By Jasmine Boisvert
“I just wanted to illustrate, in an entertaining way, that there is no God, that we’re alone in the universe, and that there is nobody out there to punish you, that there’s not going to be any kind of Hollywood ending to your life in any way, that your morality is strictly up to you” (Allen). And so he did. In 1989, Woody Allen, known primarily for his dry, albeit witty comedies, not only wrote but equally directed and starred in the existential drama, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Although there are moments of humor within the film, they’re dark in nature, lending themselves to the cynical undertones of the plot as a whole. Where Allen would typically use humor in a film, as with the majority of his previous work, here he instead chooses to focus on much heavier issues, primarily those of religion and philosophy. Using dual plotlines, which dovetail in the final scene, Allen is able to create a higher sense of tension and subsequently forces the audience to recognize in themselves the innate internal and external conflicts plaguing these characters. In his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen explores themes of religion, God, morality and death, at the core of which lies the existential dilemma between humanity’s tendency towards logic and reason leading to atheism, in conflict with the emotional need for meaning, objective moral values, and justice.
Both in life, as well as the film itself, it’s clear that people frequently find themselves lost in or overwhelmed by this type of internal struggle, to which Allen provides a number of possible suggestions. Perhaps the two most obvious, albeit significant, of these suggestions are those of entirely opposing arguments. The first suggests that one should carry on in life as if there is indeed a moral structure, one which is not only fully intact but also which has been imposed by a just and awesome God figure. The second proposes entirely the opposite of the first, opting instead for a more nihilistic approach towards life, in which there is no God, no moral structure, and individuals are left to justify their actions as they deem fit. Within the film Allen has essentially assigned these two particular world views to his characters, forcing not only the characters, specifically Cliff Stern and Judah Rosenthal, to grapple with which particular path they wish to follow, but the audience as well, opening the issue further.
The former of these two belief systems hinges on the perceived existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally upright God figure. Stemming from this belief is also, and perhaps most importantly in relation to this particular film, the notion that God has not only created a moral structure, but also reinforces it, guaranteeing that the good will benefit from their choices while the corrupt will be chastised for theirs. Within the film this perspective is demonstrated through the characters of Ben Stern and Sol Rosenthal, Judah Rosenthal’s patient and father, respectively. Both Ben and Sol advocate to Judah the significance of their own personal belief system, focusing in on at least one of the aforementioned requirements. When Judah confesses his sins to Ben, the rabbi acknowledges the differences between the two men’s world view. “You see [the world] as harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live” (Crimes). Here Ben is displaying his belief in God’s creation of a moral structure, one which provides humanity with objective values regarding what is morally right and wrong. In the same way, as part of a flashback, Sol Rosenthal is explaining to a young Judah God’s reinforcement of this believed in moral structure. “The eyes of God see all. … there is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight. He sees the righteous and he sees the wicked and the righteous will be rewarded, but the wicked will be punished for eternity” (Crimes). Although Judah struggles with his own morality after speaking with both men he ultimately walks away from both conversations with his issues unresolved, suggesting that Allen’s own personal beliefs have some influence over the characters and their actions within the film.
The latter of the two suggested forms of belief within the film is that of nihilism, seemingly supported more so by Allen himself. This particular form of belief, or rather lack thereof, rejects the notion of any sort of higher being. Consequently there is no objective moral structure, no negative ramification for sinners, and in the same way no reward for living a virtuous life. Allen uses the character of Aunt May to illustrate this particular point of view by means of a flashback, allowing Judah to overhear the conversation in its entirety. Within the flashback, taking place during a Passover Seder dinner, Aunt May and Sol discuss the basis of morality. “For those who want morality there’s morality. Nothing’s handed down in stone” (Crimes). Taking on the role of not only atheist but moral relativist as well, Aunt May goes on to describe the world as she believes it to be; godless, amoral, and subjective. For Aunt May the world is not only a place of selfish cruelty, but it’s also one in which all is tolerated, even murder. “And I say, if he can do it, and get away with it, and chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free” (Crimes). Unfortunately this particular belief of leaving morality up to the individual creates an environment free of consequences, causing the shift from amoral to immoral.
