Woody Allen's Existential
Crimes and Misdemeanors
By Jen Johans
*Note: contains plot spoilers*

After more than thirty years of making movies, Woody Allen’s name has become almost
synonymous with comedy, but few people realize the amount of philosophy that can be
found in an average Allen film.  Intellectuals, film critics, and movie buffs probably would
not hesitate to acknowledge that the field of psychology has obviously been a big
influence on Woody’s work but upon close inspection, one can find that philosophy has
been a large source for inspiration as well.  The purpose of this essay is to illustrate the
existential dilemma offered in one of Woody Allen’s most philosophical works,
and Misdemeanors

“There are certain movies of mine that I call ‘novels on film’, and
Crimes and
is one of them,” Woody Allen explains to Stig Bjorkman (208) of his 1989
work which stars Martin Landau as respected, wealthy ophthalmologist and award
winning philanthropist Judah Rosenthal.  Just minutes into the film, however, the
audience discovers that Judah has been keeping a secret from his wife and family; her
name is Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston) and in a letter that Judah saves from being read
by his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), we learn that the two have been involved in an affair
for two years.  It seems his neurotic young mistress-- a flight attendant-- refuses to accept
the fact that the eye doctor will not leave his wife and wants to put an end to their
relationship.  Content to try to hold onto her lover with threats, Dolores calls Judah “a
liar and an embezzler” adding “I know what went on between those philanthropies and
your stocks.”  Judah will not be dissuaded however, and since Dolores will not listen to
reason, he enlists his mafia-connected brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) for help and the two
arrange to have her murdered.  

In a separate plot that provides the film with some lighthearted moments of humor as
well as drama, Woody Allen appears as Cliff Stern, a struggling documentary filmmaker
whose wife Wendy (Joanna Gleason) asks her pompous brother Lester (Alan Alda), a
successful television producer, to hire the indifferent Cliff.  Cliff loathes Lester but figures
the money would enable him to finish up a labor of love documentary he has been working
on, featuring fictional philosophy professor Louis Levy.  Also working on the film is
Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who attracts the affections and attentions of both Cliff and

One of the most important characters of the film is a rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterson)
who acts as a sort of link between both plots, for he is the brother of Wendy and patient of
Dr. Rosenthal.   While, according to Cliff, Lester is a “pompous ass,” Ben is “a saint” and
he acts as confidant to Judah, who, after an eye examination that confirms the rabbi is
going blind, breaks down and confesses his affair to the rabbi.                   
According to Woody Allen, “existential subjects to me are still the only subjects worth
dealing with.  Any time one deals with other subjects one is not aiming for the highest
goal” (Bjorkman 211).  Judah Rosenthal is certainly going through an existential dilemma
Crimes and Misdemeanors in dealing with his mistress and the decision to have her
murdered.  An interesting example is the scene in which he turns to his brother Jack, who
initially appears onscreen telling Judah that “it had to be some kind of deep, dark secret
for you to stoop to call me” adding “you called me because you needed some dirty work
done, that’s all you ever call for.”  As if the context clues weren’t enough, the viewer is also
informed matter-of-factly that the two do not have a good relationship and it seems the
only reason that Jack is there is because Judah has loaned him money in the past and he
wants to repay that kindness by hearing his brother out.  After confessing his
indiscretion, the two waffle around each other, Judah wanting to know what Jack
suggests and Jack asking Judah why he called him.  Some discussion is given to having
Dolores “straightened out” but Judah says the woman will not listen to threats and soon
they are tossing around the word “murder.”  Judah gets high handed but then seems
comfortable enough to clarify that if a murder took place, he would not be involved to
which Jack agrees, telling his brother that he does not know what it is like in the real
world. One begins to wonder how many times Judah has called on his brother for favors
and although you are certain he has never hired someone for murder, you begin to
question if that is precisely what the doctor had in mind (even subconsciously) when he
picked up the phone.  Further still, as the film progresses, one even begins to question
which brother is more morally bankrupt-- the one who would hire someone to kill a
human being or the one who will arrange it for him.  Is Jack simply providing a service
that the inhumane world requires?  The dynamic of the two characters impacted Woody
Allen enough to first title the film ‘Brothers’, (Baxter 368).  At one point in the film, after
the murder takes place and Judah, racked with guilt, toys with the idea of turning himself
in, his brother threatens him and then tells him the time Judah should have confessed
was to his wife about the infidelity, implying either that that is what Jack would have
done or else the dialogue is merely acting as a line from the audience who cannot believe
he did not tell his wife the truth and resorted to arranging a murder, from which he has
gotten away clean.     

