Allen's Literary Antecedents in Crimes and Misdemeanors

By Quattrocchi, Edward | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Allen's Literary Antecedents in Crimes and Misdemeanors


Quattrocchi, Edward, Literature/Film Quarterly


Woody Alien's movie. Crimes and Misdemeanors, has elicited the usual amount of diverse criticism. The critics agree that Alien is dealing with serious issues-whether God exists, and whether evil will be punished and good rewarded-but they disagree about the importance of the issues and how effectively Alien deals with them. Pauline Kael writes, "the ideas have no excitement. He's telling us not just what we already know but what we've already rejected."1

Although she and other critics have some good things to say about the film, much criticism of the film has been negative. Perhaps the most scathing attack comes from Leon Wieseltier in his review in The New Republic. For those of us who enjoyed the TiIm and pondered its meaning, he impugns not only our taste and intelligence but also our honor:

Let me be blunt: it is a matter of honor to hate this TiIm. There is not a frame of it that fails to degrade, to debase and to demean something precious. It is the work of a consumer, a tourist, a peacock, a counterfeiter, a voyeur, a coward, a philistine, a creep. It is a stain upon the culture that produced it. I didn't like it.2

Yet Rabbi Borowitz thinks otherwise. He considères the film "uncommonly good entertainment. A synagogue-better a shul-a rabbi, a seder, a Jewish wedding, all receive respectful, even loving treatment."3

That the film can evoke such contrary emotions suggests that the themes are not stale and that Alien has not lost his talent for provocation. Unfortunately, few of those who demean the treatment of the film's themes and Alien's dramatic art support their opinions with explanations or examples. Here is one of Mr. Wieseltier's arbitrary pronouncements: "Alien has an undergraduate's notion of narrative: a half-dozen softly spoken, highly socialized characters in a couple of plots and you're Chekhov."4

To show how Alien's narrative does not betray the hand of an undergraduate but rather that of a serious intellect and a sophisticated reader of the best that has been written in the western tradition will be my task in what follows.

Alien's films typically reveal his easy familiarity with the great writers of the past. But in Crimes and Misdemeanors he breaks new ground. Not only do several characters sprinkle their conversations with references to Sophocles, Dickinson, Chekhov, Schubert, Schumann, Joyce, the Bible, and Shakespeare, but also the structure, character, and themes of the film are based on classical and biblical models. Moreover the allusions to literature are not contrived or superficial; they enrich our understanding of the characters and invariably add a sharper edge to the comedy. Cliff Stern's (Woody Alien) admission, for example, that his love letter to Halley Reed (Mia Farrow) had been plagiarized from James Joyce, which accounts for the many references to Dublin, is poignantly comic and ironically exposes Cliffs self-deception.

But the most significant literary influences on the structure, character, and themes of the film are Shakespeare and the Bible. The most explicit signal of that influence occurs shortly after the midpoint in the plot, when Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), the protagonist, revisits his boyhood home and recalls a Seder dinnertable conversation about the question of cosmic justice. On one side of the argument Judah's aunt (Anna Berger) contends that might makes right, that the Holocaust is an example of this and that the winners write history in order to justify their atrocities. On the other side, Judah's father. Sol (David Howard) argues in defense of the traditional Judaic-Christian philosophy that good will be rewarded and evil punished. When challenged that his sanguine optimism relies too much on Scripture, Sol confidently proclaims: "Whether it's the Old Testament or Shakespare, murder will out." Alien here explicitly calls attention to his indebtedness to his literary and religious predecessors.

Almost all great writers have imitated their predecessors. …

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