Crimes and Misdemeanors Review

Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Arguably Woody Allen’s finest film of the 80’s, the film is an excellent study into the darker confines of man’s soul, and what he will do in order to maintain the comfort of life. Unfortunately, the DVD is bare-bones, like all of Allen’s DVDs.

Woody Allen is one of the most respected directors within the film industry. You could argue that Allen is the embodiment of ‘auteur’, a man who continues to direct his own films, based on his own scripts, and usually with himself in the lead role. Some of his films are landmarks of the late twentieth century – Annie Hall, Manhattan, Sleeper, Hannah And Her Sisters and yet most of his later films have seen bored critics deride Allen due to his constant revisiting of the same themes and issues. Also, his native USA isn’t on speaking terms with him after his very public split with actress Mia Farrow, in which she alleged his abuse of their children. To make matters worse, Allen is considered pathetic for running off with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The running joke of Allen always casting himself opposite young and beautiful actresses almost mirrored reality.

Crimes And Misdemeanors is arguably Allen’s finest film since Manhattan. It’s a film that could easily have been thrown on the same scrap heap as Allen’s other self-indulgent nonsense that he tends to make occasionally (Celebrity and Decronstructing Harry were awful, though everyone differs over their least favourite Woody Allen films). However, after taking a closer look at the film, it soon becomes apparent that Crimes And Misdemeanors is multi-layered and has a worthier purpose.

On the surface, Crimes and Misdemeanors is two films in one. It’s a very serious murder drama based on infidelity, and is also the usual neurotic Allen vehicle in which the creative protagonist has trouble dealing with his insecurities of his profession and his relationships. Juxtaposed together, these two separate stories essentially serve to deliver the message that people aren’t what they seem, and that what is deeper within is what is most important.

The first story strand deals with Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a wealthy ophthalmologist who is a respected and honoured member of his local community. Unbeknownst to Rosenthal’s family, Judah has been having an affair with Dolores (Anjelica Huston) for the last few years, and her irrational behaviour regarding their affair is taking its toll on Judah. Not only is Dolores threatening to tell Judah’s wife everything, but also she is resorting to blackmailing him over her knowledge of his embezzlement of company funds. Judah has too much to lose, and ignores the advice of his rabbi friend Ben (Sam Waterston). When proceedings become desperate, Judah’s shifty Mafia-connected brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) suggests taking matters into his own hands, but this couldn’t possibly mean murder, could it?

The second story strand of Crimes And Misdemeanors is more light-hearted, and certainly more personal to Woody Allen. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern, a film/New York loving documentary maker whose marriage is slowly becoming moribund. However, Cliff’s brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a vain and wealthy TV producer who strives for the mainstream, hires him to make a biography. The subject matter for the documentary is Lester himself, and Cliff sees the opportunity as a way of destroying Lester’s on-screen image, since he represents almost everything that Cliff himself actively despises. Also, Cliff and Lester both have an attraction for production assistant Halley (Mia Farrow), a women whose honest intentions may turn out to be suspect.

Crimes And Misdemeanors is Woody Allen at his most bitter. It’s an often-hilarious look at the inner demons of man’s soul, but yet the conclusion clearly deals all of the winning cards to the ‘evil’ characters in the film. Not that this is suggesting Allen is promoting these characters, but more that he is attacking society for failing to glorify the nicer, law abiding and moralistic citizens of the world. He could even be attacking God himself, for failing to step in when Evil goes unpunished. It can’t be an ironic coincidence that the character most morally sound, rabbi Ben, is the one who seems to be punished the most in the film, with regards to the unfortunate loss of his sight. The cast is excellent, in particular Landau as the tortured soul that is Judah. He convincingly portrays Judah as a Jekyll & Hyde type figure, in which he balances a respected figure with a morally bankrupt one. Woody Allen appears to be having fun as Cliff, the sneering and pretentious joker who, despite his age, still manages to seem like a weedy little boy laughing at the expense of those better than him. You could even go as far as to suggest that all of the characters in the film possess fractions of the Woody Allen persona, and he could have played all of the roles.

Allen is famous for alluding to his current real-life troubles in whatever film he is making at the time. As Crimes And Misdemeanors was made three years before the Allen-Farrow split, many signs can be detected from the film that this was arguably inevitable. Notice Allen’s character Cliff is in a loveless marriage and is almost obsessed with hanging around his ‘fourteen year old niece’. It’s almost as if Allen has cleverly cast Mia Farrow as another potential love interest to deviate attention from his own personal life. These suggestions could mean everything or nothing.

In short, Crimes And Misdemeanors is the type of film in which Allen haters will criticise with only a minute interest, and Allen-obsessives will lap up in droves. It has the usual bitter psychobabble neurotic wit and life pondering, but with an added dose of murder and romantic break-up thrown in for better balance. With regards to what the film aims for, it’s very accomplished in a subtle yet tragic way, and suggests that when Allen actually tries to make a quality film he can easily pull it off.

Academy Awards 1989

Academy Award Nominations 1989
Best Director – Woody Allen
Best Supporting Actor – Martin Landau
Best Original Screenplay – Woody Allen

Presented in widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1 the picture is generally pleasing if too high on contrast in occasions. Careful watching will detect occasional print shimmering, but it never detracts from the overall presentation.

Presented in two track mono (like all of Allen’s films) the soundtrack is obviously lacking in spatial channel separation but is still clearly audible, if recorded slightly lower than usual in terms of volume.

Menu: A static and silent menu with a few images from the film thrown into the background.

Packaging: The usual MGM amaray budget range packaging, with chapter listings printed on the reverse of the inlay card and being visible via a transparent amaray.


Original Theatrical Trailer: A poor trailer that doesn’t convey the film’s dual-plot elements or indeed what it is really about, other than the brief suggestion that it contains murder and is a Woody Allen film.

A very good Woody Allen film is given a bare-bones disc, but then this isn’t a major trauma considering Allen neurotically refuses to contribute to any extras due to his desire to never watch his films once they are released. Crimes And Misdemeanors is part of MGM’s budget range and will retail for £12.99, so if you are a fan of the film it is highly doubtful that a future release will be any better.

Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Updated: Jan 12, 2002

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