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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Ethical objectism/relativism

CHARACTERS: Judah Rosenthal (ophthalmologist, adulterer), Jack Rosenthal (Judah’s mobster brother), Miriam Rosenthal (Judah’s wife), Dolores (Anjelica Huston, Judah’s mistress), Lester (Alan Alda, TV personality), Cliff Stern (Woody Allen, unsuccessful film director), Ben (Sam Waterston, Rabbi), Halley Reed (Mia Farrow, TV producer)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR WOODY ALLEN: Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Bullets over Broadway (1994), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

SYNOPSIS: Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” intertwines two stories. The first involves Judah, a wealthy ophthalmologist and family man, who has had a several-year affair with Dolores. Dolores threatens to go public regarding the affair and Judah’s shady financial dealings unless Judah leaves his wife. Judah calls on his mobster brother to kill Dolores, which he does. The second storyline involves Cliff, a nerdy and unsuccessful documentary filmmaker, who is in an unhappy marriage. While working on a documentary about a TV personality named Lester, Cliff falls in love with Halley, a network producer. Halley rebuffs Cliff because he is married. When Cliff finally gets divorced, Halley has become engaged to Lester. Throughout both storylines discussions arise about God’s role in establishing ethical values, and whether the world would be valueless if God didn’t exist. Judah and Cliff meet up at the end of the film, and Judah presents an anonymous version of the murder – as though it might be a plot for a movie. It becomes clear that Judah got away with the murder, and suffered no long-term guilt. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including best screenplay and best director.


1. According to the DVD commentary, Allen views his film as “revisiting the themes he examined 15 years earlier in the farce Love and Death, [and] ideas such as God, faith, and justice. 'Existential subjects to me,' says the filmmaker, 'are still the only subjects worth dealing with.'” What are some examples of existential positions throughout the film?

2. Speaking to Judah, Rabbi Ben states the two key moral positions of the movie: “It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live.” Is there an in between position?

3. According to the DVD commentary, Allen used eyes as a pervasive metaphor in the film. Judah is an eye doctor, the rabbi eventually goes blind, etc. “Crimes and Misdemeanors is about people who don't see. They don't see themselves as others see them. They don't see the right and wrong of situations.” Allen notes that the rabbi is not only physically blind, but metaphorically blind “to other things, to the realities of life.” He believes, though, that the rabbi's blindness is also a gift. “He's blessed and lucky because he has... the best gift anyone could have. He has genuine religious faith.” Must one be blind to the world's problems to have genuine religious faith?

4. Although Allen claims that the rabbi is detached from the reality of the world, clearly Judah is as detached as the rabbi if not more. During an imaginary conversation with rabbi Ben, Judah describes three levels of aloofness that are characterized in the movie by himself, Ben, and Jack. “God is a luxury I can't afford,” Judah states. Ben replies, “Now you're talking like your brother Jack.” “Jack lives in the real world,” Judah continues. “You live in the kingdom of heaven. I manage to keep free of that real world, but suddenly it's found me.” In both cases, aloofness is caused by a particular worldview. In the case of the rabbi, the view is that the world originates from a wholly good God. In the case of Judah, it is the view that he himself is a moral person, which view causes him to ignore his own “questionable moves.” Is the only way to be honest with oneself to have a twisted or lacking sense of morals, like Jack the mobster?

5. Rabbi Ben tells Judah that “without the law it's all darkness.” Judah retorts, “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is what she's doing to me just? Is this what I deserve?” Judah's situations is caused directly or indirectly by choices he's made, even though he may not have understood at the time he made them their full implications for the future. Can Judah, therefore, be held morally responsible for creating his own situation?

6. In Cliff’s documentary footage on Louis Levy, Levy states “Now the unique thing that happened to the early Israelites was that they conceived a God that cares. He cares, but at the same time he also demands that you behave morally. But here comes the paradox. What’s one of the first things that that God asks: that God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son to him. In other words, in spite of millennia of efforts we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God. This was beyond our capacity to imagine.” Is Levy right about the limitations of the human notion of God, and, if so, what is behind this limitation?

7. In the documentary footage, Levy comments on the nature of love. “You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox. The paradox consists of the fact that when we fall in love we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand we ask of our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us. So that love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.” Is this an accurate notion of the nature of love?

8. Visiting his childhood house, Judah imagines his family celebrating the Passover dinner. He asks what happens if a man kills. The image of his father answers, “then one way or another he’ll be punished.” “If he’s caught, Saul,” interjects an uncle. The father continues, “If he’s not caught that which originates from a black deed will blossom in a foul manner.” His aunt “And I say if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free. Remember, history is written by the winners. And if the Nazis had won, future generations would understand the story of World War II quite differently.” Is there a middle ground between these two positions?

