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Case Number 27105: Small Claims Court

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Crimes and Misdemeanors (Blu-ray)

Twilight Time // 1989 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // March 19th, 2014

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All Rise...

They call Appellate Judge Tom Becker MISTER Demeanor.

Editor's Note

Our review of Crimes And Misdemeanors, published June 14th, 2001, is also available.

The Charge

God is a luxury I can't afford.

The Case

The tenth film Woody Allen directed during his "Mia period" is an uneasy blend of watered-down philosophy and crisis of faith, plus light rom-com, told from the perspective of the men.

Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) is a pillar of the community. A highly sought-after ophthalmologist, Judah is also a top-flight fundraiser for medical causes, has a beautiful wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom, The King's Speech), and daughter—he is just all-around respected, listened to, and envied.

What no one knows is that for the past two years, Judah has been having an affair with flight attendant Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston, The Dead), who is years younger than Judah but not so young as to make the coupling ridiculous. She's attractive, desirable, clearly worships the ground he walks on, and unlike Judah, Dolores is a little messy and unpredictable, which just makes her more appealing.

Unfortunately, she's become unhinged as she realizes that she and Judah will not be making a life together. He might have been only vaguely sincere with his pillow-talk promises, but Dolores, evidently, took them quite seriously indeed. She is now threatening to expose not only their affair, but some of Judah's shady business dealings. If either of these things came out, it would ruin his standing in the community, he would likely lose his wife, be shunned—in short, it would be the end of the world as he knows it.

There's also the story of Clifford Stern (Allen), a high-minded, would-be documentary filmmaker who can't get a project off the ground. His own marriage, to Wendy (Joanna Gleason, Boogie Nights), is falling apart, but he seems barely concerned. Wendy has two brothers: Ben (Sam Waterston, The Killing Fields), a rabbi who is going blind and is also a patient of confidant of Judah's; and Lester (Alan Alda, Same Time Next Year), a pompous, pretentious, and wildly successful TV comedy producer. When PBS decides to do a documentary on Lester as part of a series on creative genius, he hires Cliff to produce and direct as a favor to Wendy. While shooting, Cliff meets Hallie (Mia Farrow, Husbands and Wives), an exec on the PBS program with whom Cliff finds common ground. Unlike Cliff's wife, Hallie finds his quirks and interests endearing; she agrees that Lester isn't a great subject for a program on creative genius. Even better, she is impressed with a personal passion project Cliff has been working at: a documentary on an obscure professor and philosopher.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is said to be one of Allen's favorite drama films, and it's received high praise from critics, two Oscar nominations for Woody (directing and writing), as well as one for Landau for his supporting performance, plus nominations and awards from BAFTA and various critics groups.

But while it's an intelligent and occasionally insightful film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, at times, is just too transparent, as though Allen were so connected to his ideas that he was comfortable having his characters serve them straight to the point of being didactic, with the heavy-handed device of a wise rabbi going blind playing out in the proceedings. Despite Judah's angst, we know what choices he's going to make and how this is going to play out; the contrivances in his plot tend to undermine the seriousness of the film. Likewise, we know that Cliff and Halley won't be finding love, at least not together, and we're given a second denouement that feels a little jerry-rigged to accommodate Allen's notions of an ironic final scene.

Ostensibly a comedy/drama, the jokes tend to fall short. Alda is great as the wildly egocentric Hollywood success, even if his character is a bit overdrawn (you'd think in post-Michael Cimino '80s, auteurs of all stripes would know enough to check themselves a bit when giving on-camera interviews). But an act of vengeance by Cliff, played for comedy—as opposed to a dark act of salvation played as necessary tragedy—comes off as funny but cheap, more like something out of a particularly silly and mean-spirited teen comedy. It's beneath Allen, and it throws the tone of the film. It also makes no sense: he's wooing Halley with his sensitivity, his artistry, his professionalism (and she's trying to sell his passion project to PBS); why risk that for the sake of an unfunny, bullying joke? A revolting account of a blind date gone bad by Cliff's sister is just that, revolting. Moments like this do not flow well at all with the "serious" half of the film involving Landau's crisis of conscience.

So, maybe Crimes and Misdemeanors isn't the classic it's been made out to be by some, but is it a miss? No, not by any standards. Standing head and shoulders above any downsides is Landau's tremendous performance as Judah, a man who goes from "flawed" to downright evil without missing a beat—and without learning the kind of lessons we'd expect such a character to take away. Allen has drawn Judah as a complex character, and Landau perfectly captures those complexities; it's a stunning collaboration. On the other hand, Huston's role as the increasingly deranged—and dangerous—"other woman" is underwritten, but the actress brings such vitality to the part that you hardly notice.

While the script is a little too obvious, it's still a Woody Allen script, which means it's intelligent and often very funny. Even if Allen's angst is a little too naked, his sense of fun is still strong in the Cliff and Hallie sequences. Allen's scenes with Farrow are charming, and even if Farrow's character is underdeveloped—seriously, I can think of few Woody Allen films with less-developed central female characters—they remind us why Allen is one of cinema's great light-relationship chroniclers.

Twilight Time turns out a good-looking disc. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Blu-ray) might not be the final word on this title—it's very good tech, though it falls short of "striking"—but it a pleasing looking and sounding release. Contrast is good, colors are natural, and a fine grain reminds us this is film, not video. The film was shot by Sven Nykvist (Cries and Whispers); that, along with the positive reaction to the transfer, should say everything about the image quality. The original Mono audio track, remastered in DTS-HD, sounds fine. As usual, this Twilight Time disc is light on supplements, featuring an isolated music track (even though there's not all that much music in the film), a trailer, and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 82

Perp Profile

Studio: Twilight Time
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Blu-ray
• Comedy
• Crime
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Isolated Score
• Booklet
• Trailer


• IMDb

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