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Remembering Martin Landau: A Look at ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989)

A closer look at Martin Landau's excellent work in this Woody Allen drama.

Martin Landau was an Academy Award-winning actor of stage, television, and screen, working in the industry since the 1950s. Having passed at age 89, here is a look back at one of his best performances, a role that earned him an Oscar nod and high praise for his outstanding work.

(Originally published, Sept. 2014, this is an edited reprint) Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) has a real problem. As a beloved member of the community and successful ophthalmologist, he is, publicly, a kind and generous man, honored and respected. He has many friends and is considered a paragon of trust and altruism. He is also a murderer. Or at least the harbinger of one.

Cliff (Woody Allen) also has a problem. His arrogant brother-in-law, a rich and pompous television producer (Alan Alda), has asked the amateur filmmaker to make a documentary about his life. Desperate for exposure, but appalled by the prospect, he reluctantly agrees in hopes of funding his real passion project, a film about the life of a renowned philosopher.

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989 © Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions

Thus we have two stories, entirely unconnected yet mirroring each other in less than obvious ways. At the heart of each tale is love, of course, this being a Woody Allen film. But whose love, how is it reciprocated, what actions they lead to, and how it affects those involved are all themes on the movie’s title. It’s is a deftly constructed drama/comedy that is not ambiguous with its message, the tropes of a life lived are tropes because they flourish. Allen creates a compelling work, and Landau is nothing short of brilliant in a role that is not typical of a hero. Emotional, hilarious, tense, and ultimately tragic, this is arguably Allen’s best work. And like every movie, it has one great moment.

Plotting a Conspiracy

Judah wants to end the two-year affair he has been having with a woman named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). She however is less so inclined, and has been demanding to speak with his wife, and worse, may disclose some financial dealings that would irreparably damage his reputation. Desperate, Judah contacts his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has connections to some very bad people. Let’s watch:

We’ll start with Landau. He plays a well-off and comfortable man now threatened with impropriety and does so with so with such conviction, it’s nearly impossible to look away. Watch him carefully as he evolves throughout the film. Orbach is also effectively burdened, the weight of his decidedly seedy life stripping him almost clean of any sentimentality. Notice the colors they wear, the light and darks, the way they often face opposite or move from one side of the room to the other, always in opposing fashion. Look how Judah changes. The conversation isn’t about convincing Jack to do a horrific job. It is about convincing himself. We slowly realize, as does he that he is not a good man.

That makes Judah a first for an Allen film, being a kind of bad guy in the lead. And that’s what’s really remarkable about Landau’s performance. He has cheated on his wife. He has lied to his friends and family. He has been indiscreet with company funds. He has paid for the murder of an innocent person simply to protect his interests. And yet we also feel for him. Why are we not repulsed? It’s not new. We often root for the bad guys in movies. Look how successful the Ocean’s 11 movies are. Or how we get behind Butch and Sundance. The ‘victims’ in these films are usually comically deserving of the injustice or simply unknown to the audience. Here though, Dolores, Judah’s mistress, is just a wronged woman and resorts to any means to keep her relationship. She is not painted as the villain, that is still Judah. She is by no means deserving of her fate. Yet we side with him in some troubling way. He had no choice! Right? It’s a powerful twist.

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989 © Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions

Credit goes to Huston as well of course. She is well cast, playing uptight and a little uncultured. She lives in a tiny apartment above a hair salon. We sense she has had no great love in her life, and perhaps is alone in every sense. Her home is aseptic, like a stage-play set, decorated by a checklist of “things in a house.” She is so wound up, she seems nearly unable to move inside her skin. She wears cowled sweaters and silk scarves coiled tight around her neck and her hair appears ready to pounce off the top of her head. We can’t take our eyes off her. She is a beautiful train wreck. So why is Judah taken with her? Or was? We don’t know their beginnings. We see flashbacks of them comfortable together. He clearly fulfills a fantasy for her: he’s wealthy, respected, worldly. What is she to him? Why has he spent two years courting her with promises of a future? Were these lies to keep his own fantasy alive? Indeed they must have been. For a man feels young in the company of new lust, and every man chases youth. For awhile. And like Cliff’s wife, Judah’s wife’s story is mostly unexplored. She is, in fact, shown as nothing but compassionate and supportive. A loving wife. But perhaps no longer the lover. Judah’s eyes wandered. And eyes are important.

