It’s no accident that the moral center of this movie, a kindly rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterston), is in the process of going blind. Woody Allen’s bleak comedy takes a piercingly cynical look at the notion that punishment for the guilty is any kind of a certainty. In the world of this film, power, privilege and luck have more to do with justice than any kind of moral virtue.
The main character, a wealthy and prominent ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), speaks of his childhood teaching that God was ever vigilantly watching everything we do, ready to mete out punishment for the slightest transgression. Rabbi Ben, the man of God, is slowly losing his power of sight and by the end of the film, it’s seems as if God’s perception of innocent and guilty is severely impaired.Judah has a problem. He’s been having an affair with a stewardess named Delores (Angelica Huston) for several years. He may (or may not) have made suggestions about leaving his wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom) to marry her, but he never promised her anything. Now, she’s no longer willing to wait and she’s starting to make demands on him. Also, she has information on certain financial improprieties on Judah’s part. In short, she could bring the whole house of cards down on top of him.
This is intolerable, he reasons, since he’s far too upright and important a person to be brought down by a person like her. His rabbi and patient, Ben, advises honesty. His basic faith in human decency lets him believe that things will work for the better, but the worldly, skeptical Judah is not convinced. His other option comes in the form of his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has the kind of connections that enable him to “take care” of problems like Delores. Judah is horrified by the thought. He’s far too moral and decent a man for such a thing but he doesn’t seem to have any other options that don’t involve a messy and expensive divorce.
Ultimately, Jack’s friends deal with Delores in a permanent way. At first, Judah is sickened by his own actions and his upbringing comes back in the shape of his certainty that God’s retribution is imminent. His family is mystified as Judah seems to be coming unglued.
The movie has a parallel story involving Ben’s brother-in-law, Clifford (Woody Allen), an idealistic but unsuccessful documentary filmmaker. He’s offered a paying gig filming a PBS profile of his other brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), a vain, pompous but highly successful television executive. It’s a total sell-out of his integrity but he takes the gig because he needs the money and also because he’s infatuated with Halley (Mia Farrow), the line producer on the project, despite being more or less not unhappily married. This story, while not as weighty as Judah’s, provides a nice counterbalance with its tale of a naïve nebbish who seems to suffer failure after failure simply for the crime of being neurotic and somewhat clueless, in contrast to Judah, whose power and position enable him to get rid of another human being and get away with it.
Martin Laudau’s gives the performance of his career, even better than his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. It’s also fun to see Sam Waterston and the late Jerry Orbach, future compatriots in Law and Order, playing Judah’s ego and id. It appears the Law of God lost out to Judah’s sense of order. Allen’s output since this film has been prodigious but uneven, but Crimes and Misdemeanors easily joins Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters on the top tier of his filmography.