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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Martin Landau died a couple of weeks ago. His career had defined stages, such as his TV career of the '60s and '70s, and then an eclipse, but was revived at the age of 60 when he would go on to have three Oscar nominations and win for Ed Wood in 1994 (I have reviewed that film on this site). The first of these films was 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that also is a key film for its writer and director, Woody Allen, as it's really his last great comedy.

Allen has been obsessed with many things over his film career, but perhaps the most visited thing is guilt. In addition to this film, he focuses on it in Match Point and Irrational Man. Can a man kill someone and live with it on his conscience? Allen, by virtue of these three films, seems to think so, as the killer rationalizes the guilt away.

Of course, Jewishness is also one of Allen's themes. And in this film it is ever so, as Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, an opthamologist who has become a skeptic, but is haunted by the devoutness of his father, who said that "God sees everything." Landau jokes during a speech that may be why he specialized in opthamology.

Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two parallel stories. Landau, who has a good and prestigious life, has made a mistake by having an affair with an unstable woman (Anjelica Huston). She is threatening to tell his wife (Claire Bloom) everything. He intercepts a letter (today, with email, this would be a different story). Desperate, he turns to his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) for help. Orbach, who cynically believes that Landau does not understand the real world, agrees to arrange a hit on Huston. Landau can't believe he's going through with it, and after it's over, he's consumed by guilt.

The other story is comic (mostly). Allen plays Clifford Stern, a make of small documentaries. His wife (Joanna Gleason), is sister to a very successful TV producer, Alan Alda. Allen finds Alda to be a pompous ass, and Alda plays the part to the hilt, making banal pronouncements like "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny." Alda reluctantly hires Allen to shoot a documentary about him, but Allen's real passion is a film he is making about a philosophy professor who believes that there can be joy in life. Thus it is a terrible shock when the philosopher kills himself, leaving a note that says "I've gone out the window." Allen remarks, "In Brooklyn we don't commit suicide. We're too unhappy."

Allen falls for a production assistant (Mia Farrow), and woos her, but she is resistant, and when she arrives at the climactic wedding on Alda's arm, he is devastated. "My worst fears are realized," he says, and is sitting alone when Landau, who is also a guest at the wedding walks by. I love the way the two threads are brought together, as Landau, speaking as if telling a fictional story, relates everything that has happened, and how he awakened one morning and felt no guilt whatsoever, and life is happy for him. Allen says he couldn't live with the guilt, and we see the two alternatives to atonement.

While the Landau half is very dark, Allen lightens up his half, even if he doesn't get the girl. There's a lot of great lines, such as when Allen reminds his wife that they haven't slept together since April 20th. He remembers because that's Hitler's birthday. Later he will tell his sister, "I haven't been inside a woman since I visited the Statute of Liberty." Speaking of the sister, there's a diversion that is strange. She tells Allen of meeting a man in the personals and having him do something horrible to her. Allen tells his wife, "A strange man defecated on my sister." Gleason asks, "Why?" Allen responds, "Is there any anything I could say to satisfactorily answer that question?"

So we get Allens essential struggle--is man good? Is there a God? In a Wild Strawberries moment, Landau visits his old house and has a flashback to a Seder when he was a child. His atheist aunt spars with his devout father, who is asked, "You'll take God over the truth?"

In a few years Allen's life would be a tabloid spectacle as his relationship with Farrow's adopted daughter would come to life. His career never stopped, though, and he's managed a film a year all these years later. I think Husbands and Wives was a very good film, and dramas such as Match Point and Blue Jasmine have been very good, but the high standard of comedies he made from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors, such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, have not been reached since then.

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