No matter how many times actors, writers and directors repeat that old saw about dying being easier than comedy, critics are still more likely to go into raptures about hard-hitting Oscar-season dramas than summer comedies. One rare exception, enshrined as a great living American director despite an almost entirely comic CV, is Woody Allen. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is, when he’s at his best, he’s that good. Another is that he frequently spikes his humour with references to the much graver artists he admires; Dostoyevsky and Bergman are particularly frequent reference points.
1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, released as part of Arrow Academy’s collection Woody Allen: Seven Films 1986-1991, is the exact mid-point of Allen’s career chronologically and tonally. It is a film literally divided, with a dramatic storyline starring Martin Landau intercut with a comic one starring Allen himself. This may be why it’s many people’s favourite: in a 2016 ranking of Allen’s back catalogue for the Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin and Tim Robey placed it second, with only Hannah and Her Sisters above it. On release, it was a commercial disappointment. Watching it again, it’s easy to understand both points of view.
What Allen is doing here is a narrative conjuring trick of the kind few Hollywood directors would ever dare attempt; one where the themes and ideas, rather than the plot details, connect his two stories. He trusts the viewer to stick with the two apparently unrelated stories, and hopes you too will trust him to be working towards something rewarding (which he most certainly is). Unlike the wave of ‘hyperlink dramas’ following the success of Crash, Allen uses this structure not to show the similarities between his characters (which is often banal) but to show their contrasts (which can be magical).
Landau stars as Judah Rosenthal, a man who seems to have gotten away with a cold, premeditated crime. His lack of guilt is offset hilariously by Cliff Stern, the struggling documentarian played by Allen. Cliff is struggling to finish a dry video portrait of a philosopher, Professor Louis Levy, when he is offered a Faustian pact by Lester, a blowhard TV producer played by Alan Alda. Lester offers Cliff the chance to make a hagiographic portrait of him, in return for an easy and generous payday which he can then plough straight into the Levy film. He accepts, but quickly finds that making Lester look good is both against his morals and beyond his capabilities.
Both Levy and Lester have real-life inspirations. Levy is played by Martin Bergmann, a real-life psychiatrist and philosopher whose book The Anatomy of Loving may have inspired some of his character’s dialogue. Allen admitted that Lester, meanwhile, was based on the veteran comic writer Larry Gelbart, who Allen and Alda had both worked for and disliked. Today he may suggest another successful, vainglorious New Yorker; in his very first scene Lester approvingly mentions Donald Trump, and in a hilarious later scene he’s compared to Mussolini. There’s also a curious subplot in which Cliff’s sister endures something so lurid, it could have come from a Russian intelligence dossier.
But all that is out of Allen’s control. It’s one of the few things that is. From the intricate structure to Sven Nykvist’s rich, shadowy cinematography, Crimes and Misdemeanors feels like a piece of precision work. In fact, the shooting was incredibly chaotic. The character of Lester, so central to the finished story, was expanded from a cameo when Alda impressed Allen with his ad-libbing. Mia Farrow, whose character’s relationship with Cliff is achingly, beautifully believable, was originally hired to play a completely different character; a vaudeville historian who Cliff met during research. The extensive restructuring during the shoot and in the edit room made a casualty of Sean Young, who doesn’t appear at all in the final cut, and Daryl Hannah, who makes a fleeting cameo.
None of this is new to Allen: even Annie Hall, famously, was a multi-stranded murder mystery called Anhedonia until Allen realised that the central romance worked better than anything around it. In its marrying of crime drama, urbane romantic comedy, satire and theology, Crimes and Misdemeanors feels like a fully realised version of the Anhedonia project. The dramatic storyline is obviously influenced by Crime and Punishment but isn’t as simply derivative as something like, say, Match Point; the comic storyline is simply a joy. Its narrative pleasures may be delayed, but they’re worth waiting for. Its comic and visual pleasures are continual.