is going blind, who urges him to come clean with his wife and hope for forgiveness, “It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world.  You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning, and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power.  Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live,” while also having flashbacks of his own father Sol (David S. Howard) at temple, instructing him as a young child, “The eyes of God see all.  Listen to me Judah, there is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight.  He sees the righteous and He sees the wicked, and the righteous will be rewarded, but the wicked will be punished for eternity.”  In one of the more memorable flashbacks, at a family Passover dinner, where Sol again claims “God will punish the wicked,” his more feisty and radical sister May (Anna Berger) reminds Sol that Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews and got away with it.  With all of this gnawing away inside his soul, Judah calls on the aid of his brother Jack, the more down to earth Jerry Orbach, who has sinister underworld connections, afraid of what he’s doing but he’s desperate to stop Dolores or he’ll be ruined, so he instructs Jack to “take care of it.”  Those few words set in motion a most foul deed, to which the agonized Judah responds when it’s over, “God have mercy on us, Jack.”         

Beautifully edited in a gorgeous symmetrical design, where each sequence is quick, establishes itself, and moves on to another, creating a fluidity of character and ideas that continually spark interest, making terrific use of old movie clips, all tying the past into the present, the film is listed at #3, behind Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) at #1 from an October 4, 2013 Guardian Poll, "The 10 best Woody Allen films".  Interesting that gas was only $1.03/gallon when this film was made, also that Allen uses Judah’s favorite composer to accentuate the fragmented thoughts and jarring darkness of his actions, setting the murder motif to a Schubert String Quartet in G major, Op. 161, D.887, 1st movement by the Julliard String Quartet, 1.Franz Schubert D. 887 Last Quartet No. 15 in G major I ... YouTube (10:00), followed by a quick edit to an amusing film clip of “Murder He Says” from HAPPY GO LUCKY (1943), Betty Hutton -- Murder, He Says - YouTube (2:51).  While Cliff is supposed to be painting a flattering portrait of such a successful, larger-than-life man, instead he focuses on how he perceives Lester, like the belligerent manner that he treats his staff, repeatedly showing his gargantuan ego and tyrannical rage, edited next to archival footage of Mussolini delivering an animated speech to the cheering throngs, but apparently he goes too far with footage of Lester privately cornering women with sexual advances, which promptly gets him fired.  “What is the guy so upset about?  You’d think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before.”  But perhaps even more deflating, he receives news that Professor Levy committed suicide, leaving behind a note that simply said, “I’ve gone out the window.”  Cliff is beside himself in disbelief, claiming “When I grew up in Brooklyn nobody committed suicide.  Everyone was too unhappy.”  Hallie explains they could never use his film after this event, but in real life it matches what happened to Primo Levy, who committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 67, which likely had a major impact on this film, much like the use of Bruno Bettelheim’s appearance in ZELIG (1983), another Holocaust survivor that committed suicide by asphyxiation a year after this film was released.  Continuing the downward spiral, Hallie is leaving for work in London for 3 or 4 months, leaving Cliff feeling like he’s been abandoned and handed a prison sentence.  Cut to a shot of Alcatraz and clips from the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), as months, months, months pass by before the film jumps ahead 4 months later to a wedding reception (at the Waldorf Astoria) for the daughter of Ben, the now completely blind rabbi, where Wendy and Cliff are finally getting divorced, but Cliff is even more devastated over his worst fear realized, as Hallie and Lester arrive to the party happy and engaged.  Hallie quietly returns his one love letter, “It’s probably just as well.  I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce.  You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin,” leaving Cliff alone and in despair, sitting away from the party having a drink, where he is joined by Judah in a chance encounter, hearing that he’s a movie guy, pitching his “fictionalized” idea of a chilling murder for a movie, one where the guy actually gets away with it.   

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 scot-free. His life is completely back to normal.  Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

However it is Professor Levy speaking from the grave who gets the last word, spoken over the jazzy refrains of “I’ll Be Seeing You”:

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.

Movie Clips used in the film

Happy Go Lucky (1943)
Francis (1950)

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