This idea of “the real world” that Jack accuses his wealthy, privileged brother of not
living in until the aforementioned scene, is brought up quite often in
Crimes.  It is “the
real world” that Allen is filming in, not the happy Hollywood world that filmgoers have
grown accustomed to but the evil real world that rabbi Ben is finding it harder to see
where, Woody says, “People commit murders, and they get away with them.  They’re not
punished” (Bjorkman 220).  Allen adds that in the real world, “there’s nobody to punish
you, if you don’t punish yourself” (Bjorkman 212).  Film critic Roger Ebert seemed to
agree with that assumption and said the film “seems to argue that God has abandoned
men, and that we live here below on a darkling plain, lost in violence, selfishness and
moral confusion” (“Crimes And Misdemeanors”).  This statement by Ebert brings up a
good question about Judah Rosenthal and his morals.  While accepting an award for
philanthropy in the opening minutes of the film and in confessing his adultery to rabbi
Ben, Judah informs the viewer that he is not a religious man.  In a haunting scene in
which Judah has an imaginary conversation with Ben, before ultimately making the
phone call to Jack that instructs him to go ahead with the plans, Ben tells the doctor, “It’s
a human life.  You don’t think God sees?”  To this Judah replies, “God is a luxury I can’t
afford.”  He continues to rationalize, stating, “I push one button and I can sleep again
nights,” and concluding, “I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman.”  After Ben
brings up the question of the law, Judah adds, “What good is the law if it prevents me
justice?” and then asks if what Dolores is doing to him is just and finally makes the phone
call to Jack.

The audience learns that, although Judah is not a religious man, when Jack calls Judah
on the phone to inform him that the deed has taken place without problems, Judah says,
“God have mercy on us, Jack.”  It seems that, as Ben points out, Judah, still has a spark of
religious feeling in him which is accounted by the fact that he had a rather religious
upbringing.  In one scene, Judah remembers his father warning him that “the eyes of God
see all… there is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight” and this idea of sight seems to
be a recurring symbol throughout the film, even prompting Judah to joke in the beginning
that, after what his father warns, “I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my
specialty ophthalmology.”

Woody explains to Stig Bjorkman that “eyes were a metaphor in the story” (213) and
indeed the words and actions of “sight” and “eyes” are utilized throughout.  Of course, as
previously discussed, there is the question of Ben who loses his sight of the evil world by
the end of the film and the idea to make Judah Rosenthal an eye doctor but there is an
intriguing discussion about sight early on in the film, in which Cliff tells his niece Jenny
that she should not simply listen to what her teachers tell her but see what they look like
instead because, as Allen explains,”You looked at them and you knew what their lives
were like and you knew what their values were, and you imbibed more from that
socratically than you did intellectually,” (Bjorkman 222).       

Dolores has an interesting theory on sight, for in a flashback to happier times, she asks
Judah whether or not he believes that eyes are the window to the soul and when he only
admits to thinking they are “windows,” she says, “My mother taught me I have a soul and
it’ll live on after me when I die and when you look deep in my eyes, you can see it.”  In a
chilling scene after her death, Judah returns to her apartment to remove some
incriminating photos and links to their relationship and happens upon the body with
Dolores staring up at him blankly, eyes wide open.  The camera acts like an accomplice
here, showing Judah’s responsibility for the crime by filming him as if he were indeed the
perpetrator.   He wears black gloves and an overcoat, stares over the body and especially
the victim’s eyes, later telling brother Jack that he looked in her eyes and found nothing
behind them, only a black void.  When he returns to his home after leaving the apartment,
his phone rings in the middle of the night but there is no one on the other end and one
cannot help thinking back to that when Dolores warns him of her mother’s theory.

Later in the film, Judah returns to his childhood home and, while walking through,
experiences a flashback of his whole family gathered around for seder dinner debating
morality.  Judah takes advantage of the opportunity to interject a question as he watches
his family argue.  He asks about murder and his father says that he will be punished
somehow whereas his controversial Aunt May, who doesn’t believe in a moral structure,
says that if he can do it without being either caught or bothered by the deed, “he’s home
free.”  She mentions that Hitler got away with his crimes, saying if the Nazis had won
World War II, kids would have a much different understanding of history.  Judah’s father
argues about faith and says that even if his faith is wrong, he feels he will have a better life
than those who do not believe and he will take God over what May calls “the truth” any
day of the week.

