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Crimes and Misdemeanours  

Woody Allen proved himself to be a filmmaker of the highest caliber in his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanours . The film stars Allen, Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, and Law and Order`s Sam Waterson and Jerry Orbach.

Two different storylines are contained within. The first deals with eye-doctor Martin Landau`s extramarital affair with a woman played by Huston. For a few years, this relationship seems a happy one. In fact, Landau seems to be telling her that someday they will truly be together, without the presence of his wife. But, eventually, Landau gets bored. And Huston is becoming increasingly angry with this, to the point of wanting to tell Landau`s wife what sort of a man he really is. I can`t say I really blame her, for she is pointing out the inherent selfishness in how Landau is treating her. Landau does not see it her way, however. And so he turns to two people for advice. First, he speaks to one of his patients, his rabbi (Waterson), who is slowly going blind. The rabbi believes that Landau should simply come clean to his wife. Landau can`t go through with it, believing it will ruin everyone and everything around him. Soon the conversation turns to more elevated concerns, as the rabbi and Landau debate morality, and the presence of God. The rabbi insists that with God comes hope, if we do our best to live a good, and moral life, and to ask forgiveness. Landau, on the other hand, clearly cannot deal with the concerns of the afterlife when his present concerns seem so much greater. Which is why he turns to the second person for advice, his brother (Orbach), who has ties to the mob. His brother says with one phone call, the troubles would be over, and nobody would ever know.

The second storyline concerns Woody Allen`s antics as a documentary filmmaker forced to make a film for an anthology series about his incredibly arrogant brother-in-law, a famous sitcom producer (Alda). In the process, Allen attempts his own extramarital affair, with the anthology`s producer, played by Farrow. Allen is a moral perfectionist who believes he has to dissuade people from making choices he feels are wrong, and he exhibits this with Farrow, who Alda is also pursuing. Allen cannot stand to see these two together in any context. Allen sees Alda as a creep, considering him a threat to Farrow`s own well-being. However, he soon pays a heavy price for his moral righteousness.

The most jarring aspect of this production is in its structure. Parallel stories are nothing new, but the two stories here seem, on the surface, to come from two different movies. The Woody Allen sequences are, to a degree, what we would expect, with Woody`s one-liners and the support of typical Allen cast members as Mia Farrow and Alan Alda. But you are then unsettled by the Martin Landau sequences, which are suitably bleak with its subject matter. These are the sort of dramatics one would expect from a film by Ingmar Bergman or Carl Dreyer, where questions of morality and religion are dealt with in a brutally frank matter. This is one of the few American films where the subjects of morality and the existence of God is not window-dressing, but crucial to the storyline.

Yet, the film does tie these plots together at the end, and reveals a complete and chilling statement which answers these questions. It is not a happy answer, and it is Landau who discovers it in a powerful and chilling performance. His bland doctor exterior is unmasked to reveal a selfish, insecure, and cold man, who will eventually discover a very good justification for wanting to doubt the presence of God. Overall, this is a unique, unusual, and important film from someone whom we are familiar with as a funnyman, but who during his career has also proven himself to be one of the great American directors.

David Macdonald

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