These two approaches towards life are the two extremes of the religious spectrum, and in their extremity they are flawed. The Passover flashback initially acts symbolically as a manifestation of Judah’s internal struggle, helping to explain why he walks away from the matter unresolved. Not only is Judah, as well as the audience, able to see the holes in both Aunt May’s and Sol’s arguments but there is also suggestion that both sides eventually cancel each other out. Sol’s belief in God and the universal moral structure reveal themselves to be little more than blind faith and the rejection of rational understanding as he states, “If necessary I will always choose God over truth” (Crimes). In the Passover scene Sol admits that even if it’s possible that God does not exist that it’s still in one’s best interest to have faith in a higher power, as it’s faith which allows for one’s deepest human needs to be met. In this scene it becomes clear that Sol’s belief is more so footed in his emotional needs being filled rather than a true belief in the existence of God. In the same way that Sol’s argument is philosophically ungrounded so too is Aunt May’s, whose lack of faith in any form of higher power has caused her argument to lapse into nihilism and relativity. In both cases when deconstructed the extreme nature of their arguments prove to be their downfall; backed into a corner with little leeway within their stance neither Aunt May nor Sol were able to hide the flaws in their opinions.
Despite their apparent flaws, both Aunt May’s as well as Sol’s philosophies are necessary; their stark differences provide a framework for the film, in which alternative viewpoints can be discussed. Allen is suggesting here that it’s possible to reject a religious figurehead, such as God, while at the same time avoid delving fully into the chaos a nihilistic world seems to validate. Louis Levy, a philosopher being documented by Cliff in the film, provides a much “greyer” viewpoint than Aunt May and Sol do on their own. Levy’s personal philosophy denounces the concept of God while at the same time asserting the notion of a moral structure. The significance of Levy’s philosophy lays in the design of this moral structure, which requires humanity to take responsibility for their actions. Levy acknowledges the inherent cruelty in the world, saying that “the universe is a pretty cold place,” but pushes that idea further than Aunt May had done previously by also acknowledging that, “it’s we who invest it with our feelings” (Crimes). What Levy is suggesting is the notion that morals are constructed as actions are taken.
Levy’s particular branch of existentialism suggests a complete lack of human nature or any type of inherent quality within humanity which could provide the masses with a pre-established correct moral order or behavior. Instead he proposes the notion that humans are left to their own particular devices, creating their own essence of mortality, leading eventually to the idea that character is constructed not by a higher power but personally by the individual based on their choices and actions in life. Ultimately what Levy is alluding to is the notion that morality is internal rather than external, placing responsibility on the individual rather than an external moral authority such as God. What particularly needs to be understood regarding this model of philosophical existentialism is that humanity must acknowledge that an individual’s choices, while significant to themselves, are also significant to others. One may choose to express their values through a particular action, but the values of the individual set the model for the masses, and it’s necessary to prepare for others to choose their values similarly.
Although there is clear emphasis on the individual within Levy’s philosophy there is an even higher value placed on the whole as well. In his final appearance on screen Levy acknowledges the importance of love and people in relation to people, arguably the most significant lines within the film.
We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions—moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of these choices are on lesser points. But, we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that gives meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, 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. (Crimes)
Not only are Levy’s philosophies instructive to some extent, but they equally represent Allen’s own conclusion in regards to the film. Although even Levy’s outlook is indeed flawed, as it runs the risk of falling too heavily into relativity in the same way Aunt May’s does, Allen is attempting to suggest to audiences the notion that humanity is indeed humanity’s only hope. In focusing on shared morals and human relationships Allen ultimately puts responsibility on the whole while at the same time focusing in on the individual. In this way individual morality can’t simply be disregarded as it has a direct impact on both the individual as well as the whole of humanity.
