how to write about Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film which poses the question: what is morality, if not what your conscience allows you to get away with? Outside the grim Bananas, Crimes and Misdemeanors is Allen's most unrelentingly bleak and hope-annihilating film. His blackest comedy, it also might be his best.
SPOILER: Judah confesses to the now divorced Cliff a "hypothetical" murder scenario with a "strange twist", where a rich man gets away with murder, and comes to realize that all people carry around awful deeds with them, and with the passing of time all crises fade, and life goes on.
"By choosing to have Dolores murdered, Judah has defined himself as a man of wealth and privilege, respected by society, 'idolized' by his wife, and a murderer. He can live with that."
This is the "real world" we are left with: the rich and powerful routinely get away with murder--literally in Judah's case--evil is respected, adored. Meanwhile the weak get shit on.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Judah Rosenthal, played by Martin Landau, is a successful opthamologist who also has a little mistress problem, which he solves by asking his brother, a thug, played by Jerry Orbach, to “handle the matter.” This involves hiring someone to kill her in her apartment and make it look like a robbery.
Judah responds, “God is luxury I can’t afford.”Because Judah was raised in a deeply observant family, he does have attacks of conscience . . . at first.
At the end of the film, and after some time has passed and Judah is obviously not going to "pay" for the murder of his mistress, Judah recounts his own story, as a third-person impersonal narrative, which he thinks would make a great movie, to Woody Allen’s character, Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker, whom he has just met at the wedding of the rabbi Ben's daughter, where they are both guests:
SCENE____ 1:50:28Judah: My murder story has a very strange twist.
Judah: And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he's plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he'd rejected are suddenly stirred up.
- He hears his father's voice.
- He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it's not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he's violated it.
- Now, he's panic-stricken.
- He's on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police.
And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he's not punished. In fact, he prospers.
The killing gets attributed to another person - a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn't even matter.
Now he's scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege. (1:52:02)
Cliff : Yes, but can he ever really go back?
Judah: Well, people carry sins around with them; maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, and in time, it all fades.
Cliff : Well, then his worse beliefs are realized.
Judah: Well, I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I? . . . This is reality—in reality, we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.
Cliff : Here’s what I would do: I would have him turn himself in, because then your story assumes tragic proportions, because in the absence of a god, or something, he is forced to assume responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.
Judah: But that’s fiction, that’s movies—you’ve seen too many movies.
Final Scene: Professor Levy: [voiceover]
We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.