Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Directed by Woody Allen

Genre and Length
Narrative film — 110 minutes

Grade Level
This is appropriate for an eleventh or twelfth grade Language Arts classroom

Relevant Common Core Standards for Grades 11-12
Standard 1.3 L.C.
  • Analyze how authors develop complex characters as well as their roles and functions in a variety of texts.
  • Determine the effectiveness of setting as related to character, plot, and other key literary elements.
  • Determine the effectiveness of the author’s use of point of view as related to content and specific types of genre.
  • Analyze how the author structures plot to advance the action.
  • Identify major themes in literature, comparing and contrasting how they are developed across genres.
  • Explain how voice and choice of speaker (narrator) affect the mood, tone, and meaning of text.
  • Describe how an author, through the use of diction, syntax, figurative language, sentence variety, etc., achieves style.

This dark comedy/existential drama follows the lives of Judah Rosenthal, a successful ophthalmologist, and Clifford Stern, a struggling documentarian filmmaker. Judah is a well-respected man among his friends and colleagues and a much loved father and husband among his family members. However, when a flight attended named Dolores Paley, with whom Judah has been secretly having an affair for quite a while, threatens to contact his wife, the security and stability of Judah’s world becomes severely threatened. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to beg Dolores to end the affair, Judah reluctantly hires a hit man to “take care of” Dolores. Meanwhile, Cliff has been hired by his wife’s brother Lester to film and edit a documentary celebrating Lester’s life and accomplishments. Cliff’s marriage with Lester’s sister Wendy, which is slowly failing at the beginning of the story, deteriorates even further when Cliff attempts to woo Halley Reed, who is working as the producer of Lester’s documentary film. The rest of the story follows the separate stories of Judah and Cliff as they try to cope with their unique problems, and although the characters only meet for a brief moment in the final scene, both plotlines deal with the same overarching thematic concerns and philosophical quandaries.

Thematic and Textual Connections
Crimes and Misdemeanors directly and indirectly connects to many works of classic literature that, if read and studied, could help the viewer better understand the meaning of the film. For example, the relationship of Judah and rabbi Ben mirrors the relationship between Oedipus and Tiresias in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Also, rabbi Ben calls Judah’s action a “small infidelity” when compared to other more serious issues, which mirrors Posthumus’ words in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. This film also contains aspects of the tragic genre, which would allow for a study of Aristotle’s Poetics. The film’s use of eyes and sight as a motif of moral vision connects to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Oedipus Rex. Lastly, the film mirrors Milton’s Paradise Lost in dealing with the thematic question of whether or not the universe contains a greater purpose and order beyond human comprehension.
Crimes and Misdemeanors also illustrates numerous literary devices. Woody Allen utilizes eyes and sight as a motif to represent the characters’ moral and ethical vision. Foreshadowing is used as a way to visually represent Judah’s inner struggle to cope with his dark deeds. There are also many allusions to philosophical thinkers and religious undertones throughout the film.

Strengths and Unique Characteristics of the Film
Crimes and Misdemeanors is perfect for differentiated learning because of its multiple layers. Personally, I love this film because I pick up on something new every time I re-watch it, which allows me to revise my previous understanding of its intended meaning. Students of all cognitive abilities can read into the philosophical themes of the film and pull valuable wisdom for their own circumstances. Not all students might be able to wrap their minds around everything Woody Allen discusses in the film; however, Crimes and Misdemeanors will push all students to question their previous beliefs about ethics and force them to reconsider or strengthen their own moral convictions.
This film is also wonderful because of its existential quality. The action of the film occurs as much within the characters as it does around them. The deep psychological progression of the protagonists allows for a rich study and discussion of characterization.

Possible Objections
Although Crimes and Misdemeanors holds a PG-13 rating, which is quite suitable for upper high school students, possible objections could arise due to a few curse words (no f-bombs), references to sexuality, and a brief image of a murdered woman.

Awards and Nominations
  • Won Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle
  • Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor
  • Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts
  • Nominated for Best Director by the Directors Guild of America

Previewing Activities
  1. Read Tina's Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap as a quick, fun way to introduce students to the complex notion of existentialism.
  2. Read/study key excerpts from Aristotle’s Poetics to introduce students to classic dramatic theory.
  3. Have students do a freewrite based on the following prompt:
I know that _ is wrong. I know that _ is right. (How/why do I know these things? Are these absolute truths or do they have some flexibility?)

Viewing Day #1: 0:00:00-0:43:38; Chapters 1-8 on DVD (about 44 minutes)
  • Begins with the opening titles
  • Ends with Judah calling Jack about having Dolores murdered

Key Sequence: (0:32:32-0:36:35) Chapter 7 on DVD
This short scene is a perfect way to study the characterization of Judah. In a sense, this scene is a microcosm of Judah’s overall moral degradation. Judah invites his brother Jack over to confess his problem with Dolores. It is clear, however, that Judah has a hidden motive behind inviting Jack over to his house, but he is not willing to admit quite yet that he wants Dolores murdered.

Discussion Questions
  1. Although directors use dialogue as one of the primary ways to illustrate characters’ thoughts, they also employ nonverbal clues to help shed some light on their deeper feelings. Keep track of Judah’s movements during his conversation with Jack. What exactly does he do and when does he do it? How do these actions match or contradict what he is saying? (Think about the layout of the room, the props used by the characters, and the distance between Judah and Jack).
  2. Do you believe Judah when he says, “I can’t do it. I can’t think that way,” in regard to having Dolores killed? Why or why not? Pay close attention to Judah’s final actions (sometimes our external behaviors reveal our internal states of mind—i.e., we say one thing but do another).
  3. Jack says, “I can’t afford to be aloof,” when Judah begins to balk at the idea of having Dolores murdered. Jack brings up an interesting idea as he talks to Judah—he seems to be saying that wealthy people are above the worries of ethical dilemmas while working class or poor people must make difficult choices on a daily basis that forces them to choose between morality and survival. Do you agree with this idea? Do you think wealthy people are protected from the difficulties of “reality”?

