An opthamologist's mistress threatens to reveal their affair to his wife, while a married documentary filmmaker is infatuated by another woman.
All great artists produce their share of hits and misses; at times, they nail the bullseye and create meaningful and relatable works, and at times, they miss their mark. Woody Allen knows those highs and lows all too well. Over the course of his long career, the writer-director has experienced plenty of peaks and valleys, both professionally and personally, and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors,' a stunning study of morality that stands as one of Allen's finest films, cogently examines how people deal with life's dramatic fluctuations and the consequences of both action and inaction. With his trademark flair for finding resonating nuggets of truth, Allen once again explores the human condition with a mixture of ironic humor and incisive introspection, examining with a keen eye the complex vagaries of various relationships and exposing universal longings, regrets, emotions, and, of course, neuroses.
'Crimes and Misdemeanors' fascinates because it forces us to look inward and evaluate the myriad elements that constitute character. All of us possess a dark side, but the challenge we often face is how to manage such unsavory qualities as selfishness, ruthlessness, and jealousy without letting them overtake us. Allen famously once said, "The heart wants what it wants," but the heart can't have everything it wants...or can it? Can money buy happiness, or at least solve all our problems? Maybe, Allen infers, it can. But at what cost? And can we be happy without a moral center? Can we play God without incurring God's wrath? And does God really see all and judge us, or does He occasionally turn a blind eye to our misdeeds? In 104 minutes, Allen doesn't answer these loaded questions, but he puts them on the table via an intricately woven story that's simultaneously searing and light-hearted.
Vision is the film's prevailing theme. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a highly respected, super-successful ophthalmologist who helps people see clearly, yet his own sight is clouded by ego and vanity. Ben (Sam Waterston) is one of his patients, a wise, compassionate rabbi afflicted with a degenerative eye disease. And Cliff Stern (Allen), Ben's brother-in-law, is a struggling documentary filmmaker who can't see past his all-consuming jealousy of his other brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), an arrogant, hopelessly self-absorbed über television producer who's admired and fawned over by colleagues, friends, and attractive women. As a favor to Cliff, Lester enlists him to shoot a documentary about his life and career, which leads Cliff to Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), his producing associate with whom he soon becomes hopelessly infatuated, envisioning her as his soul mate.
Allen adeptly juggles his tapestry of characters and their intertwining relationships, but the movie's focus lies firmly with Judah, who lives a seemingly perfect Park Avenue existence with his adoring and beautiful wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom). Yet Judah also harbors a dirty little secret whose name is Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), a former flight attendant to whom he has promised much but delivered little. The unstable Dolores can't see anyone but Judah, and like Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction,' she won't be ignored. As Judah increasingly marginalizes her, Dolores becomes unhinged, allowing her insecurities, anger, obsession, and overwhelming sense of loneliness and need to bubble over, transforming her into first a nuisance, then a threat. And just as a surgeon cuts out a cancer or a man swats a pesky fly, a desperate Judah soon decides - with the help of his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a black sheep drifter with "connections" - to remove the troubling Dolores from his plate and restore his teetering world to its proper axis.
'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is one of Allen's coldest films, and its wintry settings only heighten the emotional frigidity on display. The vulnerable characters who express their feelings are ultimately stepped on, manipulated, and betrayed. They don't see clearly either, skewing their perceptions of people and situations to satisfy their needs and longings. And when life at last comes into focus, the impact can be devastating. Cliff takes refuge in classic movies, where dreams don't reflect reality, and likens the pompous Lester to Mussolini, while Dolores lives in a fantasy world, believing love will conquer all and banking on the empty vows of a selfish, insolent adulterer.
Allen also explores guilt, retribution, and religion. Judah hails from a deeply spiritual, orthodox family, and he's haunted by his father's stern words: "The eyes of God are on us always." But as his life begins to spiral out of control, Judah sees God not as a necessity or guiding force, or even as an all-powerful moral policeman who punishes those who sin, but as an indulgent crutch for weaklings. Rabbi Ben tries to counsel him ("Without the law, it's all darkness," he says), yet Judah can't grasp the bigger picture, and Ben, whose sight continues to fail, begins to be physically engulfed by society's increasing moral darkness.