9. Continuing the imaginary Passover dialog, the uncle asks Judah’s father, “And if all your faith is wrong, Saul, I mean just what if?” The father answers, “Then I’ll still have a better life than all those that doubt.” The aunt asks, “Do you mean that you prefer God to the truth?” The father responds, “If necessary I will always choose God over truth.” Why would someone knowingly choose religious faith over truth?

10. After Levy committed suicide, Cliff reviewed a clip from the documentary footage in which Levy states: “But we must always remember that when we are born we need a great deal of love to persuade us to stay in life. Once we get that love, it usually lasts us. But the universe is a pretty cold place. It’s we who invest it with our feelings. And under certain conditions, we feel that the thing isn’t worth it anymore.” Is this an accurate picture of why people give up on life?

11. Hearing the news of Levy’s death, Halley says, “No matter how elaborate a philosophical system you work out, in the end it’s got to be incomplete.” Halley is probably right. Why must a philosophical system necessarily be incomplete?

12. Near the end of the film Judah explains his murder story as though it might be a plot to a movie. Cliff responds, “I would have him turn himself in. Then your movie assumes tragic proportions, because in the absence of a God he is forced to assume that responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.” What specifically would make this a tragedy?

13. At the close of the movie, Levy has the final word in a voice over narration: “It is only we, with out capacity to love, that give meaning to an indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and find joy from simple things – from their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.” Is this sufficient to give like meaning?


Crimes and Misdemeanors is a Woody Allen film that takes a serious and entertaining look at ethics and morality. It focuses on the lives of two very different men, Judah Rosenthal and Cliff Stern. The audience watches as the characters lives intersect one another and these two characters take different approaches to life and their choices based on their moral and ethical views. One of the strengths of this film is that it was enjoyable. This was a completely different type of film than, Baraka or Mindwalk, which take the non-verbal and completely verbal styles, respectively. Crimes and Misdemeanors had humor, good writing and acting, blood, and a guy poops on some woman's chest. Those things just wouldn't fit in Baraka or Mindwalk. The fact that this movie can mention a person pooping on another person in a sexual context and at the same time by end of the movie leave you to wonder whether God has anything to do with your moral decisions or not, is something that should not be overlooked when praising this movie. But even the pooping has a purpose in the film I believe. The movie discusses whether there are certain actions that are always right or wrong. For instance, wouldn't it be better for Judah to have his girlfriend murdered rather than for the truth to be left out in the open. The film is scary in that, as I was watching I found myself thinking "Well, yeah, you've got to kill her Judah, it's the best way to go." This may because I'm so desensitized in the content of the films I watch, or the writing in the film was so good that you can identify and sympathize with Judah much more than his girlfriend. This was an excellent film that has caused me to seek out other Woody Allen films. I highly recommend. -- Levitator

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the viewer gets presented with a film that is entertaining and philosophically relevant. One is allowed to explore much of what is ethical. The film has normative features and also allows the viewer to consider metaethical matters as well. The film's success in portraying normative matters in ethics is evident by examining the murder of Delores and Judah's moral responsibility (or lack thereof). Near the end of the film, the viewer realizes that Judah has adopted an egoist stance on matters of ethics after one learns that his conscience is free of guilt and his life has prospered after having Delores murdered. Possibly, Judah has assumed, if there exists some moral deciding agent apart from himself, then he would not have been rewarded with prosperous years and would have recieved punishment. In the midst of considering normative matters of ethics, one is also making metaethical assumptions in the course of examining this film. One may also consider, as Judah did, whether matters of ethics are objective (independent of the actor) or subjective (dependent of the actor). Judah assumed or concluded in his egoist interpretation that matters of ethics are dependent on himself rather than some other authority like God or one's society. Overall, this film was enjoyable to watch and further contributed to my understanding matters of ethics. -- Sleepy Town

I liked this movie a lot. Woody Allen played the part of a second-rate filmmaker who can’t get a good documentary to his credit. The other character, Judah, works as an eye specialist. Both have crazy stories, but both end up at the same place for the final scene…on a piano bench, talking about Judah’s secret actions. This movie really projects Woody Allen’s feelings on religion and religious involvement. I could tell that he doesn’t really recognize religion in his own life, just by how he portrays the characters and situations in the film. If there were anything that I would change about the film, I would have had Lester assassinated by the mob. I can honestly say that I saw a good movie that was made by Woody Allen. This is amazing! I really wonder where Professor Levy’s ideas came from because they were so in-depth and well stated. It would surprise me if they were created by Woody, himself. At any rate, this film got 10 out of 10 just because I didn’t feel the urge to drift into sleep while viewing it. I really enjoyed the scene at the dinner table, where Judah envisions his family having a discussion about sin. You can tell that this scene is that of Allen’s childhood memories or ideals. I personally liked the film and would recommend it to anyone who likes a good film. -- Talking Man

“Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a Woody Allen movie on Ethics that is very well written and put together. The thing I liked most about the movie was how the two stories dovetail at the end and the husband who murdered his mistress ends up speaking with the director character about his “plot for a movie.” I think the most relevant and interesting portion of the movie is the flashback scene where the husband is seeing all his old-time family sitting at a table in his old house, and his aunt is arguing that morality is relative and that if you can bend the rules to your favor, you should do so. His father, on the other side of the argument, says that you should never bend the rules. He thinks that a person should lead a good life, even if heaven and hell are not legitimate, because he believes people live a fuller life when they are good. The husband eventually goes through with his plan to murder his mistress through a connection his brother has. After it is over, he goes to the apartment where her dead body lay, and he immediately felt remorse. He eventually agrees with his flashback radical aunt, because as time goes by he feels less and less remorse for what he had done, so he feels the set of rules his aunt went by in the flashback seem to be correct. -- Cardinal Sinner
Crimes and Misdemeanors is an incredibly thought provoking and, at the same time, entertaining movie. It follows the struggles of two people in two different ways. Woody Allen’s character is the nice guy. He lives in a way that shows respect and dignity for most other people. Yet, throughout the movie he is continually crapped upon. He comes to fall in love with a relatively nice woman who proceeds to deny his advances. His job is his passion, yet he makes almost no money from it. He takes a job working for his douchey brother-in-law, who makes much more than he does, and, at the end, the woman he falls for ends up with this prick. Judah, on the other hand, is not necessarily nefarious to start out with, but over the course of the movie we come to learn that any moral code he had quickly takes a back seat to his own selfish motives. Whether that is to eventually decide to authorize the murder of a woman to avoid the scandal of an affair and the ruin of his professional life, to, in the end, coming to terms with this heinous act that has plagued him for so long just so he can sleep at night. These two different storylines, to me, portray the absurdity of the existentialist point of view better than most movies. — T.E.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: This movie took me for a spin on how far someone will go just to actually save their own skin. Judah started off as a pretty decent character until Dolores decided that she wanted more and was going to tell if she didn't get what she wanted. It was a turn of events when the subject of murdering her came up. While I can understand that he didn't want anybody to find out about his affair, I thought that this was pretty extreme way of keeping someone from telling a secret. Clifford really was sad to the point because it was a similar situation in the fact of dealing with adulterous affairs. He never ceased to amaze me on how much he showed contempt for Lester. He really doesn't like the fact that Lester is trying to get with the girl that he's interested in. It is amazing to see that after so many times of Clifford warning her of Lester that she still ends up getting with him because she thinks he's changed. At first, she was so persistent on not dating him because she knew how he was with women. It was a really shock for me, and of course Clifford, for her to hook up Lester. I think it was incredibly harsh on her treatment of Clifford when he showed interest and she said she wasn't wanting to date anybody. This was a movie with many different situations happening all at one time. It was a task to keep up, but it made the movie far more interesting to watch and keep up with the storyline. — D.H.

