Capping off the strongest decade of Woody Allen’s career, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is a nearly ideal synthesis of Allen’s strengths as a writer, director and actor. That might sound strange if one considers Allen’s talents to be primarily comedic — Crimes and Misdemeanors can certainly be funny, but the humor hardly undercuts the fundamental darkness of the material.
Nevertheless, this is where it all seems to come together. Allen’s attempts at brooding, intense dramas can fall flat, particularly when he’s aping Bergman (comedic emulations of Bergman, like Deconstructing Harry, are another, more successful story). But in its riff on Dostoevsky, Crimes and Misdemeanors strikes a meaningful, weighty tone. The film also incorporates Allen’s strongest comedic tenor — wry and rueful. Allen’s documentary filmmaker character isn’t radically different from any of the other men he’s played in his films, but the way he’s stymied at every turn adds an extra dimension of melancholy to his wisecracks.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is also one of the most convincing examples of Allen’s skill as a director, generally the most maligned, or at least ignored, aspect of his career. The construction of this thing is remarkably elegant, cutting back and forth between parallel stories and only gradually emphasizing the thematic similarities. One doesn’t tend to associate Allen with intricately designed visual rhymes, but here we are.
The first moral crisis we’re introduced to is that of ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a man who should be entering into contented golden years, having achieved professional success and surrounded by a loving family. Instead, he’s forced to confront his own transgressions, brought forcefully to the forefront of his life by Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), a flight attendant and his mistress. The luster has worn off the affair for Judah, and Dolores, motivated by a combination of vengefulness and guilt, threatens to tell all to his wife (Claire Bloom).
Panic-stricken, Judah contacts his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who arranges for a hit man to take care of Dolores. The ensuing scene is disturbingly matter-of-fact; there’s a methodical, almost banal quality to it that makes a woman’s murder seem like the most ordinary thing in the world. Later, Judah visits her apartment to recover some incriminating evidence, and the scene strikes a similar tone, flatly showing Dolores’s lifeless body and Judah’s understated reaction. His subsequent mood is far more distraught, but that owes more to his newfound conception of himself rather than her murder. The moral inquiry that proceeds from here is hilariously self-focused, an existential crisis that’s completely crass in its dismissal of the value of someone else’s life.
Allen crosscuts this story with Cliff Stern’s (Allen himself), a filmmaker who longs to make important, serious documentaries, but has to settle for a puff piece on his TV producer brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda) to pay the bills. Lester is comically pompous, but Cliff isn’t much better in the self-awareness department, cutting together a pathetic attempt to embarrass Lester and clumsily pursuing Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the producer on the project.
Like many an Allen protagonist, Cliff can be charmingly self-effacing, with his Indian takeout and Singin’ in the Rain on 16mm, but he also overestimates himself. The scene in which he learns the subject of his passion project has died and decides to make a pass at Halley is painful. Never mind the fact that Cliff is married, however unhappily to Wendy (Joanna Gleeson). Here’s another character whose thoughts turn only to himself in moments of crisis.
Allen’s playful interrogation of his characters’ moral fiber and the audience’s perception of that morality makes for a rich work. Where on the spectrum of right and wrong do these characters’ actions fall, and does it even really matter? Happiness doesn’t seem to have much correlation with morality, as Allen underlines in the film’s final scene when Judah and Cliff’s storylines finally intersect, and the two men share a moment of reflection. In Allen’s conception of the world, there’s hardly a clear-cut answer, but at least we have laughter, even if it’s of the bitter type.
After a run of decent-to-strong Woody Allen Blu-ray releases, it appears Fox/MGM is unfortunately getting out of the game of distributing his catalog titles on Blu-ray, handing Crimes and Misdemeanors and the forthcoming Broadway Danny Rose (and let’s be honest — probably a number of others) off to Twilight Time. Aside from Twilight Time’s signature extra, this is virtually identical to what Fox/MGM would have given us — only at twice the price. Oh well.
The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is similar to what we’ve seen on the previous Allen Blu-rays. Detail levels are solid, the image is reasonably clean and clarity represents a nice improvement over the DVD, even if it’s not mind-blowing. Grain is cleanly rendered, offering a fairly film-like appearance. Sven Nykvist’s slightly burnished cinematography is appealingly presented; autumnal browns are warm without looking oversaturated. A few speckles pop up here and there, but aren’t too concerning. Digital tampering doesn’t appear to be an issue. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack presents the classical and jazz tunes clearly, while dialogue is adequately clean.
Allen’s home video releases are almost always essentially barebones, and this one is no different. Twilight Time includes the usual music and effects track, but this seems even less useful than usual, as the film doesn’t possess a traditional score. The original theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, the Twilight Time’s Titus Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
1989 / Color / 1.85:1 / 104 min / $29.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.