Crimes and Misdemeanors
Woody Allen got his start lampooning the deadly serious foreign films that were all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Then the former stand-up comic began to emulate (some might say imitate) those films as he turned out dramas like Interiors and September. Along the way, he left a trail of theological breadcrumbs in comedies like The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a Catholic movie buff says life without God would be "like a movie with no point and no happy ending," and Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Woody himself goes religion shopping after a brush with death leaves him wondering what it all means.
All of these themes and styles come together in Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of Woody's most daring and ambitious films. Unlike his previous films, which found a single tone and kept to it, Crimes and Misdemeanors alternates between two seemingly different storylines, one tragic and the other comedic, to make a larger point about the things people are capable of when they don't believe in a morality that is higher than them.
The "funny" story stars Woody as a filmmaker who compromises his principles by agreeing to make a documentary about a shallow, selfish Hollywood producer, while the "serious" story stars Martin Landau as an opthamologist who considers going to extreme lengths to prevent his mistress from revealing their affair to his wife. And both stories are profoundly theological: Woody's character is also making a documentary about a philosopher who comments on the Old Testament, while Landau's character grew up in a devoutly Jewish home and one of his patients is a rabbi who, significantly, is going blind.
Some have criticized the film for suggesting that murder can be put in the same category as mere vanity or careerism, but one of the film's main points is that sin is sin, even if the size of the sin seems different to different people. (Note Landau's response when the rabbi mentions Landau's "small infidelity.") The film also probes whether seemingly trivial things like art or pop culture are any better or worse than religion or philosophy when it comes to answering the big questions—...or to hiding the possibility that there aren't any answers to those questions.
Amusing, disturbing, and blessed with good performances (especially from Landau) and some suitably dramatic cinematography (courtesy of Bergman and Tarkovsky veteran Sven Nykvist), Crimes and Misdemeanors offers plenty of food for thought.
—Peter T. Chattaway