Allen uses eyes allegorically throughout the film, painting characters with broad symbolism. This is most evident in Cliff’s brother-in-law, a rabbi named Ben, played by Sam Waterson. Ben is going blind. There is no reversing the loss of his sight. Characteristic of his role, total faith demands this, metaphorically. As a patient of Judah, and his confidant, he is the voice of reason, or at least temperament in the story. He is also, naturally, the most religious. Ben is the third pillar in the film’s conceit. He sees no moral ambiguity in life, explaining that Judah views the world as harsh, pitiless and lacking values while he is opposite, seeing structure and meaning, forgiveness and above all, a higher power. Judah is coldly distant to this. He wonders if a god could see past the judgment of murder and find forgiveness in his need to commit it. He finally contends that he can’t afford “the luxury of God,” a statement he makes in an imaginary conversation with Ben. And then there is Jack, Judah’s brother (whom we’ve met in the featured clip). He lives in the real world, as both he and Judah describe, a world that has finally caught up with Judah.

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989 © Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions

Cliff is also losing his sight. Well, not literally. He is swept into the belief that, like the films he so enjoys watching, might mimic reality. In movies, unhappily married men find new love and beautiful women swoon. He fits the first part of this role, and when the attractive Halley Reed (Mia Farrow) appears tempted by his advancements, he thinks like the movies he watches and expects that kind of resolution. What is real and what is reality? In fact, Allen, as director, constructs the entire movie in this vain, transitioning often between scenes of Judah to Cliff in a movie house watching a scene eerily reminiscent of what we were just previously shown.

Case in point, after the scene we featured above, the movie jumps to Cliff in a theater with his young niece watching This Gun For Hire (1942) where two men scheme to kill another. Cliff leans over to the young girl, smiling, “This only happens in the movies.” His obsession with film blinds him to reality though, and when Halley actually has no interest and ends up engaged with the vile Lester (Alda), it devastates him … and us, for we are in Cliff’s shoes during this experience, watching for escapism and expecting what we always get in movies.

So we have our two seemingly unrelated stories that in truth are a reflection of the other. Allen may appear to be satirizing the class system among the very wealthy and those less so, but in truth, we are witnessing a classic Woody Allen theme on unrequited love. Lester and Judah hold power over it and Dolores and Cliff are its victims. Much in the way that Hamlet portrayed the crimes of his uncle in play for the court, we see Allen retell the story of Judah with Lester in the lead having everything laid at his feet and himself as the rejected suitor of a love he could never keep. Perhaps that is why, while far less criminal, Cliff’s fate is more heartbreaking.

Back to That Moment In. What we might not recognize right away is how deeply dark a person Judah truly is. He confessed earlier to Rabbi Ben about his indiscretions with Dolores, claiming he did cheat but never promised her anything, which he quickly retracts and admits he doesn’t know. “In the heat of passion you say things,” he confesses, bemoaning his weakness and stating it is his fault. This is meant to further manipulate us, make feel sympathy. He calls Dolores young, unstable, hysterical, helpless, alone and vindictive. He paints her so we (and Ben) think of her as an enemy. It must be our idea that we agree to her fate. This is true of the scene with Jack as well. Watch carefully as he reacts appalled at the idea of murder. “Threats, violence, what are we talking about here?” Now he manipulates Jack, convincing him that murder is his idea and not his brother’s.  This is important for Judah as he needs to believe that he is separated from that kind of thinking, he is not of that world. Later, in an imagined conversation with his family, who are a mix of opinions on values and God, he seeks further atonement, further convincing himself, and us, that he is free of sin. Take a look.

As with most Woody Allen movies, there is a lot bubbling under the surface here, and like his other movies, it is fun to look deeper and discover something new. While the themes in the film are nothing new for an Allen movie, it manages to distance itself from them with a darkness that is missing in most of his other works. Watching it again, we see that Woody Allen was really on top of his game here, with wonderful direction and storytelling techniques that, on a casual level seem inconsequential but with special attention reveal true mastery. As example, watch while Judah is overcome and wants to confess. He meets Jack again, but this time, the conversation is different. Jack is still a man of the real world and will not have Judah put him in jeopardy. Watch as the conversation begins without the characters even on screen. We are not welcome to this confrontation. Look how they are separated from us by a metal fence that looks most especially like the bars of a prison, emphasizing the theme. Notice the black lamppost, a screen divider that differentiates the change in tone once it is crossed. And finally as the two men approach, the camera remains fixed and tight on Judah. All eyes are on him. Him alone.

It’s really difficult to choose the best Woody Allen movie. Yet this movie is one to consider. A wonderful blend of drama and dark satire, it is Martin Landau that is best remembered, his performance the very heart of the film. We can look back with wonder and feel joy that he shared his talents with us in this and so many others.