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Crimes and Misdemeanors

Terri Murray gets to the core of ethics with Socrates and Woody Allen [CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS!].

“I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence that I made my specialty ophthalmology.”
– Judah (in Crimes and Misdemeanors)

“O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?”
– Socrates (in Plato’s Apology)

Since the mid-Sixties, Woody Allen has graced our screens with humorous, quirky films. From his oeuvre of more than sixty movies, one in particular stands out as a philosophical masterpiece. Crimes and Misdemeanors was released in 1989, but the question it poses is as old as the hills: whether living an ethical life is worthwhile in itself. The higher the cost of doing the right thing (or avoiding doing the wrong thing), the harder the choice. Allen addresses this conflict between egoism and altruism by drawing a realistic character who is forced into a dilemma between protecting his happiness and reputation through committing an evil deed, or renouncing the evil deed, knowing that this will cost him his social status and happiness.

In a sense, even to ask the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ presupposes an amoral, self-interested outlook, since asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ totally negates the idea that virtue might be its own reward and discounts any motive other than a selfish one. Intuitively it seems that anyone who has to ask what he will get in return for a good deed is probably not a virtuous person, since the question itself presupposes that a self-interested calculation of reward is the only motivator. If push comes to shove, in a dilemma between his own interests and the interests of others, the egoist will always look out for Number One. An ethical life, if it is to be distinguished from selfishness – which seems the opposite of an ethical life – must involve altruism performed from a genuine regard for one’s fellow human beings.

The Greeks

Socrates contemplates justice

Yet, it still seems to make sense to ask how being good benefits us. If there is no benefit to being good, then moral rules are unfounded and would appear altogether unreasonable. Crimes and Misdemeanors wrestles with this paradox, in ways redolent of ancient Greek attempts to deal with situations in which there was a conflict between moral duty and self-interest.

In Book II of Plato’s Republic, an affluent Athenian called Glaucon attacks Socrates’ view that justice is intrinsically preferable to injustice. On Glaucon’s view, justice is nothing but a social convention that arises from human weakness and vulnerability: since we can all suffer from injustice, we make an implicit social contract to be decent towards one another. We only allow these constraints on our freedom because we know we would stand to suffer even greater losses in their absence. He argues that justice is not something practiced for its own sake, but is something one engages in out of fear and weakness, or prudence. He claims that most persons act justly not because they think it’s better to do so but really because they lack the power to act unjustly with impunity.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges the Lydian, who discovered a ring with magical powers that allowed him to be invisible on command. Possessing the ring gave Gyges the power to commit injustices with complete impunity. He exploited its powers to the full, seducing the queen, killing the king and seizing the throne. Glaucon concludes his story by claiming that anyone in possession of such powers would be a fool not to use them, and that the only reason anyone would pretend to disagree with this is for the appearance of social respectability. Given the magic ring, not even the most ardent moral idealist would be able to resist the temptation to use it to their advantage.

Socrates takes exception to this outlook and tries to refute it. He wants to demonstrate that the supreme object of a man’s efforts, in public and private life, must be the reality of goodness rather than its mere appearance .

Socrates’ main adversaries to this point-of-view were the Sophists. These teachers of rhetoric were the ancient Greek counterparts to modern-day marketing experts and spin-doctors. They specialized in the art of persuasion, and their aim was to win public favour for their client, irrespective of whether this was beneficial or harmful. To Socrates, their skill consisted largely in “making the worse cause appear the better”.

Plato’s Gorgias provides what is probably the clearest attempt by Socrates to answer the Sophists’ opposition of nature and law. Callicles is Socrates’ third and final opponent in this dialogue. He refuses to grant Socrates’ premise, that doing wrong is more base than suffering wrong. Callicles claims that Socrates has erred in assuming that the ethical truth is consistent with conventional social rules. In reality, he says nature’s laws of survival and self-protection are superior to man-made principles. Laws encoding justice and fairness are inconsistent with nature’s laws, even if Socrates’ previous two opponents were ashamed to say so.

