Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in.
Allen isn’t known as an optimist, but his films are always laced with a sort of nervous humanism, a want, and even a need, to find the good in people, in human relationships, in the world, in conversation, and in, above all things, the movies we use to distract us. Yet Crimes and Misdemeanors, right down to the droll, duelling title, knows only comedy as black as coal. It pitilessly and un-remorsefully reveals the choices and decisions made by its characters with a quietly acidic camera observing the whole thing. Not until Match Point years later would Allen adopt the indifferent observer’s eye again for a film of such stark, harrowed nihilism. Allen’s camera doesn’t distract here; it sours.
Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t a film about the consequences of choices; if anything it is about the lack of consequences, at least in the physical world. In the final scene, Allen cheekily positions the two characters, meeting for the first time, in a two-shot where they mirror each other physically and ideologically. It is the logical culmination of everything that had come before-hand, Landau having steadily convinced himself of his relative innocence and Allen having knocked himself down a notch at every passing minute. Nothing was left but for them to meet in the middle, sharing a collective grand sigh, and for us to realize, Allen’s customary cynicism hitting like a ton of bricks, that the only consequences in the world are those we make for ourselves internally, those we imagine.
There’s a brilliant, elegant simplicity in the way the film’s two narratives unfold. One, the Landau one, is decidedly un-Allen like, while the one featuring Woody Allen would form the backbone of any of his other feature films, yet, we come to understand here that the two mean as much to him, for one is the film he is stereotyped into making and the other the film he truly wishes to dole out every year come Resolution time. By weaving the two tales in and out of each other, Allen not only adds nuance to this film but forces us to look back onto his canon and think about what was once nervous comedy in an increasingly depressing light. If nothing else (and it is much else, in fact), Crimes and Misdemeanors is Allen’s bluntest and most personal reflection on his cinematic canon, using a bifurcated narrative to tackle Allen’s two brains and discover how, if anyway, they share a similarity. In the end, the theater of the mind, the way the internal redefines and distorts the external, is the link, and what Allen discovers about it is none-too-hopeful indeed.
All this, and still only the surface remains uncovered. There’s the symmetrical way Allen divulges information about the two narratives, connecting human life in a shared disconnectedness. There’s the film’s narrative rigor which moves forward at an unhurried, but ever anxious, pace like two snowballs steadily picking up steam until they crash in a cheekily subdued finale. There’s the acting, with Landau bringing the existential ice in wonderful form and Allen a delightfully worried, darkened commentary on the false life of his normal Allen role. All in all, this is about as nakedly dark as Allen ever got. It’s a butcher’s cut of human life, but Allen never flinches from the blood. He refuses to let on, lulling us into an assumption that an “Allen” movie will take center-stage in the end. Then we realize we’ve been watching two Allen films battling for control all along, feeding us our own crisis: we never really knew what an Allen movie was before Crimes and Misdemeanors, at least, not in the way Allen did.