If you had a problem, and this problem meant the destruction of your life and reputation, and family that you hold so dear, what would you do to get rid of it for good? Though Woody Allen is a brilliant director, he’s an even better writer who knows people and how they work in reality. He knows how to compose human personality, and our own inner-desires. Allen breaks down a crime and studies it with the most human of reactions. If you’d had a lover and she threatened to destroy your life if you didn’t return her love, what would you be willing to do to make sure she didn’t talk? The ultimate question Allen observes is how far we’d go to protect ourselves.
A wonderful homage to “A Place in the Sun,” Martin Landau gives an excellent performance as Judah an ophthalmologist who has a torrid affair with an airline stewardess named Dolores, played by Anjelica Houston. After many trysts, she threatens to reveal to his wife that they’re in love. Judah becomes so desperate he enlists the help of his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) who proceeds to kill her. But the true story lies in how Allen dissects this act and examines Judah after the act has been committed as he approaches it with head-on realism exploring the fall out whiole Judah reacts to this crime with paranoia, restlessness, and a true unease that any moment he’ll be caught. Allen explores how a good man can respond to committing such a cruel act and how living with such a cruel act can really affect our livelihoods in the end. Allen has a comedic sub-plot as a man who in an unhappy marriage contemplating a sexual affair.
Though Allen has been cited as saying that his comedic sub-plot made the film weak, it really doesn’t, offering a paradox of two situations approached from different angles. Allen never paints Judah as a character we’re supposed to hate exactly. He looks like a good man, and seems well intentioned in regards to his family. Director Allen just paints Judah in gray strokes from beginning to end. He’s admirable, but flawed as a human being who commits this selfish act and then asks us to decide how we’re supposed to feel about him in the end. Landau’s character has had the affair and he seeks to end it, while Allen’s life could possibly have the same results if he chooses to do so. Landau’s performance is gripping as his character begins losing sleep, unable to show his affection to his family, and attempts to sub-consciously sabotage his own act by returning to the scene of the crime.
Landau is torn apart by his own act of desperation and Allen observes how this man becomes his own worst enemy and how guilt also becomes his pure nemesis. In one gripping scene, Landau expresses his anger and utter misery after the crime, and Jack hints that he’d best keep his mouth shut, and it implies the irony of Jack’s brother who will also do whatever it takes to keep himself safe, when his brother threatens his livelihood. Allen’s story is slow and well paced with glimpses of Judah and Dolores, and how they became lovers. We gain insight in to their first meeting, their sexual rendezvous, and her eventual desperation to force him to reveal to his family that they’ve had an affair. It could easily have turned in to a very predictable thriller, but it’s a drama in the purest form.
Director Allen doesn’t show the murder, but instead reveals the after effects of the murder, and what chain reactions it sets off. What Allen has always been talented in is observing human nature, and our true acts of selfishness and cruelty. He never sugar coats any element in the narrative, and he never insults our intelligence with the film. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” pulls no punches in terms of characterization and the guilt that can tear us up from the inside out. The climax really does sum up the film as Landau delivers one hell of a rousing monologue, when he and Allen’s character finally meet at a party. The two messages Allen conveys to the audience is will Judah ever be able to live with himself after what he’s done? And that life never really does have a happy ending. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a truly brilliant study of murder and its psychological effects on the people that dare commit it.