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.