Despite Levy’s final soliloquy which suggests the importance of shifting from the singular moral structure, faith in God, to a more encompassing moral structure, faith in humanity, there is no guarantee for its success. One of the most significant issues within the film, albeit frequently overlooked, is the notion that humanity may not deserve the faith of the masses. Allen creates this situation in the final scene of the film, in which the audience is forced to come to terms with the fact that the negative characters, Judah, Lester, and Jack, have all gotten away with their crimes, both in the eyes of the law as well as the eyes of God and society. As if that weren’t bad enough however, it seems that all three characters have gone on past their crimes to be successful and happy. If this is so then it appears as if there’s little hope for those characters the audience had been rooting for all along, Cliff and Delores. Although it’s clearly an arguable point, one which diminishes both Sol’s and Levy’s philosophies, Allen allows for hope to be restored in the notion that human evolution calls for cooperation. “But there is good reason to believe that in a competition for resources societies in which most agents are cheaters would not survive: cheating is not an evolutionary stable strategy. Nor is a purely altruistic strategy” (Garns). This is to say that focusing on either black or white will get one nowhere, in fact it’s likely to do more harm than good in the long run. Although Judah’s brother Jack is depicted as a criminal there is still suggestion that his underground “dealings” rely on a sense of trust. Even in a small social network such as Jack’s there is still strength and stability due to the natural bonds created necessary to maintain itself.
The final scene of the film ends on a relatively happy note. Despite the fact that many of the characters remain unresolved in regards to their ongoing internal struggle it goes relatively unnoticed. In ending the film with a montage of the film as a whole Allen is suggesting a shift in focus away from the heavy notions of a dominating philosophy and to more tangible worldly aspects of life. As Levy’s final soliloquy plays in the background the audience is able to rewatch, despite its condensed nature, exactly what went on within the world of the film. The significance in this particular scene is the fact that specific aspects of the plot have been seemingly left out, including that of Delores’s murder, Levy’s suicide, or even the negative ramifications of Cliff and Halley’s kiss. Although this could easily be read as being done intentionally by Allen in an attempt to make the audience “forget” about the negative aspects of both the characters and the film as a whole he arguably had other things in mind. Despite the significance in leaving the more sinful or disheartening scenes out, Allen’s final montage gains meaning by focusing on the material he chose to leave in. He may have removed Delores’s murder scene but chose to keep in the scene leading up to her death, and in the same way the negative aspects of Cliff and Halley’s kiss isn’t shown, but the kiss itself is. By removing specifically undesirable scenes but including scenes close in likeness, albeit more positive, Allen is demonstrating his own acknowledgement of the complexity of moral psychology. Instead of suggesting crimes or lies Allen is suggesting misdemeanors or “white lies.” Much like Judah’s rationalization of his embezzlement Allen is attempting to show the audience the internal justification of one’s actions. The significance here is the fact that both the montage as well as Levy’s soliloquy continues to play alongside scenes of Ben’s daughter’s wedding. Allen is sending mixed signals to some extent, showing both the internal struggle within oneself and the external existential moral structure put in place by humanity.
Arguably Allen’s use of sending mixed messages to the audience is realistic; due to the complex nature of humanity contradiction seems inevitable. It’s suggested then to take this particular film with a grain of salt; it isn’t predominantly didactic but rather attempts to deal with these universal issues simply by living them. Although it’s clear to the audience what the characters, as well as Allen’s, own personal views are in regards to their situations the film itself allows for the viewers to live vicariously through those on the screen, to work out their own issues, or even to pass judgment ultimately in the hopes of creating a better understanding of oneself. In creating characters with opposing viewpoints and philosophies Allen is able to suggest rather than preach to his audience, even if he himself is not entirely convinced. Ultimately what’s significant about this film in particular is the fact that instead of sitting you down and forcing ideas upon you, Allen invites you to take a seat and places ideas in front of you, asking you to choose.
Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. By Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Martin Landau, and Mia Farrow. Orion Pictures, 1989.
Garns, Judy. “Films For Philosophers.” Films For Philosophers. N.p., June 2005. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.