Thursday, July 25, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Seeing the trailers for Woody Allen's latest drama, Blue Jasmine, reminded me of his most complete dramatic film, the 1989 morality play Crimes and Misdemeanors.  Who knows if his latest has anything in common with Crimes, one of the best films of his storied career, but the tone of these new previews directed straight to the stories of Judah Rosenthal and Cliff Stern.  Here is a film about the unfairness of the world, about how the rich and powerful can take advantage of the ease of their lives and get away with murder - literally - all set in opposition to the romantic struggles of a generally good person who can't catch a break.  It sounds rather serious, and one half of it is, but leave it to Allen to balance the seriousness of one story with plenty of snark and wit in the parallel narrative.

Martin Landau plays Judah, one of the masters of the universe, an ophthalmologist who, as the film opens, is being honored at a ceremony.  Judah has a comfortable life as a wealthy eye doctor, four acres of land in Connecticut, and a family who adores him, including his doting wife.  He is also in the middle of a love affair with Dolores (Angelica Huston), which has been going on for years now.  Dolores and Judah have shared nights and vacations and beds with each other for so long now that Dolores can no longer stand the secrecy. She cites the promises Judah made to her, and of course Judah waves them off as nonsense.  "Embellishments" he says dismissively.  Dolores disagrees, and plans on telling Judah's wife about them so she might clear the air.  Is it to try and have Judah for her own?  Perhaps.  Judah opposes this idea, of course, because his roots are so deep with his wife of twenty-plus years.  Dolores inches closer and closer to bursting Judah's bubble, so much so that in a conversation with his brother, Jack (Sam Waterston), the discussion of murder is brought about.  What an absurd idea to Judah initially, but as the vice tightens around his life, his desperation takes over.

Meanwhile, we meet Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker who is unhappily married toWendy (Joanna Gleason) and slowly becoming infatuated Halley, played by Allen's former wife Mia Farrow. Cliff wants to films a documentary about a philosophy professor, but the payday lies with his brother-in-law, Lester, who commissions Cliff to film a documentary on his life. Played by Alan Alda, Lester is an egotistical TV producer who isn't really an interesting person aside from his total lack of self awareness which is played for some solid laughs.  In one conversation with Lester, Cliff rips Lester apart but follows it up by saying it's okay, "he's my friend."  This narrative has a much lighter tone, with Allen delivering his great one liners and quips along the way.  There is something forgiving about Cliff's situation, especially when held up next to the seedy darkness of Judah's plight.

It's no big spoiler to say that Dolores is, in fact, murdered.  The event happens while Judah is entertaining guests at his home, and his reaction to the news is one of the more powerful moments in the picture.  Judah must contain composure, but the gravity of the situation collapses upon him, exemplified by a soul-crushing gaze while his dinner guests converse around him.  Landau hits all the right notes of tragedy in this scene.  It would also be no surprise to anyone to say Cliff does not end up with Halley.  Instead, he sees her at the end of the film alongside the doofus Lester, whose success was obviously too much to pass up on her part.  This final scene is where the two stories intersect in a poignant conversation between Judah and Cliff.

As much as I enjoy a great number of Woody Allen's comedy efforts, I find all of his semi-serious pictures much more compelling.  Match Point was perhaps his most serious, no comedy whatsoever, a dark noir thriller that was a masterful bit of storytelling.  While Crimes and Misdemeanors has comedic elements, the bulk of the story is very serious and quite unsettling.  Landau's performance is wonderful and his character truly despicable.  But here he is getting away with everything in the end.  I get the same sort of vibe from Blue Jasmine which seems both serious and amusing, much like life itself.  These are the moments when Allen is his strongest in my opinion.