Viewing Day #2: 0:43:39-1:13:21; Chapters 9-11 on DVD (about 30 minutes)
  • Begins with Cliff and Halley watching a filmstrip of Dr. Levi discuss the philosophical nature of love.
  • Ends with Judah watching a flashback of his family around a dinner table during the Passover Seder as they argue about the nature of truth and faith.

Key Sequence: (1:05:05-1:08:59) Chapter 10 on DVD
This sequence contains a collection of shorter scenes that relate to one another. Cliff and his niece leave a movie theater, and Cliff complains about his trouble winning over the affections of Halley. After Cliff mentions that rabbi Ben is going blind, the scene cuts to Judah’s ophthalmology office where he is giving Ben an eye exam. During the exam, Judah has a flashback about Dolores talking about the eyes being the window to the soul. Judah then meets Jack and expresses his regrets about having Dolores killed. As Judah drives alone in his car, he has a flashback of a Jewish synagogue.

Discussion Questions
  1. So far in the film, we’ve seen numerous references to eyes and sight, and these brief scenes continue this motif. What do you think the references to eyes represent? Do you find it ironic that the most morally upright character in the story is going blind? What is Woody Allen trying to say about “moral vision” with his character Ben (think about the motif of vision in Oedipus Rex)?
  2. How has Judah’s mindset about religion changed from the time of the flashback with Dolores and the flashback as he drives his car through the tunnel? How has Judah’s opinion changed in terms of his religion? Do you think religion is the most influential factor on morality? If so, why? If not, what is?
Keep in mind the following quotes:
Dolores: “My mother taught me I have a soul, and that it’ll live on after me when I’m gone, and if you look deeply enough in my eyes you can see it.”
Judah: “I saw her there just staring up; an inert object. There was nothing behind her eyes if you looked into them; all you saw if you looked into them was a black void.”
  1. Think about the word “pity.” Do you pity Judah at this point in the film? What are the prerequisites for someone receiving others’ pity? Does Judah regret his actions? If so, can you infer why he feels regret? Think about Judah’s capacity to feel pity. Does Judah pity Dolores more than he pities himself, or is it the other way around?

Viewing Day #3: 1:13:22-1:41:04; Chapters 12-16 on DVD (about 28 minutes)
  • Begins with Cliff learning about Dr. Levi’s suicide
  • Ends with the closing credits

Key Sequence: (1:33:35-1:39:23) Chapter 15 on DVD
This scene is the first and only time Judah and Cliff actually interact with each other. Judah indirectly confesses his crime to Cliff through a supposed hypothetical situation, and the two men briefly discuss the meaning of tragedy. Neither Judah nor Cliff appear content, and the audience can assume that the characters still have a lot to reconcile before they can be at peace.

Discussion Questions
  1. Why would Woody Allen utilize such low-key lighting during this scene? Why would he only have half of the characters’ faces illuminated? What meaning can we take from this detail? Think about how light is connected to knowledge.
  2. Why do you think Woody Allen decided to cut away to Lester and Wendy during Judah’s speech to Cliff? Take note of what Judah says right before the audience sees Lester. Why do you think Lester asks Wendy, “Am I a phony?” Why would such a successful and powerful man feel insecure based on a few snide remarks from his sister’s unsuccessful brother?
  3. As the two men discuss the tragic events of Judah’s “story,” Judah says, “With time it all fades…This is reality. In reality we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.” Do you think that immoral actions only exist when a human being acknowledges them, or do you think morality stands apart from human recognition? Do you think a person can unknowingly commit an immoral action?
  4. Who comes out on top in the end of the film—Judah or Cliff? How did you decide? Do you think this ending is just or unjust? If it is an unjust ending, what would make it just?

Closing Questions/Activities
  1. Although it is safe to say that Judah is anything but heroic, we could view him as a tragic figure. Aristotle defines a tragic hero as a noble or well-respected man “who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Based on Aristotle’s definition, would you consider Judah to fit the mold of a tragic figure? If not, what would need to be added to the story to make it a true tragedy? Make sure to support your claims with evidence from the film and Aristotle’s Poetics.
  2. Crimes and Misdemeanors attempts to look at the conflict between ethical subjectivism and religious objectivism. Do you think different circumstances call for different moral standards, or do you believe there is a fixed code of ethics for all situations?
    1. Pose a few ethical dilemmas and have the students discuss these open-ended situations in group discussions. Include the prisoner’s dilemma, the trolley problem, and the plank of Carneades as well known thought experiments on ethics and morality.
    2. If you want to, you could introduce some well-known philosophical figures during the discussion stage of this activity (Aristotle, Socrates, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc.)
  3. Cliff’s version of the documentary about Lester’s life upsets Lester, and the thing that upsets him the most is the fact that Cliff filmed Lester when he wasn’t “supposed” to—i.e., when Lester was hitting on the young woman. Cliff uses his film as a mirror to hold up to Lester, which forces Lester to actually see his own life. However, Lester doesn’t like what he sees because it’s not a censored version; it’s reality, and Lester doesn’t want to admit his real faults. This shows the true power of the media—its ability to manipulate its subject to either paint it in a positive or negative light.
    1. Imagine you are a journalist or filmmaker who wants to expose the true nature of something through an investigative piece. Write a letter addressed to producers pitching your desired idea. If you can persuade them to support your work, they’ll fund the project and publish it to the world. Think about how you can “spin” the story in whatever way best supports your intended purpose.