The seder scene is one of the most blatantly philosophical moments in the film but there
are many others, including Cliff’s documentary film footage of the philosopher, Louis
Levy.  When we first see Levy in Cliff’s film, he tells the biblical story of Abraham having to
sacrifice his son and argues that people have never fully succeeded in creating a loving
image of God because there is a paradox in a God who supposedly cares but asks for a
human sacrifice and says that humans must live morally.  Paradoxes seem to be a favorite
topic of Levy’s, for another intriguing philosophy offered by him is that he feels that when
a person falls in love, it is a paradox because they are seeking to replace individuals they
were attached to as children and asking their mate to right all the wrongs done to them,
therefore, love is a combination of “the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to
undo the past.”  Love appears again in Levy’s philosophy when, after finding out that the
professor committed suicide, Cliff plays footage wherein Levy says that when a baby is
born, they need love to persuade them to go on living and sometimes one reaches the
point where they feel it is not worth it anymore.    

Levy’s suicide is abrupt and off screen; Cliff hears the news when checking his phone
messages and meets up with Halley, trying to come to terms with the sad news.  They
question why such a life affirming philosopher would end his life and in a sadly comic
line, Cliff criticizes the suicide note which said, “I’ve gone out the window,” adding “He
always said yes to life; today he said no.”  Cliff states that growing up in his neighborhood,
people were “too depressed to commit suicide.”  Halley continues to question the
reasoning, explaining, “No matter how elaborate a philosophical system you work out, in
the end it’s gotta be incomplete.”

There is also an ethical dilemma in the relationship of Cliff and Halley, as well as
overlapping plot themes between Cliff’s story and Judah’s that Woody Allen approaches
in order to, perhaps, show two sides of the same coin and illustrate different ways of
handling the same problem.  Cliff Stern is an unhappily married man whose marriage to
an English professor is on its last legs and he contemplates an infidelity with Halley, even
going so far as confiding in his young niece about his intentions, explaining of the ethical
dilemma that it is “very hard to get your heart and head to think alike; in my case, they’re
not even friendly.”  He makes romantic gestures towards Halley, including offering a
proposal of marriage, but she is unresponsive, saying that she does not want to be
confused by her feelings because he is married and seems to be happy when she has to
travel to England for her job, in order to have some distance and think things clearly.  
This seems to show a more mature way of handling romantic inklings towards someone
outside of marriage, which is in stark contrast to the way that Judah Rosenthal and
Dolores Paley behave.

The second example of overlapping themes is not given the chance to develop but
casually mentioned as a throwaway line near the end of the film when Cliff’s lonely,
widowed sister who has had horrific results in placing an ad in the single’s column of the
newspaper, is informed of an eligible bachelor.  Her friend explains that the only thing is,
the gentleman is in prison for “nothing terrible-- insider trading” which recalls the
financial indiscretions of Judah Rosenthal and seems to argue that that is where he
would be, if Dolores had gone public with her information. The fact that (even though the
viewer may disagree) the crime is interestingly referred to as “nothing terrible” points out
again to the audience that Judah should have faced the consequences for his less evil
actions instead of resorting to murder.

Much humor and some philosophical character insight is drawn from the dynamic of Cliff
Stern and Lester, who are two very different filmmakers and rivals in the affections of
Halley Reed.  The two men do not get along and have to suffer each other’s presence
because Cliff’s wife happens to be Lester’s sister, Wendy.  When Wendy begs her brother
to hire Cliff for the documentary, Lester lets the uninterested Cliff know that that is the
only reason he has been hired and in the tape recorder he constantly uses to express his
possible plot ideas, he further insults Cliff by stating, “Idea for farce… a poor loser agrees
to do the story of a great man’s life and in the process comes to learn deep values.” What
is interesting about Lester is he seriously believes what he says and although you judge
him as frivolous and pompous, Allen never lets you forget that he is no dummy.  In one
scene, Lester can recite an Emily Dickinson poem from memory and Allen informs Stig
Bjorkman, “These Lesters of the world who you meet now and then, they’re not stupid
troglodytes who have won a lottery or something.  They’re educated and intelligent, but
their values are shallow.  They take themselves very seriously.  The sad part of the film is
that everyone takes Lester seriously.  But he’s not a bad guy” (Bjorkman 220).  In the film,
Lester even muses that he wasn’t a college graduate but now the school he attended
includes a course discussing existential motifs in his sitcoms.  We even see Lester as a
nice guy in places, most notably when it is said that he paid for Ben’s daughter’s wedding.