Against this cynical view, Socrates argues that power and influence gained by unjust means would be hollow, for they would not bring true fulfilment to those who possess them. The bearer of advantages so gained could never view them as his own achievements, and, even if he could fool others, would know that they were not deserved. While the man whose achievements were gained via deception might enjoy material rewards and a good reputation, these would only serve to mask an interior disharmony, a sickness of the soul.

The Movie

There is no better modern cinematic illustration of Socrates’ argument than Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen uses the predicament of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful and happily married ophthalmologist, to bring the issues into focus, offering viewers an opportunity to consider whether or not Socrates is correct. Does injustice pay only hollow rewards? Allen revisited these themes again in his 2005 psychological thriller, Match Point, but Crimes and Misdemeanors remains his most elegant and enduring exploration of these questions first posed in Plato’s dialogues.

Having engaged in a long-term extra-marital affair, Judah’s somewhat neurotic mistress, Dolores (Angelica Houston), has grown weary of being sidelined and now wants him to fulfil past promises made to her by leaving his wife. From the start of the film we find Judah struggling to keep a lid on the situation – calmly at first, then desperately – while Dolores persistently threatens to expose the affair, as well as some of Judah’s financial misdeeds. From an ordinary perspective, Judah stands to lose everything – his marriage, the love and respect of his wife and family, his financial comfort, his hard-earned prestige as a medical professional, and his domestic bliss.

At the height of his crisis, Judah confides in a close family friend, the rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston). Ben says he couldn’t live if he didn’t think there were some sort of a moral structure and genuine forgiveness. He advises Judah to confess the wrong to his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom) and hope for forgiveness from her. Judah cannot imagine that Miriam could forgive him, and admits that he can’t bear the thought of the consequences for himself, as well as for Miriam’s pride. Eventually Judah’s desperation leads him to call his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has a history of dirty business, such as eliminating unwanted nuisances.

Like Socrates’ interlocutors Glaucon and Callicles, Jack has a hard-nosed approach to life. He defines real life in terms of sheer power over others, and real men know how to wield it when necessary. The only plane of existence he acknowledges is the pragmatic: the world where forgiveness and ‘justice’ belong to those who have the political or physical power to dispense them. Abstract notions of moral duty or personal integrity are irrelevant.

In a moment of particularly poignant ‘bad faith’, Judah adopts Jack’s outlook to rationalize his decision to hire a hit man to eliminate his mistress and the threat she poses to his comfortable lifestyle.

However, having gone through with the murderous deed, Judah is then plagued by guilt. Not convinced by his own rationalization, he begins to have deep misgivings, even to the extent that he questions his atheism.

In a nostalgic reverie, we are transported back in time to Judah’s childhood memory of a dinner table conversation between his father, a rabbi, and his aunt, a cynical teacher who insists that this world is governed by ‘might makes right’. To bolster her argument, she cites the Nazi mass murderers who escaped justice and went on to live contented lives free of punishment or hardship. Her brother balks at the suggestion that there is no over-arching moral authority, and insists that those who do wrong will pay, whether in this life or the next.

His appeal is to a metaphysical realm beyond the conventions of human laws and their imperfect dispensation of justice. Judah is left wondering which of his relatives is right, The answer has huge implications for his own soul (if indeed there is any such thing). For a time Judah is consumed by self-doubt, to the point that he becomes alienated from his family and suffers constant anxiety and depression. He has saved his reputation and his family, but feels hollow. He is with his loved ones but feels absent at a deeper level because he has become a stranger to himself. As an escape from his bad conscience, he begins to drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol, and his once warm and buoyant demeanor is replaced by cantankerous irritability.

