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Crimes and Misdemeanors

(1989) **** Pg-13
104 min. Orion Pictures Corporation. Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Anjelica Huston, Alan Alda, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, Joanna Gleason, Caroline Aaron, Claire Bloom.

/content/films/4649/1.jpgIs life a comedy or a tragedy? Given the way each life ends, many find existence a tragedy. But as per Dante, Balzac, and Saroyan, the multiplicity of absurdities along the way point to our species living out a human comedy. Since the Greeks planted the roots of modern drama, we've enjoyed a little from column A and a little from column B, but rarely so plainly side by side as in writer-director Woody Allen's nervy and unnerving Crimes and Misdemeanors.

You could do worse for a quintessential Allen film than Crimes and Misdemeanors, which reeks of his many influences and idiosyncracies. The overtly tragic side of the picture, the Dostoyevskian "Crimes" plot, benefits mightily from Bergmanesque photography provided by frequent Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist. Nykvist also does brilliant work with the brighter "I Love New York" imagery of the picture's comic side, which explores "Misdemeanors." The elegantly structured whole allows the interwoven plot threads to touch in practical narrative ways, thematic overlap, and ironic editing, the last most commonly by way of clips from classic movies enjoyed in picturehouses by a character played by Allen himself (along with another character's foreboding health woes, this movie-love recalls a previous Allen triumph, 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters).

Martin Landau stars as morally compromised opthamologist Judah Rosenthal, a family man with a wife (Claire Bloom) and a mistress (Anjelica Huston). When the mistress, Dolores, begins making noise about revealing herself to the wife, Miriam, Judah is beside himself. He confides in two men who become the respective devil and angel on his shoulders: his crooked brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) and a patient, a rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterston). The agnostic Judah's religious upbringing has left just enough of a residue to stoke fear for his soul as he contemplates allowing Jack to "take care of" Dolores. Ben serves as Judah's prophet Tiresias, whose physical blindness belies his moral clarity.

Oedipus gets name-checked in the comic half of the picture, where small-time documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) has more everyday existential crises. Like every marriage of a certain age in an Allen picture, Cliff's union with Wendy (Joanna Gleason) has become stale and contentious. Wendy engineers a job offer for Cliff to helm an "American Masters"-style TV documentary on her brother Lester (Alan Alda), a TV producer given to pontificating about comedy ("If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it isn't"). This new arrangement presents Cliff with two ethical crises: can he allow himself to make a puff piece about a man he finds loathsome, and should he pursue a relationship with a woman he finds alluring, Lester's associate producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow)?

Judah's story proves consistently fascinating in no small part due to the anchorage of Landau, fresh from his rediscovery by Francis Ford Coppola (for the previous year's Tucker: The Man and His Dream). Allen noted, "Of all the actors I've ever worked with, he gives expression to my dialogue exactly as I hear it." More importantly, Landau perfectly calibrates a portrait of a man in Oedipal denial of his shadow: Judah has unconsciously decided to break bad before he will admit it to himself. Meanwhile, Cliff attempts to finance and complete a documentary about fictional philosopher Louis Levy (psychologist Martin S. Bergmann), whose optimistic intellectualism masks despair.

On the heels of his own serious-minded September and Another Woman, Allen isn't playing at conventional tragedy here—or conventional comedy (despite many vintage Allen one-liners like "Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty"). The tragic hero gets a "happy ending" and the comic hero a tragic one, which makes Crimes and Misdemeanors arguably the purest expression of Allen's cinematic vision. As much as Allen loves movies, he knows they lie more often than not. And we choose that lie, and others, because reality is too terrible to bear. Despite it all, Allen holds out hope that humanity will break its vicious cycle: "Most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more."

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0

Street date: 2/11/2014

Distributor: Twilight Time

California-based Twilight Time makes available classic films in editions strictly limited to 3,000 units (distributed exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment). Overseen in large part by star archivists Nick Redman and Mike Matessino, these releases all feature fresh hi-def treatment that includes isolated score tracks and six-page color booklets with original publicity shots, poster art, and excellent liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo. Twilight Time selects neglected titles and makes the studio's home entertainment divisions offers they can't refuse: let Twilight Time handle the releases and cater to an audience of devoted film collectors. So far the strategy seems to be working out nicely: as the titles move toward selling out, they become hotter and hotter collectibles.

Twilight Time's hi-def transfer for Crimes and Misdemeanors doesn't appear to be newly minted (it has flecks of dust from time to time and a hint of telecine wobble in its opening and closing credits), but it is certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video. Retaining its filmic (and painterly) look, the image is quite well-resolved in contrast and color and appears just as I remember seeing it on its release in 1989. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track likewise honors the source material: Allen's never been one for sonic complexity, and this track does its job of delivering the dialogue and music with firm clarity. The bonus features—in keeping with Allen's wishes—are minimal: an isolated music and effects track and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:29, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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