Posted by: philosopherouge | January 8, 2008

Trying to figure out Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)

Spoilers for: Crimes and Misdemeanors, and minor ones for The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) and Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang).

Rather than an analysis or review, whatever… it’s me relly trying to figure out what the film meant. I unfortunately jump around a bit, talk in circles and contradict myself as a result. I’m very interested in hearing others thoughts on Crimes and Misdemeanors because I found it to be an incredibly striking film that I can barely latch onto intellectually. I just feel there is so much going on, I don’t even know where to begin. Hopefully I’ll be able to sort through some of this at a later time, and after another viewing or two and actually come to a conclusion

As the final scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors was unfolding, I couldn’t help questioning and comparing Allen’s philosophical ideology to that of Fritz Lang’s. I’m not pulling this comparison out of thin air, especially as the bulk of my argument is centered on Scarlet Street, a film that similarly is about a man who takes on a mistress and has a part in her murder. Both filmmakers are sceptical that a God or higher power exists in our universe, but their views and conclusions on the strength of human morality vary greatly. I am even initially unsure if I could call either of them pessimistic, although on the surface that seems to be the case. Lang seems to believe in a universal moral code, or a conscious that in the end Allen seems to conclude does not exist, at least not with the same understanding.

Tonally Lang’s film comes to a conclusion that is anything but life affirming, as he sees our moral code as the ultimate destruction of the human spirit and soul. Then again, his greatest onscreen “monster” and destructive force (Glenn Ford in the Big Heat) lacked this sense of self condemnation and personal punishment. He was destructive in the worst way possible because he felt no responsibility for his actions. While I think it’s arguable if he is a monster or not, he brings the death of five women without a blink of an eye. The end notes on what seems to be an upbeat one, but it’s incredibly chilling as his vengeful rampage has no moral consequences. He is barely even haunted by the death of his wife (that he was indirectly the cause of). The protagonist of Crimes and Misdemeanours’ crime is very calculated and while his conscious nags at him, with time comes healing, until he concludes it will eventually leave him. In Scarlet Street however, the murder is committed in the heat of passion and at least tries to confess, yet he is haunted forever by his conscious as it tears him apart. When Judah Rosenthal is recounting his experience to Allen at the end of the film, the latter is dismayed that a man who commits murder could live without guilt and because of his mental turmoil would turn himself in, because in the absence of a higher power he would feel the need to deliver justice on his own terms; Judah Rosenthal quips back “I told you it was chilling”.

This, however, is just scratching the surface of Allen’s exploration. The strange thing is that I can’t say I felt that chill run down my spine as he said that (however there was something unsettling about the final monologue about happiness, I’ll get to that in a bit), whereas I found Lang’s interpretation positively frightening. A lot of this perhaps has to do with the drama, as Lang pulls all the tricks to create a horrific existence for his character. The lighting, the sound, and his appearance are enough to perturb the viewer. However, Allen makes it matter of fact and doesn’t embelish the moment. Lang believed that the mind could conceive far worse punishments than eternal damnation, while Allen seems to come to the understanding that outside of the law, there are few consequences. Allen though, is not quite that straightforward and not all characters escape love or their conscious. An aunt from a flashback serves as the voice for the lack of consequences, as she brings up her lack in belief in God and the many people who have lived life without any consequences at all. The holocaust still fresh in her mind, and those around the table she brings that up as a rather scandalous example as she asks what did the Nazis do to pay? They killed six million? How did they pay? Her philosophy is tinged with bitterness and anger.

What initially seems to be refute this argument is the philosopher Allen’s character has chosen as the centre of his new documentary. His comments on love, marriage, happiness and God are awe inspiring even in the brief context of the film. They are also chosen to reflect perfectly the crisis that several of the characters find themselves in. He seems to take on the role of an omnipotent God, as he seems to have great insight into the lives and actions of all characters. In ancient polytheistic societies, as well as Plato’s own vision of the perfect society it is the philosopher who rules supreme. In a film that focuses so much attention on the absence or uncertainty of God, it only makes sense that a character takes his place. He is removed and without real personality or quality, Allen even chooses a non-actor to fill the role. What is striking about this, is in the end the philosophy fails the professor and he commits suicide. This is why the final monologue chilling while still being life affirming:

We’re 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 be 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 try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

I’ve warmed up to it though, as it seems to indicate we are not defined by our philosophies or religions but by our actions and those around us. The professor, while seemingly omnipotent is still human and it’s said he lived alone without any family. There is something mysterious about human nature that prevents a true understanding of our actions. As he is but a shadow of a human being, I don’t think there is much understanding of his action as such, rather it should be taken as a symbolic representation of the futility of personal dogmas when they cannot actively be put into practise.

