Some sketchy thoughts on Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors
Judah Rosenthal - co-protagonist, center of the film's moral dilemmas.
Jack Rosenthal - Judah's brother, the heavy who does Judah's dirty work
Clifford Stern: Protagonist of the film's subplot. Idealist filmmaker and romantic. He likes escaping into afternoon movies with his niece and friend Halley. Seeks to right wrongs with his documentaries.
Dolores: Judah's mistress. Passionate, demanding, needy.
Lester: The sellout TV director.
Ben: The blind rabbi. A moral visionary.
Halley: A magnet for male desire!
Levy: A serious intellectual with a deep, life affirming philosophy. Ironically kills himself.
Barbara (Cliff's sister): looking for love in all the wrong places.
Sight and blindness: the eye doctor, the rabbi going blind, the filmmaker with his camera eye, God as the all-seeing eye.
Conscience – can it be killed? Is conscience like an illness you get well from?
Idealism vs. Reality / Morality vs. Nihilism: the unbearable lightness of being. Whether you believe in God determines your relationship to moral behavior. If there is no God watching, you CAN get away with murder, bend the rules, break them, satisfy your cravings, chew people up and spit them out, live a double life, and smooth over problems. There are no existential consequences, assuming you can overcome your moral conscience. Howver if there is a higher power, a moral reality, a basis for the LAW, then virtues such as honesty, integrity, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion, are demanded of us. Woody Allen audaciously reminds us that the amoral vision is REAL. The moral vision is IDEAL. The real world of Jack is the one where money can buy anything: love, death, happiness, pleasure, cruelty. The ideal world is the imaginary world of religion and art (as expressed in the film through movies). The realists in the film are Jack and Lester. The idealists are Cliff and Ben. Judah is smack in the middle, tipping into amoral relativism and realism. Who is seeing things for real and who is blinding themselves to reality?
Love's fidelity/infidelity: Judah and Dolores living the double life of secrecy and lies. Dolores seeks openness and honesty; this kills her. Cliff seeks romance from Halley to escape his dying marriage. His failure to realize the affair...? Barabara seeks love from the personal ads and is deceived by a swinging pervert.
Formal, structural properties
Allen intercuts memory with the present (Judah at the banquet, in the car, Dolores in her apartment, Judah at the dinner party. Memory is also juxtaposed within scenes, as when Ben converses with Judah during the thunderstorm, when he converses with his father and family at the dinner table. It is a simple theatrical device that works marvelously to externalize Judah's inner moral conflicts.
He also intercuts parallel dramatic situations in the world of art (film) with reality. The juxtaposition shows how art fantasizes reality and yet imagines what is capable of being real, reality imitating art.
He uses Beethoven's late quartets, some of the master's most probative and emotionally powerful work, to accompany the murder and coverup sequence. It's an odd juxtaposition of beauty and moral ambiguity. Jazz is used to lighten the mood, as is the theme of Clifford and Lester's subplot.
Allen subverts the traditional movie melodrama plot by not making Judah pay for his actions. He isn't punished. He gets over the moral disease, the conseuqnces of his actions fade into obscurity and memory. Allen is trying to say through the medium of film (art): “this is the real world, folks. People get away with murder all the time. People commit horrible acts and rationalize them or forget about them. This is an amoral universe we live in.” However he does offer us a counterweight: the world of art (Cliff) and religion (Ben), both of which are looking for structure and meaningfulness in the universe.
Also what to make of the philosopher committing suicide?
Ideas for writing or discussion:
Is it possible to get away with murder, to free one's conscience? To “get over” the sins in your life without being caught and punished? Use the film as a starting point and bring in real world examples to support your points.
Upon what moral or ethical principle does Judah makes his decision to go ahead with the murder? (cf. thunderstorm scene)
I hope you will add your questions and comments on this great film.