Take 57: Crimes and Misdemeanors

In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 57: Crimes and Misdemeanors

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about finally finding a way to watch Crimes and Misdemeanors. The 1989 Woody Allen dramedy was shockingly difficult to procure. It wasn’t streaming anywhere I could find online, and DVDs on Amazon were reselling for literally hundreds of dollars. I eventually found an old library copy on some resale website (where I also had to purchase Love Streams) and luckily still have access to a DVD player in an old gaming console. By the time I finally had the logistics figured out, I took a deep breath and hit play. The mixed feelings were not a result of that difficulty, but instead are a routine part of the experience when watching basically any Allen movie in a post Me Too era America.

Crimes and Misdemeanors opens on dopey looking Woody playing Cliff Stern sitting next to a child in a movie theater, and immediately my stomach dropped. Regardless on where you stand on the court of public opinion re: Allen, and what exactly constitutes enough evidence to convict a predator — I think most of us would be hard pressed to find a parent who would let Woody Allen hang out unsupervised with their teenage daughter (I hope anyway). I say this as someone who harbors great affection for Allen’s work. I was happy this project gave me an excuse to rewatch Annie Hall and I mourn the loss of comfort I used to feel watching that film. Manhattan has the ravishing young Meryl Streep, but is basically intolerable because the romance we’re supposed to be rooting for is between Allen and a teenager. As I grew up, I fell in love with his more contemporary work: Midnight in Paris, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Match Point etc. To be abundantly clear, this is not an indictment of anyone who adores these films, but it’s an acknowledgement that for me, personally, the work is tainted in a way that is increasingly difficult to ignore.

This isn’t about to turn in to another epic Chinatown rant, and I will state without hesitation this is a good film that deserves to be on this list. That said, I do think the movie is inherently about Allen’s crimes, how he reconciles them, and the place of women/girls in his moral psychology. Like much of Allen’s work, this is a picture of relationships and more explicitly, it’s about the choices we make and the prices we pay for them. When Walter Landau’s character, Cliff’s, life and marriage is threatened by the end of his affair with Angelica Houston, he orders a mob killing of her to get her out of the way. He is briefly racked with guilt before essentially shrugging it off because if he isn’t punished then it never really happened, right? Meanwhile, Allen is married and pursuing Mia Farrow, who isn’t into him — which he whines about incessantly to his 14 year old niece. You see, he’s looking out for her because her dad just died, and he’s such a good guy.

The niece is not an afterthought or side show, she sets the course for what it takes to make Allen fall in love, and is soon replaced by Farrow at his side at the movies and chatting on New York City sidewalks. It doesn’t surprise me how many revered and beloved actresses have worked with Allen. He has an undeniable legacy of writing complicated female characters, which have led many to career defining performances, including many Oscars. This is apparent in Crimes and Misdemeanors and the treatment of Angelica Houston’s moments of pain and heartache are especially poignant. She is refuse in the life of a man, cast aside when she became an inconvenience. Cliff is unloved by his (soon to be ex) wife, and also turned down by the young producer he claims to be in love with, and who in turn dates his brother-in-law.

At the end, the vignettes are braided together and the film poses very compelling questions about what our choices amount to when the consequences are muted or unrealized — e.g., if a mistress falls down in the woods and nobody is around to hear her, did she make a noise? Ironically, it’s also a question we can ask about Allen’s career. Maybe the scent of consequence will linger around Allen’s legacy as more and more of his work is tainted by the distracting nausea of haunting impropriety.

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