Lester’s comedies, which Cliff calls “submental,” are in stark contrast to Cliff’s
documentaries about serious topics like starving children and toxic waste, which he feels
can help change the world.  Though, Allen explains, “when it comes to Cliff, it’s irrelevant
to people that your intentions are good.  In real life, when I finish a movie, I can pound on
people’s chests and say, ‘But look, my intentions were so good!  They don’t care.  They pay
off on winners [Lester].  And winners mean fame, money, material success” (Bjorkman
219).  Angry about the situation, Cliff compares Lester to Mussolini and Francis the
Talking Mule and shows many examples of Lester’s vanity and shallow nature in his
documentary before being kicked out by his outraged subject.

The documentary clips by Cliff Stern are not the only film images shown in the movie.  As
the story unfolds and usually as a linker between the Rosenthal plot and Cliff’s plot, there
are old film clips that play that seem to comment on Judah’s situation.  Cliff takes his
niece Jenny to the movies as part of her education and usually the movies they watch
correspond with what has happened, such as when a film character talks of murder, Cliff
muses happily that, “This only happens in the movies.”  “There’s a real life and film life
and a fantasy life.  Film being synonymous with fantasy,” Woody Allen explains, later
commenting on real life where only success matters, “But there’s also a fantasy life that
people live by and escape into all the time, and it juxtaposes against the reality of real
life.  Betty Hutton can be singing about ‘Murder, He Says’ on the screen, but in the end it’s
real murder” (Bjorkman 220).

The two worlds collide when Judah happens upon the soon to be divorced Cliff at the
wedding reception of Ben’s daughter and although the two men have not met, Judah
embarks on conversation with the filmmaker who is downtrodden because Halley has
chosen successful Lester over him.  Cliff halfheartedly mentions that he was plotting the
perfect murder and Judah, knowing the man’s profession, assumes that it is for a film and
tells Cliff that he has a good murder plot with an interesting twist and sure enough begins
to tell him his own story, only fictionalized.  The camera cuts away to other characters
and when it returns, Judah is saying how after the murder takes place, “the man” feels
guilt, finds himself plagued with panic and religious confusion, worry, and begins to
think about confessing when suddenly he wakes up one sunny morning and feels better.  
He vacations with his family and begins to feel like a new man living his old life of wealth
and privilege and finds that the blame for the killing has been attached to a drifter who
already has many murders to his credit so what is one more, according to Judah.  When
Cliff questions if the man can really forget about the murder and go back to his life, Judah
tells him that people carry horrible deeds with them all the time because, “it’s reality, we
rationalize or people couldn’t go on living.”  Preferring a tragedy, Cliff says that he would
have the character turn himself into the authorities, and assume the responsibility of an
absent God.  “But that’s fiction, that’s movies,” Judah says, “You’ve seen too many
movies.  I’m talking about reality.  If you want a happy ending, you should go see a
Hollywood movie.”

As Judah leaves the room with his wife, happily discussing his own daughter’s wedding,
the film shows a series of flashbacks and the voice of Louis Levy is heard, explaining that
people define themselves by the choices they make and because things happen so quickly
and unfairly, happiness has not been included and it is only people who can give meaning
to an otherwise indifferent universe, due to their capacity for love. “And yet,” Levy’s voice
continues, “most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and find joy from
simple things like the family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might
understand more.”

Obviously, in conclusion it’s evident that there is no substitute for watching
Crimes and
, and therefore it’s impossible to attempt to dissect and include everything
that occurred in the film.  However, hopefully this essay illustrated the subtle ways that
existential philosophy is included in the film and-- at the very least-- its contents will
make the viewer think about their own morals.  In fact, one can find that with repeat
viewings, the philosophical issues in the film seem just as prevalent as the dialogue that
Woody Allen is most famous for writing.        

    Works Cited

    Baxter, John.  Woody Allen: A Biography.  New York: Carrol & Graf, 1998.  

    Bjorkman, Stig, ed. Woody Allen On Woody Allen.  New York: Grove Press, 1993.

    Crimes and Misdemeanors.  Dir.  Woody Allen.  Perf.  Martin Landau, Anjelica
    Huston, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston.  MGM, 1989.

    Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of Crimes and Misdemeanors, dir.  Woody Allen.  Chicago
    Sun-Times Online 13 October 1989.  29 September 2002

(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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