#30 — Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)
Woody Allen had been directing movies for twenty years by the time he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, which might be a contributing factor to my sense that the film is a sort of cinematic final exam. It’s not that Allen had anything to prove, having already signed his name to multiple masterpieces. He may have been coming off of a pair of critical and commercial misfires–September and Another Woman–but the eighties had been an especially fruitful time for him. There was no familial scandal sullying his reputation, no prolonged stretch of mediocre movies on his resume. He had that rare filmmaker’s gift of complete artistic freedom and actors were desperate to work with him.
Though there was no real reason to believe Allen was done–and it would still be several years before his batting average started to drop–the film has the feel of a culmination. Allen’s various storytelling fascinations that played out over the years converged in Crimes and Misdemeanors, most evidently his gift for inspired, existentially bleak comedy and his penchant for drama that exposed the darkest impulses of the human heart. There are two major story threads, each an expression of different sides of Allen as a filmmaker. Allen himself plays a documentary filmmaker whose attempt at romance follows the same path to lovelorn futility that winds through many of the director’s comedies. Meanwhile, Martin Landau plays an ophthalmologist who enmeshes himself in a grim human drama that could have easily made up the entirety of one of Allen’s aspirational stabs at Bergmanesque heft. The two storylines operate in parallel, intersecting in ways that are simple and subtle. There’s no profound epiphany as they comment on one another, no sharp twist at the end to draw them together. The film ends with with a quiet conversation and the reminder that even the incidents of the gravest import crumble away to dust given enough time and inattention.
Beyond the themes, it’s fascinating to watch Allen employ different techniques he’d used in prior films in revelatory ways. The breakdown of walls between past and present, artifice and commentary that gave Annie Hall an added comic zing take on a totally different weight when used to allow Landau’s guilt-ridden doctor to essentially step into a flashback to discuss morality with his family during a Passover dinner. Similarly, Allen’s habit of casting himself as a writer or entertainer is often a throwaway, used for little more than a shortcut opportunity to offer up a few withering lines on the dismal state of the creative industries. Here, Allen gets at the ways that making a film can be one means an artist has of trying to understand the world and express that understanding to others. It’s a wonderful premise made all the more potent by a wounded acknowledgment of the ways that the art can ultimately betray the artist.
The depth of the piece doesn’t blunt Allen’s comic edge. Crimes and Misdemeanors is terrifically funny, sharp and beautifully written. While it’s foolhardy to try and name the best Woody Allen line ever, there are an abundance of nominees for the honor here (“Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty,” being the most Allenseque). The characters are all vividly drawn and acted to perfection, with Alan Alda providing the standout performance as the slimy, self-absorbed television producer Allen’s character is hired to follow for a documentary. The whole film has a novel’s richness and authority. Among the mound of impressive proof Allen offered during the eighties of his proficiency as a filmmaker, Crimes and Misdemeanors stands as the headiest and heartiest. Sometimes it bends and sometimes it breaks, but it’s always wonderful.