When Woody Allen first decided to make ''serious'' movies like his idol, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, his furious comedy fans yearned to rise up and storm his house like the lynch-mob villagers in Frankenstein. They had a point: Allen's early non-comic style could be described as Bergmanic depressive.
But Crimes and Misdemeanors, his latest drama, is no slavish homage to anyone else's style. Allen plays a variation on his typical character Cliff, a guy on the edge, a quip-addicted schlemiel who flops as a husband, adulterer, and breadwinner. But he stands for something: romantic love and devotion to art. His wife, cold as liquid nitrogen, boycotts their marriage bed because his thoughtful documentaries never earn a dime.
Cliff's story runs parallel to that of the movie's main character, Judah (Martin Landau). Judah has everything: a rich ophthalmology practice, a gorgeous wife (Claire Bloom), and a dark and troubled mistress (Anjelica Huston) who's trying to pull a Fatal Attraction on him. He must desperately intercept her incriminating notes and phone calls to his wife. Judah's shady brother (Jerry Orbach) proposes a solution: knock her off.
Judah's dilemma could be a formula for empty suspense or cynical slapstick. But Allen uses it as a spyglass into Judah's heart. In the Bible, Judah was the son of Jacob, who wrestled with the angel. Allen's Judah sweats and grapples too. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a rarity, a movie that poses religious questions without seeming ridiculous.
Allen interweaves his tales with a master's hand, and elicits performances to match. Sam Waterston is deeply moving as a rabbi losing his sight but not his faith, and Alan Alda does his first superb work on film as the rabbi's brother, a fanged clown of a TV producer. Martin Landau's starring role is the capstone to a distinguished acting career. Crimes and Misdemeanors may be talky and philosophical, but it is one of Woody Allen's best movies yet.