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CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Martin Landau. Woody Allen, Anjelica Houston, Jerry Orbach, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

“It’s a human life.   You don’t think God sees?”
“God is a luxury I can’t afford…I push one button, and I can sleep again.”
“But can you sleep with that?  Is that who you are?”

Film ****

Crimes and Misdemeanors is perhaps the most brilliant film to emerge from the brilliant mind of Woody Allen.  It's not the comic masterpiece Annie Hall is—in fact, it's not really a comedy per se.  It's more of a drama with a few funny moments, and anchored by a terrific cast across the board, particularly Landau, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work.

The film's main story involves prominent ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Landau).  He's a man who seems to have everything: money, a nice home, a loving family, the respect and admiration of all his peers.  But he's harboring a secret; a two year affair with a stewardess (Houston).  He's ready to break it off, but she won't let go, threatening to tell his wife everything, thus destroying his family and reputation--everything he's built up in his lifetime.

His shady brother (Orbach) suggests that for a little money, she can be gotten rid of, and no one would ever connect Judah to the murder.  And thus begins the film's brilliant look into the conscience of a man who's never held religious beliefs, but suddenly feels like Cain, who slew his brother where nobody saw, but the eyes of God were watching.

Judah even asks the advice of a patient, a sweet Rabbi (Waterston) who is optimistic and upbeat, even though he's going irreversibly blind.  In a strange sequence (real or imagined, we wonder), the Rabbi warns him not to think he could get away from it.  He may escape earthly justice, but could he ever really live with himself knowing he had done so terrible an act? 

In one of the most outstanding sequences, there is a small dinner party at Judah's house.   Everyone's laughing, talking, having a good time.  The phone rings.   It's his brother.  The deed is done, he says, and there's nothing to worry about.  Judah is stunned and speechless.  He's just killed somebody.  He returns to the party, where everything is going on as before.  He sits quietly, pale, staring.  The camera zooms in slowly on his face.  The laughter and taking continues, but he is silent.  His eyes reflect the terrible deed he has done.  Nobody will ever know?  Landau is at his most brilliant here…in silence, his face becomes a pained, moral landscape, showing us a mind and a heart awakening to thoughts and ideas he had no idea were even there anymore.

Woody Allen addresses this scene:  “My feeling was that once his brother calls and tells him that the deed is done, Judah crosses an irrevocable threshold in his life from which he can never return…when he sits there with the group of people, he’s like in a different world.”

In a humorous subplot, Woody plays Cliff, a down on his luck documentary filmmaker who's hired by his pompous, successful TV producer brother in law (Alda) to do a film on himself, the “profile of a great man”.  Allen has never played a character as sympathetic as Cliff, and there are some genuine belly laughs over the course of making this documentary.

All in all, this film is a work of sheer genius, honesty, and humanity, and it definitely gives you plenty to think and talk about afterwards. I think this is one of the most significant films of the last quarter century, and stands as maybe the finest work from one of our country's most respected filmmakers.

Video ***

I’m very grateful to have an anamorphic pressing of this film.  As far as video quality goes, it’s good, but the nature of the film makes for some inherent problems.  Allen often experiments with different cinematographers and lighting styles, and for this picture, virtually all natural lighting was used.  The effect is often warm and ambient, but the lower the light, the more grain on the film stock occurs as contrast levels have to be artificially increased.  There are minor inconsistencies…the scene at the end with Allen and Landau in front of the piano, for example.  Sometimes the black of their tuxedoes blends into the black of the grand; a shot or two later, and there’s more definition.  Natural lighting sometimes produces very beautiful results, other times, it lends to softer images and less realistic coloring, but again, this is an artistic choice by Allen.   The transfer itself neither lent to nor corrected these basic problems.

Audio **

As with all Woody Allen films, this movie features a simple 2 channel mono mix.  Perfectly adequate and without complaints, but nothing to get excited about, either.  The best moments are the interjections of a Schubert string quartet into the soundtrack…the music wails in loud, uncontrolled slashes of agony, and accentuates the action on screen perfectly.

Features *

Only a trailer.  This is a film where a commentary track would have been greatly welcomed, but sadly, a Woody Allen commentary track isn’t possible, as he refuses to re-watch his movies once they’ve been released.

Summary:

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one I consider to be among the top three greatest films of the 1980’s.  Rich in human complexity and moral struggle, yet made buoyant by touches of welcome comedy, this is easily Woody Allen’s masterpiece.