I just finished watching Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. I’d never seen it before, nor many of his other movies. The only ones I’ve seen before were Zelig and Sleeper, and those back in college.
A very dear friend of mine suggested to me that I watch the movie, which I watched on Netflix. She also mailed me Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, and Annie Hall, which I plan on watching in short order. She said that she thought that the themes explored in these movies were the same that I explore here in this blog and after watching Crimes and Misdemeanors, I have to say that she was right.
What I found most compelling about the movie was the struggle that the main character, Judah, has with himself between his life long rejection of religion and superstition and the Jewish religion that his father raised him and his siblings in. As a youngster he questioned his father’s beliefs and as a man, he openly rejected them, but after he commits a terrible crime, he is racked with guilt to the point of a mental breakdown.
At the end of the movie, he is at a wedding reception talking to Cliff, the idealist and romantic, played by Woody Allen. Cliff is despondent over a lost love and sardonically say, thinking about his brother-in-law who got the woman Cliff was in love with, that he was contemplating murder. Judah, knowing that Cliff is an aspiring film director, tells him that he has this great plot for a movie about murder with a twist.
“And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”
Cliff, the idealist and moralist, says that the murder would never be able to live with what he did and, if he were directing that movie, he’d have him confess to the police, becoming the moral authority of the story. He says that it would be a great tragedy. Judah chides him by telling him that his ending only happens in the movies, he is talking about reality.
The meaning is clear, we can, and do, rationalize away those things that cause us guilt, or else we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.
I have written quite a bit here about cognitive dissonance, the theory that people, when faced with uncomfortable facts that contradict their world view, will resolve the dissonance by either accepting the truth and rejecting their world view, or rationalizing the facts away, so as to be able to live with themselves. The situation portrayed in the film is very similar, in that Judah had to rationalize away the crime he had committed in order to live with himself. After all, the reasoning goes, if he turned himself in he would destroy his family and himself end up in prison for life, and what would that accomplish; who would that benefit?
It is a very seductive and, in many ways, reasonable way of resolving the guilt he feels. Of course, this goes against our concept of morality. We believe that someone who commits a crime should be held accountable for it. Yet if that person is not the type to normally commit crimes, if they don’t pose a reasonable danger to anyone else, what really is accomplished by confessing and accepting the consequences? It is a tough nut to crack and one that rationalists and ethicists have been debating for thousands of years, and I certainly don’t think that I have an answer.
It is a fascinating topic for reflection and debate. What is the real reason for punishment for those who commit crimes? On the larger scale, it helps keep social order, but what about on a personal scale? It can give the victims a sense of justice, but isn’t that really just rewarding their desire for revenge? Of course, if the offender is a career offender, or has a pathological personality that drives them to commit crimes, then prison makes plenty of sense, and this is probably the case with many offenders. But what about those people who are basically good and decent, but are driven to commit a crime out of fear or mental anguish? Is the same penalty we would give a dangerous career criminal really appropriate for them?
The movie doesn’t answer these questions. Judah is shown as having moved on with his life, in fact, his life is better than ever. Cliff is left alone with his idealism, even though it has failed him once again. This is as real as it gets, and real life is messy and arbitrary and the film gets that perfectly.