Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of Woody Allen‘s best films, a thriller in which, as the film critic Roger Ebert wrote, the suspense is not about what will happen to people, but what decisions they will make. The film consists of two stories, which meet only at the end. In the first, a drama, a successful opthalmologist played by Martin Landau lives a charmed life: he has financial success, a beautiful family, a happy marriage, and the esteem of his community. He chooses to have an affair with a flight attendant, (Anjelica Huston) and when he decides to break off the affair, she becomes furious, threatening every good thing in his life. He seeks advice about what to do: from a patient who is a rabbi, and from his brother, a ne’er-do-well with Mob connections. Each offers him his best suggestion, but the doctor has to choose. In a parallel story, a comedy, a documentary filmmaker accepts a job making a film about his brother-in-law, a successful Hollywood producer (Alan Alda), in order to raise money for a film he is making about a philosopher. The filmmaker is in a failing marriage, and he becomes infatuated with the associate producer, played by Mia Farrow. He chooses to try to initiate an affair with her.
All the decisions of all the characters are played out by the end of the film. We are left to consider the nature of good and of evil, of faith and skepticism, of love and hate.
(NOTE: there are spoilers in the commentary and questions. Stop here if you do not want to know what choices the men make.) If I were to interview Woody Allen myself, there is one question I would love to ask him: Did he write Crimes and Misdemeanors with Psalm 94 consciously in mind? The question in this film is precisely that of the Psalmist when he asks, in Psalms 94:3 “How long will the wicked, Adonai, how long will the wicked be jubilant?” I might be inclined to say no, this is just the eternal cry against the unjustness of life, except for verse 7, which says: “They say, ‘Adonai does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.’” Again and again in the movie, the murdering opthalmologist quotes his father, who said, “God sees everything.” And yet, by the end of the film, despite that, nothing bad has happened to the murderer. Apparently there there will be no divine retribution for the sin of killing an inconvenient lover.
Allen’s vision of the world is utterly bleak. He sees the bad guys getting away with their crimes, and the better man getting nothing. However, the better man isn’t without his own sins: he is simply an ineffectual bad guy. As for the man of faith, the only truly good man in the film, he goes blind.
This is a great Jewish film because it engages with serious Jewish questions: why be righteous? What is the meaning of law? Who sees most clearly, the blind rabbi or the guy who insists on “seeing the world as it really is”? Is faith valuable, or is it merely self-deception? Does faith make us stronger, or weaker? What is Woody Allen saying in answer to these questions? Do you agree or disagree with him?
Many of the characters in the film have an immature approach to faith; they go to childhood memories for their ideas about God. The two exceptions — adults with mature approaches to faith – are the philosopher and the rabbi, neither of which is a fully drawn character. One of them dies a suicide, the other loses his eyesight. What effect does this have on the discussion of the questions in the film?