Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody Allen at the BFI

Last Friday we went to seen Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors in the BFI’s  Woody Allen season.  There are two more showings to go (including this evening), and I would recommend this dark comedy.

I am quite familiar with Allen’s earlier comedies (Sleeper, Annie Hall, etc), with Allen playing an engaging but ineffectual intellectual who manages to get the girl in the end.  In this film Allen plays that same character, as a New York maker of documentary films, but this time his life moves from failure to abject failure, as he competes with his shallow but successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, and ends up with no girl at all.  Altogether a darker and more realistic observation of the nature of success in society – I nearly wrote “modern society” but this story is surely as old as civilisation itself.

But it is not the main plot of the film, just a counterpoint to another, even darker story about a successful ophthalmologist (played by Martin Landau), who decides that his unstable ex-mistress (Anjelica Huston) has to be bumped off before she spills the beans and destroys the rest of his life.  He succeeds, is wracked by his conscience, but comes through.  Amidst all this there is a lot of dialogue about the nature of God and morality – in a very Jewish setting.  This plays to a modern rather pessimistic view of reality, where just deserts can be avoided with a bit of care and luck.

The very Jewish nature of the discussion, with the trauma of the Holocaust very much part of the picture, put me in mind of the state of Israel – though there no references at all to it in the film.  There people also  ruthlessly resort to force majeure, including the loss of life of varying degrees of innocence, amid much talk of morality, which, in the end, seems to count for very little.  Life goes on.

PS If you go at the BFI, don’t bother with the programme notes except to look at the credits.  It consists of a dense review written 1990, a truly appalling examplar bad art criticism.  Hard to read, trying to be clever, and (almost) devoid of genuine insight.