Review: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)


Where does morality come into play?

Written By: Woody Allen
Directed By: Woody Allen

Morality can be played in many ways, Woody Allen masterfully manipulates and plays the idea of morality and the human condition in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The concept behind Crimes and Misdemeanors is an interesting one. Two completely different stories that are tenuously tied together by one Rabbi and a small meeting to punctuate the film. Outside of that final meeting there is never interaction between the two threads, Mr. Allen leaves it up to the viewer to distinguish what he is trying to say with his two tales. Once stripped bare the ideas Mr. Allen is trying to put forth are easily seen. What makes men moral, what is the difference between a large moral miscue and a minor one? Or, is there no difference at all between a small and minor miscue, because breaking morals is breaking morals?

Crimes and Misdemeanors asks these tough questions, but it doesn’t answer them for you. It gives you the pessimistic view of Judah, the optimistic view of Ben and the always world weary and paranoid view of Woody Allen as Cliff. These views are all given equal time and weight, and one can find value in any of the three. By the end the men have made their choices and they have moved on with their lives, the cost of their moralistic misgivings known only to them. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of Crimes and Misdemeanors, we all make mistakes and none of us are truly moral people, but life goes on. No matter how bad your deed may have been, if you get away with it, life goes on. That is the thread that connects the two stories, whether your indiscretion is large or small, life continues even if you don’t want it to. It’s up to you to decide what you will do with that life.

Mr. Allen delivered his usual spry and sardonic dialogue, and while he was credited as the lead I couldn’t help but feel this was Martin Landau’s movie and that his character was bigger and more important than Mr. Allen’s. Mr. Landau was up to the challenge and delivered a great performance as the conflicted man with no options left and all the choices in the world. Alan Alda gave a surreal performance as the completely full of himself TV exec, but he nailed the part because he always left you thinking that maybe there was more to him that he hid deep down from others. His eventual winning of Mia Farrow’s Halley Reed confirmed that for me. The role that shined the brightest for me was Sam Waterston as Rabbi Ben. It was a small but nuanced role, and it provided the film with the backbone it needed to clash with the weak willed actions of both Judah and Cliff. He may have only been on the screen for a few minutes, but they were a splendid few minutes.

What it all comes down to for me is one phrase. No movie made in 1989 that features the line, “Oh, that’s a bunch of poppycock” can be anything but great. Crimes and Misdemeanors has a good story and good acting, but it also has poppycock and that’s why it’s A-Okay in my book.



Bill Thompson


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