Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) written and directed by Woody Allen is considered to be an existential comedy drama film. The film is the story of two unrelated persons, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), and Clifford Stern (Woody Allen). Judah is a successful Ophthalmologist and Clifford is an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker. Judah is a family man and well-respected in the community. But everyone has weak moments and Judah had his two years ago and he got romantically involved with an air hostess Dolores (Anjelica Huston). Dolores is now demanding to marry Judah and threatening him to expose him in front of his family if he doesn’t leave his wife and family. Obviously, Judah can’t do that. He loves Dolores but his wife is his other half for the society for more than 20 years and he can’t destroy the respect he has earned. Certainly not for this two-year-old love.
Parallel to this another story runs of Clifford. Clifford is an average man or it would be better to say a below average in terms of success in life. His marriage is also going through a rough patch. On his wife’s insistence, he takes up a job of making a documentary on his brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), who is a successful pompous TV producer. Obviously, Cliff despises him and shooting this documentary celebrating life and work of Lester is a torture to him. He finds Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the associate producer and unilaterally decides that after his marriage is over he will marry Halley. What they have in common is despise for Lester. They spend some time together watching parts of the documentary about Prof. Louis Levy, which Cliff actually wants to make. She likes him for sure but categorically tells him that she is a very ambitious woman.
In the meanwhile, Judah decides to kill Dolores with the help of his gangster brother Jack and the task is accomplished with the services from a professional killer. Police find no connection to Dr. Judah. Initially ridden with guilt, his conscience adjusts later with the circumstances and Judah is a free, happy and satisfied man. On the other hand, Cliff loses both, his wife and also Halley as she gets engaged with Lester. The climax is a brilliant conversation between Judah and Cliff where Judah tells him an imaginary story of a murder and the killer who got scot free and lived happily thereafter. Cliff is not convinced. He thinks that can happen in films but not in real life, a man cannot live with such a guilty conscience. Judah leaves.
Film ended on the screen but not in my mind. It was disturbing to think that maybe many killers like Judah are walking among us without an ounce of the burden of guilt on their conscience. Judah despite being a man of science was quite a religious man and to the family, to the community he was a very good man. But what is good and what is bad? Does just one mistake make him bad? All his life’s good deeds are washed by just this one bad act? And what is the definition of bad? Cheating your wife is bad? Loving some girl is bad if it is done by a married man otherwise great. Does crime has degrees? Killing someone less important to the society is a lesser crime? Revealing the truth to his family would have destroyed so many lives. So, how could it be a good act? Was the doctor a bad man? Has morality nothing to do with law? And what is morality in the first place? Is it absolute, is it subjective, and is it rigid, it comes from within or without? What about Cliff? Halley left him because he was not successful. So, love is a fantasy or a reality? What is a practical decision? Why everyone rationalizes whatever his deeds may be? So many questions, right? I can go on like this but not my fault. This film asks questions and the task of finding answers is left to the audiences.
Woody Allen is no doubt one of the most audacious writer-director in the world today. The best part is that he entertains with involving you in his questions. His films are a long list of questions and all of these are open to interpretation. He has touched this subject of ethical subjectivism in Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream also. This film moves in two directions. In one, he shows how morality adjusts itself in the changing context. After all, what is morality to us? It is a set of rules or an enlistment of goods and bads. It is something that comes from an external authority and that is why bound to be adjusted to our changing circumstances. Rationality comes to its aid whenever morality summons it. We rationalize. We are in a habit of rationalizing our every single deed. Deeds are never good or bad they are just deeds we make them good or bad. In this film the adjustment of Judah’s morality is shown by the fading eyesight of one of his patients, the Rabi. He goes on losing his eyesight and, in the end, goes completely blind as Judah’s conscience is at peace and morality is completely lost. The other part of the story depicts ideology against so-called practicality. Cliff being an idealist and humble man could never match his aspirations with what the world demands. He gets nothing and the man who is less than ordinary but very ‘practical’ gets everything even the girl. Paradoxically, the Jewish Professor, who gives lectures on love and meaning of life, commits suicide in the end. This is absurdism here at the display. Anything can happen to anyone, being a good or a bad person doesn’t matter. Yes, the world is unfair.
The lighter treatment of the film is a deception. It is not for everyone and certainly not for those who are in search of escapism. This is not escapist drama. It will haunt you for a long time. This is a serious questioning on human behavior. These are the questions also raised by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Morality may have cultural components but Crimes and Misdemeanors is universal in every aspect.