Saturday, February 13, 2016


I've seen a fair number of Woody Allen movies. Not all of them...he lost his touch as he got older. I don't know's a fact. But my favorite of his films and probably the last one that was truly excellent was CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. I still watch it from time to time and I still find it a chilling movie.

One of the things that fascinated me about the movie was the amazing performance of Martin Landau as Judah P. Benjamin. In a wide cast of equally talented actors he managed to dwarf the rest of them with his work in this movie. I still don't know how he did it. Even the twitches in his face seemed to power pure emotion. I'm not quite sure why Allen named the major character for the Jewish Secretary of State of the Confederacy...but it worked. I suppose he wanted a name that screamed its jewishness and which he tied somehow to moral crimes. Irony? Possibly.

Another thing that always pulled at me was the way that the film handles the act of murder. Not of murder in the heat of passion, or murder to protect life and limb. But just a cold, calculated, selfish act of murder. It's frightening and scary and as portrayed in the film downright horrifying. Because at base one can almost identify with the murderer and the way he rationalizes the murder he commits. (Even if the crime has two degrees of separation.)

Almost everyone contemplates murder. The murder of people who have wronged them. The killing of people who enrage them in some way. These are the acts of the passionate mind. When I was younger there were people I hated so much that I wished to see them dead. But my subconscious would take control of these thoughts and send me dreams of such terrifying acts and I would wake up in horror, in complete stomach-emptying nausea in disgust of having done something so hideous as stealing a life from another human being.

I don't think there's anything worse than murder. Nothing. Not theft. Not abuse. Not torture. A man who takes the step of committing murder is the least of what humans can be. And it's a rare man who hasn't hated or feared someone so much that they want to see that person dead. I think that's why this movie has always struck a note with me.

Landau in his most chilling performance.

The rationalization of murder.


Stuart Gardner said...

Excellent, Bob.
This film is cerainly a masterwork, one of Allen's very greatest, and one that I've seen many times.
I'd been unaware of Judah P. Benjamin, so thanks for the education.
I love the way the two stories in the film run along parallel tracks and only barely cross paths.
A tiny quibble -- ridiculously tiny, but for me it's always there - - is the title, which implies that misdemeanors aren't a classification of crime.

James Robert Smith said...

In reference to the title, it works for just the sake of coolness. What do I mean? The words just flow. Sometimes you have to go with that, even if there are other issues. "Felonies and Misdemeanors"? Nah. "Crimes and Worse Crimes"? Nope. "Crimes and Misdemeanors" just works as it is spoken, as it is heard, as it is seen, as it flows along in the mind.

While Woody's character agonizes over minor wobbles in the world of mundane morals, Judah (Landau) has justified premeditated, cold-blooded murder of an innocent--a monstrous crime by anyone's estimation. Then there are the almost inconsequential misdemeanors over which Cliff (Allen) agonizes. Contrast. Both are technically "crimes", but dude...orders of magnitude here.