on 21 August 2006
Despite what other critics have said, it remains untrue that Allen only discovered Bergman after the "early funny ones" and thus, flippantly decided to be profound. Long-term aficionados of the director will know that he was indulging in homage to the likes of Bergman, Godard and Fellini as far back as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and Love & Death. However, whereas those films took certain elements from European cinema and turned them into satire, Allen would eventually begin to explore his own serious side with films like Interiors, Stardust Memories, Another Woman and September, before finally perfected his new found style with this glorious and morally oblique modern-masterpiece.
Crimes and Misdemeanours is a film that manages to move gracefully between two very different (though ultimately, very serious) stories, whilst simultaneously juggling a tone that is both light and humours, but also bleak and profound. By focusing on two different characters, Allen is able to bring us into the film slowly... it is to his credit as a filmmaker that he is able to pull off the subtle shifts in style, creating a mood in one scene that is vague and philosophical, before cutting to something that seems much more frivolous. The serious moments never seem pretentious and the lighter moments are never forced, with Allen making great use of his persona as the slightly neurotic loveable loser at odds with the world around him, as he's hired by his brother-in-law (a pompous TV producer) to direct a flattering documentary portrait of the man and his work. The second arc of the story, the one that really presents the moral centre of the film, focuses on a wealthy ophthalmologist (brilliantly played by Martin Landau), faced with some serious questions of faith, as well as various ethical decisions, when a spurned lover begins to make his life very complicated.
Allen juggles between the stories perfectly, having each disparate tale somehow reflect subtly on the other one, creating in the process, an effortless back and forth. As well as the subtle foreshadowing's there are also more intelligent cinematic devices being used, as Allen creates a subplot in which his character Cliff is also working on a documentary about an ailing professor who, on occasion, can be glimpsed in the background on Cliff's editing monitor discussing the broader philosophical aspects of life, love and death. These snippets of philosophical discourse also, subtly, pass comment on the actions depicted in the film, creating a further layer of self-reference that can also be seen in the films that Allen's character watches during his down-time. Once again, Allen doesn't allow these devices to overwhelm the story or push things into the realms of overt-intellectual masturbation, but instead, merely compliments the two stories, adding further layers for the audience to pick through and also giving further emotional and psychological weight to that fantastically low-key ending.
As great as the writing and the performances are, it is in his role as filmmaker in which Allen truly impresses with this film... managing to take his fondness for Bergman and, for once, develop it into his own personal style of filmmaking. Therefore, it's less self-conscious than Another Woman, and even with the influence of Bergman evident in his use of legendary Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, this still feels like a Woody Allen film, even managing to prefigure the style of Husbands and Wives and Bullets Over Broadway. Every nuance of the film, from the casting, to the lighting and composition, the editing and the choice of music is perfect, with Allen managing to create a great atmosphere of loss and isolation for his characters to fall into.
Though it is Allen and Landau that represent the moral centre of the film, there are also some impeccably nuanced performances from supporting players. Alan Alda, as Cliff's self-important brother-in-law Lester offers great comic-support, whilst Mia Farrow gives her second best performance in a Woody Allen film, following her great turn in the similarly brilliant Purple Rose of Cairo. There's also further support offered by Sam Waterston as the man of faith slowly loosing his sight, Jerry Orbach as Landau's mobster brother, Joanna Gleason as Cliff's long-suffering wife (and Lester's favourite sister) Wendy, and Angelica Huston as the woman scorned. If I had to pick out one flaw with this film, I'd say that Huston's character is a little annoying, falling into the occasional Allen trap of being far too needy and obnoxious (the same can be said about Farrow's character in the later Husbands and Wives, or Dianne Keaton's role in Manhattan). This really is a mild criticism, though, with Huston trying her best to overcome her character's (admittedly quite necessary) shortcomings to give a strong and affecting performance.
However, the film belongs to Landau and Allen, with the former giving perhaps the best performance of his career and the latter proving himself to be (once and for all) the greatest American filmmaker of his generation. Crimes and Misdemeanours is really a perfect film (for me), and along with Love and Death, Annie Hall, Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway, gives further proof of Allen's cinematic genius.