Crimes and Misdemeanors was a very long movie. At the beginning of the movie I was interested, but after a while, I was about to fall asleep. I do however like the overall plot and theme. The characters in the movie were interesting as well. The main character Judah was the typical male figure. He thought it was ok to have the wife with the mistress on the side. He saw nothing wrong with his situation, as long as he didn’t get caught. Once the mistress said she was going to talk to his wife, his life spiraled out of control. He was focused on getting her out of the picture and continuing to live his life with his wife. The filmmaker Cliff has many problems with his relationship. He and his wife are not seeing eye to eye, and eventually he starts to build an emotional connection with his co-worker. He then starts to dislike his wife and her family less and less, and that leads to his demise. Once he finds out about the engagement of the assistant and Lester, he realizes that he has no one left to love and he is left all alone. Both of the characters Judah and Cliff are suffering with choices of morality. Judah has to deal with the guilt of murdering his mistress, and Cliff has issues with his wife and their failing marriage. Neither of the two can openly chose the right thing to do. — C.J.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of my new favorite movies. It was only the second Woody Allen movie I had ever seen. I love his dry wit and self-deprecating humor. I think he’s a great actor as well as a magnificent writer. One of my favorite actors in the film was Anjelica Houston as Judah’s mistress. I feel like she was well-suited for the role and made the character believable (as in the audience believed she would tell Judah’s wife or do something else crazy). I also liked Jerry Orbach as Judah’s mobster brother. His interpretation of morality was pretty interesting; once Dolores was killed, Jack basically said that no one would ever find out so there was no need to worry or feel any negative emotions. He sounded much more logical to me than Judah ever did. I pitied Woody Allen’s character. I wanted him to end up with Hailey and her choice to be with Lester completely changed my view of her. Both Cliff and Judah got involved with other women when they were still married. Judah’s affair was shown as illicit from the start while Cliff’s was perfectly understandable and even evoked sympathy. I enjoyed how Cliff and Judah were separate from one another until the very end. I did not exactly understand the role of Professor Levy or his suicide. I am sure he had a specific purpose in the film but I am not sure what that is. — C.R.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: This Woody Allen film discusses the philosophical issues of morality and existentialism by entering the life of Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist in New York City. Judah begins revisiting his religious upbringing once his conscience is filled with guilt after having his discontented mistress murdered. Once Judah realizes that he will go unpunished because of his social status and connections, his conscience launches him into a philosophical dilemma, in which he must question his faith and morality. When speaking to Judah, Rabbi Ben highlights the two opposing religious philosophies presented in the movie: It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live. From Rabbi Ben’s perspective, Judah represents the existentialist philosophy of religion in that it is nonexistent, and that the world is cold and empty of values. This view contrasts greatly with the not only physically but also metaphorically blind Rabbi Ben, whom director Woody Allen commented on saying: He’s blessed and lucky because he has... the best gift anyone could have. He has genuine religious faith. Once Judah realizes that he will continue living his comfortable life unscathed, his situation becomes an example of moral relativism in that there are no universal moral truths. A flashback Judah experiences in the film presents the two opposing moral philosophies he contemplates. He imagines coming upon his family during a Passover dinner during his childhood, and he asks what the consequence would be if a man killed. His father answers: Then one way or another he’ll be punished. If he’s caught, Saul, interjects his uncle. His father continues: If he’s not caught that which originates from a black deed will blossom in a foul manner. Then his aunt said: And I say if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free. Remember, history is written by the winners. And if the Nazis had won, future generations would understand the story of World War II quite differently. — J.D.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: I really don’t go for Woody Allen films but this was a real treat. It is an incredibly witty film. Woody Allen does not disappoint with this movie. This is a very philosophic and thought-provoking dealing with truth and responsibility. In two separate tales of adultery; a New York eye doctor goes to desperate measures to cover up his long-term adulterous affair and an unhappily married documentary filmmaker fights an adulterous temptation while making his latest documentary on a TV producer. And through all of this the only connection is a Rabbi that goes blind. Which theologizes human morality in an unforgiving way. And even though the doctor murders his mistress you still end up feeling sorry for him. And the opposite goes for the filmmaker, I was disappointed at him for not making the appropriate moves to obtain his happiness. I think you will notice what I mean regarding the plot, sub-plots and underline messages he develops in this film. It will make you laugh. But more importantly this movie makes you really think. It raises significant questions and you can see the angst in the characters as they try to find the answers and reconcile these issues. More importantly the viewer is asked the same questions hypothetically. What would we do? How far would we go to protect our happiness and reputation? How selfish would we be? Is our comfort worth more than another person’s life? All in all it was a great movie. The dialogue is wonderful, the comedy is sharp, and the message is poignant. — B.C.

Crimes and Misdemeanors provided a good discussion of ethical and religious issues. The scene I remember most was a flashback scene in which a devout Jew claimed to prefer God over the truth any day. This seems to me a false dichotomy. Would an atheist prefer science and reason over the truth? Does the choice really have to be made? Of course science, reason and truth are cannot be completely seperated. You cannot wholly separate truth from science and reason. Similarly for the believer it is impossible to separate God and truth. I believe that line was included in the movie just to show that there are some people who are so devoted to a religious system that they reject everything else. Judah claims that “God is a luxury I can't afford”, yet at the end of the movie, it seems to me that Judah is not happy. He has gotten away with his crime, but he has not found peace. This is similar to a story in The Brothers Karamazov. In it a person who is well respected in the community lives his life feeling the guilt of a murder he committed as a young man. After years of carrying this guilt alone he finally confesses to family and friends what he has done. He offers undeniable proof that he was murderer and wants to be punished to absolve his feelings of guilt. In this story the people think he has gone mad and treat him with sympathy when he wants their anger. His inability to pay for his crimes leads him further into despair. I think the character of Judah is similar to this story. Instead of public confession and punishment Judah thinks that a different view of morality will get rid of the guilt but it does not. — N.T.

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