Woody Allen's body of work as a director is vast and varied, on par with something like Bob Dylan's discography. There's a general consensus about a few highlights (Annie Hall, Manhattan) and some lowlights (Celebrity, most of the '00s), but everything else is up for grabs, critically. Is Midnight in Paris overrated? Is Manhattan Murder Mystery underrated? Should Radio Days be rediscovered? Has A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy been rightly forgotten? Twenty-five years after its initial release, Crimes and Misdemeanors still feels like it should reside comfortably within the higher rankings of Allen's output.
Here, Allen perfectly balances his desire to make wry human comedies with his desire to make completely humorless dramas, by doing both. Martin Landau headlines a stone-faced story about an opthamologist whose mistress threatens to reveal their affair and wreck his marriage, while Allen appears in a concurrently unfolding, more humorously conveyed storyline about a documentary filmmaker who falls in love with his producer despite him being married. There's not a plot-based reason for these stories to be told together -- although Landau and Allen's characters do meet and have a brief chat near the end of the film. There's also not a strict, formal A/B approach to the comedy and drama (as in the underrated Melinda and Melinda) either. These two men are presented in a way that allows the viewer to do a broader philosophical compare-and-contrast with them.
Both Judah Rosenthal (Landau) and Clifford Stern (Allen) are portrayed as kind of out-of-touch with the real world. Judah sees himself as a good man, but he cheats on his wife with a younger woman, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), and has fudged his financials in the past. When a distraught Dolores threatens to expose both of these indiscretions, Judah finds himself calling his mobbed-up brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and pondering putting a hit on her. Cliff, meanwhile, is making a documentary portrait of his wife's brother, Lester (a perfect Alan Alda), a TV comedy producer who comes across like the dimbulb version of Norman Lear. (His memorable head-scratcher of a catchphrase, "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny," might rank up there with Polonius's "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," from Hamlet.) The upside of the project is that it led to Cliff meeting producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of watching old movies at a theater in the day time. Cliff also sees himself as a good man -- and it would be hard to argue that his unhappy wife Wendy (Joanna Gleeson) would be too broken up if Cliff divorced her -- but he seems a little too wrapped up in the romantic notion that that's enough for him and Halley to live happily ever after.
Allen's script, however, is more pessimistic about both of these men's fates. In one of the many echoes of Ingmar Bergman's work in the film, Judah, who hasn't been religious for years, suddenly worries about suffering God's judgment for plotting his mistress's murder. He is eventually met with a realization that if there is no punishment from God coming, and if he can reshape his own morality, then there are no consequences. It's a starkly nihilistic conclusion, which also reverberates across Cliff's story. Cliff, who has seen too many movies, thinks of himself as superior to the self-important dullard Lester, making himself the perfect leading-man underdog in his mind. But, as Allen sees it, in the real world, Lester would continue to be more successful in both the movie business and in love than Cliff, so that's how he allows his narrative to play out. Without a moral God or a moralistic screenwriter, the evil don't have to be punished and the good don't have to be rewarded.
This all might be a bitter pill to swallow, if not for the excellent ensemble cast, which also includes Sam Waterston as a confidante of Judah's who is slowly going blind and Caroline Aaron as Cliff's unlucky-in-love sister. Martin Landau, in particular, should be singled out for pulling off the trickiest role in the film. He gives Judah's wrestling match with morality an unfiltered humanity, which makes his anxiety totally sympathetic, even if his choices turn out to be pretty despicable.
As with all of Twilight Time's BD releases, this is available only in a limited run of 3000 discs. It comes with a little booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Shot by frequent Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the film has a palette of late autumn/early winter, with a lot of browns, beiges, and grays. It is striking and appropriately sober without being a dreary bummer to look at, like a lot of Woody Allen's dramas (Gordon Willis is great, but the look of Interiors makes me want to just curl up and slowly fade away). The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer nicely reproduces Nykvist's work, with a lot of fine detail. Sometimes the skin tones can look a little too red, but it's not a huge distraction. There's plenty of film grain, which is pleasing overall, but the image can end up looking a bit noisy in some of the high-contrast shots. The image is clean, with only some sporadic specks here and there.
The DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds clear, with good fidelity. It's not a full-range stunner, but it serves the film well. There are also English SDH.
Woody Allen is notably averse to bonus features, so not much here.
- Music and Effects Track - Intended to be a feature like those Isolated Music Score Tracks on other Twilight Time releases, this is less than satisfactory. This is the soundtrack that would be sent to foreign countries so they can dub in their own dialogue, which means that the score gets quiet during the moments when characters are talking. The track, therefore, is inadequate for appreciating the music. It is useful, however, if you want to pull a What's Up, Tiger Lily? and rewrite the film and dub in new dialogue.
I don't know if I would put Crimes and Misdemeanors in my Top 5 Woody Allen Films. It's probably in the Top 10 for certain. Nonetheless, it's nice to see the film get the HD treatment, even if it's only in a limited edition like this. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his band's new Nick Lowe tribute album.