As usual (especially in his more serious films), Allen's screenplay is impeccably constructed, tightly woven, lyrical, and packed with meaning. So many lines resonate, and as the characters wrestle with the large questions of life, so too do we. Allen also assembles a top-notch ensemble of actors, all of whom craft superior performances that further enhance the thought-provoking themes. Landau is especially strong as Judah, filing a finely etched portrayal of a deeply conflicted man whose ultimate epiphany is even more shocking than any of his prior deeds. Judah is more than the star of his own personal drama; he represents the sad state of American society, and in a career spanning six decades, rarely has Landau been as persuasive as he is here.
Crimes are more serious than the personal misdemeanors we all commit, but according to Allen, sometimes petty transgressions lead to stiffer sentences than mortal sins - at least emotionally. 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' doesn't paint a pretty portrait of life, but it celebrates human complexities and ambiguities in a fascinating manner. We might not like what we see, but looking in the mirror is never easy and rarely pleasant.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Crimes and Misdemeanors' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case in a limited to 3000 edition. Inside lies an eight-page booklet featuring a few color scene stills and an insightful essay about the movie by Julie Krigo. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Twilight Time nicely spruces up this 25-year-old film. Though some faint white speckling can be seen from time to time, especially against the black background of the opening titles and during dimly lit scenes, overall the image remains largely clean and free of blemishes. Grain is visible, but not so pronounced as to become a distraction, and excellent contrast lends the picture a wonderful sense of depth. Clarity is quite good; background elements sport a fair degree of fine detail and close-ups highlight various facial features well.
'Crimes and Misdemeanors' isn't a very vibrant film. The wintry New York City exteriors look bleak and harsh, and stark interiors often appear dull. Still, a few bursts of color, such as Alda's salmon-tinted sweater, add some occasional spice to the frame. Black levels are rich and inky - check out Landau's tuxedo in the opening scene - and fleshtones are stable and true throughout. No banding, noise, or pixelation afflict the image, and no enhancements, such as edge sharpening or DNR, seem to have been applied.
This winning transfer from Twilight Time honors Allen's artistry and respects his vision, and fans should be quite pleased with this top-notch effort.
Typically, Allen films don't have a lot going on aurally, and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is no exception. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, nicely modulated sound with no distortion or age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles. As in all Allen productions, dialogue stands apart as the most important audio component, and every conversation - from volatile confrontations to intimate, whispered exchanges - is easy to comprehend. The music also comes across well. Selections range from Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart to Bach and, most notably, Schubert, but fidelity is quite good and the track handles the nuances of each individual piece with aplomb. Accents and ambient effects are muted yet distinct, and though nothing about this rudimentary mono mix will grab one's attention, it seamlessly blends all the elements together to produce a cohesive whole. And that's about all anyone can ask of it.
Also typical of Allen-directed films, the disc contains almost nothing in the way of supplemental material. Twilight Time includes the movie's original theatrical trailer, along with an isolated music and effects track, but that's it. While I respect Allen's viewpoint of letting his films speak for themselves, it would be great to hear from the actors about their experiences working on the movie and with Allen, their thoughts about the complex themes, and how they constructed their respective characters. Maybe someday...
Twenty-five years after it first premiered, 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' remains one of Woody Allen's finest films, ranking right up there with 'Annie Hall,' 'Manhattan,' 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' and 'Match Point.' Brilliant character studies, potent and resonating themes, wry humor, and excellent performances all combine to create a thought-provoking, deeply immersive cinematic experience. Great films inspire discussion and debate, and this one has plenty of meat to chew on. Relate it to yourself, relate it to Allen's life, relate it to the world at large, but anyone who appreciates and reveres Allen's unique filmmaking gifts needs to experience this rich tapestry. Twilight Time does the picture proud with a stellar video transfer and solid audio track, though extras are sadly yet unsurprisingly slim. It's about time more Allen films made their way to Blu-ray, and this limited to 3000 edition is a must for all his fans and those who appreciate substantive, adult, and meticulously constructed films. Highly recommended.