Alongside his fear for his soul there is the equally pressing fear that he will be found out by the police. But after a time, a drifter with a criminal record is arrested for the crime and Judah’s fears of being discovered fade away. He has gotten away with murder. Allen explores the question of how a man like Judah can live with himself, knowing that he has committed a great evil.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Judah contemplates his predicament
Film images © Orion Pictures 1989

Money & Mind

To explore the issue of selfish and unprincipled versus unselfish and principled in more depth, Allen includes a lighter sub-plot that runs parallel to the main plot and opposes two characters with completely different values and life-goals. On one hand is Judah’s brother in-law Clifford (played by Woody Allen himself), a struggling artist who makes serious documentaries about philosophical issues. Meanwhile, Clifford’s other brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) is a hugely successful commercial television producer/director. While Lester has fame, wealth and romantic success, Clifford is unemployed, professionally unsuccessful, and unhappily married. He escapes from his troubles to the cinema with his teenage niece; but is eventually pressured by his wife to take charity from Lester in the form of directing a biographical ‘profile’ documentary about Lester. As Lester pontificates arrogantly about himself in front of the camera, Clifford is forced to silently record the narcissistic ramblings of this womanizing egomaniac, while Clifford’s own more worthy project about a brilliant but obscure philosophy professor remains unfunded because it lacks commercial appeal. Nevertheless, Clifford continues to pursue this project as a hobby, and also pursues an attractive producer from the crew of Lester’s ‘profile’, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Halley herself is impressed by the more successful Lester, and begins to fall prey to his charms, much to Clifford’s chagrin. Allen seems to be suggesting here that another disadvantage for the man of integrity is that women prefer successful men rather than men of moral or intellectual substance. Clifford seems to have lost everything pleasant in life by being a decent man, while his brother-in-law is a highly-rewarded sell-out who thrives on producing programming that “deadens the senses of the American public”.

In the final act, Allen brings the two plot threads together by having a family wedding at which Clifford and Judah find themselves alone in a room and share a quiet chat. Judah covertly ‘confesses’ his crimes to Clifford by pretending they’re an idea for a movie. The ending of Judah’s ‘film’ sees the murderer reconciled with his deed: after much time has passed, his feelings of guilt abate, and he is able to go on with his life as normal. Clifford mulls this over and responds that he would change the ending to have the murderer confess the wrong, because “in the absence of a God or something he is then forced to assume that responsibility himself, and then you have tragedy.” Judah responds that “that’s movies and not reality” – echoing the Callicles’ and Glaucon’s retorts to Socrates, accusing him of promoting rarified ideals incompatible with the real world.

The film ends with a flashback voiceover by Professor Levy, the subject of Lester’s documentary (who has committed suicide). An existentialist, he explains that we all make decisions throughout our lives, large and small: “Man defines himself by the choices he has made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices,” he explains. Events unfold in a manner indifferent to human happiness. As he says this we watch a montage including a clip of Mussolini, reminding us that among the events over which we have little control are the machinations of those with power; but at the same time, in the light of Professor Levy’s existentialism, we are able to see that these too are outcomes of human choices. Thus the movie ends on a note of hope rather than despair, because “it is only us, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Clifford contemplates his whiskey

Choose Well, Choose Life

In extreme situations, such as war, individuals are forced back into the age-old Socratic dilemma: whether it is better to suffer evil or to inflict it. One’s choices could be narrowed to a terrible dichotomy between collaboration with powerful persecutors or dissent and victimisation by them. A radio interviewer once asked German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) about exactly this type of situation. Arendt replied that Socrates had maintained that there was no proof that a man must conduct himself one way or the other. Rather, there’s an existential commitment to be made – and the decision one way or the other, says Arendt, is based on how we choose to live with ourselves. For Socrates, this meant not acting against his own conscience or what could be construed as his ‘better nature’. At the core of this existentialist vision is a realistic admission that the universe does not offer us an over-arching moral order, nor does it protect us. Nevertheless, we are charged with the responsibility, and the opportunity, to fashion lives for ourselves that are worthy of the freedom we uniquely possess.

© Terri Murray 2020

Terri Murray is the author of Feminist Film Studies: A Teacher’s Guide. With a BFA degree in Film & Television Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has taught A-Level film studies for over 16 years.

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