Crimes and Misdeneanors
By Joe Leydon

November 3, 1989 | Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a pillar of the New York Jewish community, a well-heeled and widely respected doctor whose model family and philanthropic enterprises appear to mark him as one of God's chosen.

He is modest to a fault during public testimonials, smiling as he recalls the sense of righteousness instilled in him by his devoutly religious father. ''My father used to tell me, ‘The eyes of God are everywhere,’” Judah says. And that's why, Judah jokingly suggests, he has specialized in ophthalmology.

Judah Rosenthal is a fraud. For the past two years, he has enjoyed an affair with Dolores (Anjelica Huston), a passionate and frightfully dependent airline stewardess. She knows some embarrassing if not incriminating secrets about Judah's financial dealings. She knows where Judah lives, and how to contact his glacially proper wife (Claire Bloom). If she wanted to, she could make life very difficult for Judah. And as the extraordinary new movie called Crimes and Misdemeanors begins, that's precisely what Dolores wants to do.
 
So Judah, much to his great surprise and mounting anxiety, wonders if maybe, just maybe, he should have Dolores eliminated.
 
Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a doggedly, defiantly independent moviemaker. He films documentaries about major issues -- toxic waste, hungry children -- and occasionally, if he's very lucky, wins an honorable-mention prize at some film festival.
 
Cliff barely hides his contempt for Lester (Alan Alda), his extravagantly successful brother-in-law, a producer of slick TV sictoms just smart enough to impress viewers famished for substance. Cliff would never make anything so shamelessly pandering. He has ideals and convictions, even if he may not have next month's rent.

Cliff Stern is a fraud. Seething with self-loathing, almost choking on the brackish taste of his own bile, he seems to stoop under the weight of his own hopeless, helpless jealousy whenever he's anywhere near Lester. Long estranged from Wendy (Joanna Gleason) -- his bored wife, Lester's adoring sister -- Cliff is desperately attracted to an attractive Public TV producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who's supervising a documentary about Lester. Halley, too, has contempt for Lester. At least, she thinks she does.

So Cliff -- providentially offered a chance for revenge and, maybe, true love -- agrees to direct the documentary, hoping to expose Lester to the world as a fatuous, self-satisfied jerk.

Much like the last indisputably great movie written and directed by Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors has the multifaceted density and prodigiously vivid characterizations usually found only in a great novel. Just as important, Allen's new film is every bit as enthralling as Hannah in its artfully seamless blend of the uproariously comic and the thoughtfully serious.

Here, the balance of contradictory impulses is sustained even in his own fine performance as Cliff, an engagingly funny idealist with a spiteful, mean-spirited streak. Crimes and Misdemeanors makes almost every other film around right now seem as puny and ill-nourishing as Happy Hour hors d'oeuvres.
 
In striking contrast to his recent, painfully self-conscious attempts at sobersided psychodrama (Another Woman, the near-unwatchable September), Crimes and Misdemeanors offers profundity without pomposity, moral quandaries without static speechifying. While comparing and contrasting his two seemingly unrelated plots, Allen seeks moral verities in a world where all evidence indicates those verities no longer apply. And yet, while searching, he also retains his artistic equilibrium, his senses of proportion, balance and humor.

In short, Allen never allows his dramatic comedy to be weighed down by the enormity of its subject matter.
 
Crimes and Misdemeanors is a movie where intelligent characters easily glide from compelling specifics to cosmic generalities, and then back again. Ben (Sam Waterston), a compassionate rabbi, is immediately self-critical when he gets carried away while advising his dear friend, Judah. ''We went from a small infidelity to the meaning of existence,'' Ben admits with a wry smile. But Ben's gently persuasive words echo in Judah's mind, like a stern admonishment, even as Judah seeks lethal assistance from his mob-connected brother (Jerry Orbach).

Can there really be justice in a world where the Holocaust is allowed to happen? And, indeed, if such a barbarity can occur, who's to say with certainty that a lesser crime -- say, the murder of an inconvenient mistress -- will be punished?
 
Allen poses the questions indirectly at first, then restates them, baldly, in a striking flashback fantasy: Judah recalls a seder from his childhood when his father argued philosophy with the fiercely agnostic Aunt May. In a very different way, similar questions haunt Cliff. For all his resentful cynicism, Cliff believes in justice and just deserts, in a moral order to the universe. And then his most cherished certainty quite literally goes out the window.
 
''His worst beliefs are realized.'' It doesn't matter whether it's Cliff or Judah who actually speaks those words in the film's bold, brilliantly bittersweet final scene. Both men react the same way: They see the worst, and are shocked, but not destroyed, by their newfound knowledge.
 
Martin Landau is first among equals in the superb ensemble cast, giving a quietly astonishing, emotionally complex performance that deserves every single globe, scroll and statuette that they give for movie acting. He dominates the film, but allows other stars to shine in his orbit. Among the standouts: Alan Alda, who's hilariously egomaniacal (and perhaps just a bit self-satirical) as Lester, and Anjelica Huston, who's fearsomely effective, equal parts victim and victimizer, as Dolores.

If there was a weak performance, or a false moment, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen left it on the cutting room floor.