Furthermore, Judah Rosenthal’s existence seems to be an anti-thesis to all that is being said by the philosopher, and it comes back to Ford in the Big Heat as their characters evolve in nearly the same way. However, I’m not inclined to call Judah a monster even if he is responsible for his mistress’ death and finally the guilt doesn’t tear him apart. He lives out perfectly the idea that “love contains in it the contradiction: The attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past”, as he destroys her and with her goes all his problems, and yet through memories he is always able to return to it. While God may not exist in this world, there clearly is a life after death. As terribly cliché as it sounds, we live on through those who loved us. Even in Lester, we find a yearning to be remembered because being forgotten is a real and more ultimate death. Even in Cliff Stern’s (Allen) character assassination via film, the scene is almost more ruthless than the outcome of the murder because it sullies the remainder of a man, what he will be remembered for, how he will live forever in the minds of others.

While there is little room for religion in this world, those who are devoted to the Church are presented with respect and reverence. Perhaps this is because they practise what they are preaching, more than living in bitterness. Judah cannot forget the words of his father, but as he remembers him it’s always with affection. His own religious ambivalence he attributes to laziness, or as he muses over murder “God is a luxury I cannot afford”. The meaning of this defies me quite frankly, as the two representations of faith in his life, his father and Ben are not richer than him in any sense (although it has to be said, they aren’t living in poverty). It’s beyond just material wealth though, but a sense that while they are not saints, they probably wouldn’t have put themselves in the situation he has found himself. His previous actions and beliefs have disallowed his comfort in God, and while he does seem to make a brief attempt to reconcile himself it seems to be an act of desperation rather than in earnest. While I do think there is a lot of tenderness attributed to both the father and Ben, the hopeless futility of religion is also emphasized because the former is proven wrong and the latter is literally blind. Ben is an earnest and virtuous man, he gives the answers one would expect from a man of religion and deep in his soul he believes every word of it. From the filmmaker’s perspective though, God has even abandoned him, just as he has abandoned all of us. God is blind to our troubles and to reality, and we are forced to reckon with our moral dilemmas and decisions without guidance from above. We must rely on ourselves, and we are not all seeing, all understanding. Even the most wise stumble and get lost in the darkness.

In the end, most characters haven’t found enlightenment, if any. Some are worse off, some are the same, others are better. From the direction of the film, it’s almost difficult to believe that it would be Cliff despite his search for love that would find himself alone and even more of a failure, while Judah commits murder and not only comes off scott free, but without the haunting doubts of guilt and what ifs. Perhaps, when all is said and done, there is no predicting what will happen, there is no preventing or predicting…. while compared to perhaps Hannah and Her Sisters (a wonderful companion piece) this film is downbeat, is it really pessimistic? Or is it more apt to say realistic (in the sense of human emotions and actions)? This question unfortunately unfolds into something I’m not prepared to tackle. Personally, I am inclined to believe the latter. I don’t see this as a downbeat world view, but rather an attempt to clarify something that’s so difficult, if no impossible to grasp. In this written thing, that can hardly be called a review or a critique I suppose I’m trying to do the same, but without the same sense of order or clarity Allen brings. This is around the dozen mark as far as the amount of Allen films I’ve seen, and I’m very willing to call it his best.



  1. I have always been impressed by Allen’s even-handedness when it comes to the portrayal of religious belief. His, as you say, “respect and reverence” towards the topic is absolutely necessary in this film made by–I believe–a fellow atheist in which “the eyes of God are always upon us” is an important thematic line.

    I am equally impressed by your working-through of Allen’s worldview vis-a-vis CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, which is indeed one of his very best. His recent MATCH POINT is a more Chabrolian version of the same story. Perhaps less artful and less Woody, but equally brilliant.

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