‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ and ‘The Front’ Come to Blu-ray
By J. Hobeman
The writer and director of more than 40 feature films, Woody Allen is one of the most driven artists in Hollywood history. I’m not sufficiently driven to have seen every one of his movies, but of the three dozen or so I have taken in, one stands alone: “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” newly out in a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Originally released in late 1989, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” walks the line between comedy and drama and rarely stumbles. The movie, set in an upper-middle-class Manhattan milieu, concerns two families, each unhappy in its own way. The distinguished ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) struggles to disentangle himself from an affair with the pill-popping and increasingly needy Dolores (Anjelica Huston), a former flight attendant who threatens to expose their two-year relationship, as well as certain financial improprieties, to his adoring wife (Claire Bloom). Panicking, the doctor seeks help solving the Dolores problem from his mob-connected younger brother (Jerry Orbach).
This tawdry bourgeois tragedy plays out in counterpoint to a sweet, foredoomed romance. Cliff Stern (Mr. Allen) is a nebbish, miserably married (to Joanna Gleason). He makes “little films about toxic waste” and dreams of completing a feature-length portrait of a venerable Mittel European dispenser of psychoanalytic wisdom (the New York University professor Martin S. Bergmann).
Instead, his disapproving wife secures him a commission to direct a portrait of a Los Angeles producer of TV sitcoms, his fabulously successful and equally fatuous brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda). During the course of the shoot, Cliff becomes infatuated with the project’s associate producer (Mia Farrow). The on-screen chemistry between Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow is palpable — and more striking now than it was in 1989.
Featuring one of the finest casts Mr. Allen has ever assembled, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” has novelistic richness in delineating character — so much so that, at 104 minutes, the narrative feels squeezed. (I would have welcomed another half-hour.) The cinematic texture is unusually complex as well. Mr. Allen effects some startling juxtapositions, as when a hit man stalks his prey to a Schubert quartet.
He excerpts movies as varied as the 1943 musical “Happy Go Lucky” and the 1942 noir “This Gun for Hire” and, like a New Wave filmmaker, places “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in movie history. It variously suggests a bitter travesty of “Manhattan” (1979) and a gloss on the near-contemporaneous hit “Fatal Attraction” (1987), while to see the respectable Dr. Rosenthal struggle with his conscience is to recall the sinister thug the young Mr. Landau played 30 years before in “North by Northwest.” Cinema also affords the filmmaker protagonist a Pyrrhic victory; the first cut of his documentary hilariously juxtaposes self-aggrandizing Lester with newsreel footage of Mussolini.
“Crimes and Misdemeanors” is also hyperverbal, with an abundance of zingers delivered mainly by Cliff. (Mr. Allen is as funny as he has ever been, and Mr. Alda makes an excellent straight man.) At the same time, this may be the only Woody Allen movie in which Jewishness functions less as a shtick than as a moral code. The two families are linked by Cliff’s second brother-in-law (Sam Waterston), a saintly rabbi undergoing treatment with Judah for imminent blindness. One can forgive the continuous riffing on the need to “look at reality” and the nature of guilt in the “eyes of God.” The good cannot see; the bad choose not to.
Mr. Allen’s title consciously echoes that of “Crime and Punishment,” and the comparison is not altogether specious. Like Dostoyevsky’s, his characters are notably prone to agonized self-analysis, and seldom in an Allen picture have the stakes been so high. The various crimes and misdemeanors committed include murder, suicide and adultery (among other forms of deceit and betrayal), as well as the most unspeakable sexual act in Mr. Allen’s entire oeuvre; the movie ends with a wedding that brings everyone together to consecrate the notion of an unjust world.
An agnostic with regard to Mr. Allen when I first reviewed “Crimes and Misdemeanors” for The Village Voice, I thought I saw “startling intimations of greatness.” Revisiting the movie nearly a quarter-century later, I was struck by the skill with which he pulls off this unlikely amalgam. “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” remade after a fashion in Mr. Allen’s “Match Point” (2005) is an ambitious movie, although, according to his current biographer David Evanier (reached by email), Mr. Allen does not rank it among his favorites. It is also discomfiting, not least in Cliff’s cozy relationship with his prepubescent niece, Jenny (Jenny Nichols, the daughter of Mike Nichols).
Mr. Allen is a complicated man, and, as the world knows, his relationship with Ms. Farrow and their children has proved to be equally so. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is his darkest film and, it would now seem, his most personal as well.
Also recently reissued by Twilight Time on Blu-ray, “The Front” (1976) is a less ambiguous morality play than “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as well as a rare instance of Mr. Allen lending the Woody Allen character to someone else’s movie. Directed by Martin Ritt from Walter Bernstein’s screenplay, this comedy-drama was perhaps the first Hollywood film directly to address the blacklisting of Communists, Communist sympathizers and suspected Communist sympathizers during the 1950s.