Monday, July 18, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Woody Allen, 104m, 1985

This has been called a black comedy but it is appropriate to call it a philosophical manifesto. Comedy happens to be his idiom but behind the irreverence is a morbidly thoughtful and incisive mind. His movies are verbose and witty and the humor sometimes laid on, particularly at a juncture when he steps on the scatological, so to say, unnecessarily.

Judah Rosenthal, a successful Jewish ophthalmologist, has an extramarital affair but when he wants to wriggle out after two years, the woman threatens to destroy his marriage as well as career unless he divorces his wife to marry her. He is viciously cornered and solves his problem by getting her murdered. This is as black as a Woody Allen film can get since both the murder and the body is for real (a movie with even a moderately gory corpse loses the qualification of being called any sort of comedy). He is tormented with thoughts of guilt and based on his religious upbringing, which he had long since rejected, forced to reconsider whether indeed there is, as his father once taught him, a god with eyes which see all. After a period of hand wringing a la Ms Macbeth, life is back to normal. He has got away with murder, but has he indeed?

A parallel plot relates to Allen as an unsuccessful film maker, who gets involved with Mia Farrow, who ditches him for a man Allen despises and envies for his success. This part of the tale is presumably the misdemeanor. He has gotten away with a mere broken heart, his marriage and his luster less career intact, unstained by what for want of a better word let's call sin.

Allen has addressed his own religious and philosophical concerns. Is there right and wrong, is there a god or his equivalent? (Yet a third strand of the story tells of a life affirming Professor Levi, who Allen admires and respects. Levi walks out of a window one day with no explanation.) Allen is probably too smart for his own good and cannot reconcile himself to a moral order to the universe (the classic holocaust argument is interposed). He ends up in the manner of existentialists by concluding that faith and meaning are what we endow things with. Judah hasn't really gotten away with his deed, because actions are their own reward or retribution, and all one does either ennobles or demeans our being. The movie concludes with the words of the deceased Levi that one is the sum total of one's choices.

Woody Allen's films are intelligent, witty, philosophical but beautiful is the word which does not spring to mind. He is talented in his chosen domain and this movie is perhaps the distillate of his art and craft.

2 comments:

kaist455 said...

Allen's later work "Match Point"(2005) is closer to a black comedy than this. It is colder story on the possibility of getting away with crime, and Allen seems to more openly accept the conclusion of "Crimes and Misdemeanors". I recommend it as a companion piece.

S. M. Rana said...

Thanks. I'll watch out for it.