Strangers and Crimes and Misdemeanors: Allen’s Use of Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
22 September 2013
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), arguably Woody Allen’s most existential comedy, follows several characters whose lives inevitably intersect at crucial moments. Among the characters is Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) a respected ophthalmologist with the seeming perfect life: career success in New York, a loving family, and a beautiful home in Connecticut. He also has a mistress of two years, Dolores (Anjelic Houston), an airline attendant. Dolores is madly in love with Judah, so madly, in fact, that she desperately wants him to leave his wife and commit to her exclusively. This demand becomes the only problem in Judah’s life. Thus, Judah enlists the help of his Jack (Jerry Orbach), his brother with mafia connections, who offers to “get rid of” Dolores for good. Judah takes advantage of this offer and Dolores is murdered. Shocked that this plan was actually carried out, Judah breaks into Dolores’ apartment, seeing her dead for himself. Quickly Judah realizes he must get rid of any evidence in her apartment that leads police to him. Eventually, a drifter is blamed from Dolores’ murder, freeing Judah of all consequence. In the film’s conclusion, during a conversation with Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) at a wedding weeks after Dolores’ murder, Judah admits guilt haunted him initially, but now he has moved on.
Early on, one of the film’s characters, Cliff, and his niece come out of a movie, a Hitchcock movie, which is the first of a few references to Hitchcock made in Crimes and Misdemeanors. These references work for Allen because his film, like many of Hitchcock’s, presents a thrilling murder scene, scored with Shubert’s “String Quartette No. 15,” reminiscent of Hitchcock’s musical style. Yet, it is more than the murder and accompanying music that is similar between Allen’s film and Hitchcock’s body of work. Judah’s plotline in Crimes and Misdemeanors seems closely related to the plot of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). In fact, Crimes and Misdemeanors borrows two key roles from Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s females, Anne and Miriam. Allen goes so far as to borrow one of the names directly. Judah’s wife, Miriam, and mistress, Dolores, are replicas of the wife and mistress Hitchcock uses in Stranger on a Train, except that Allen switches the characterizations, making Crimes and Misdemeanors’ wife the feminine ideal and the mistress a reckless woman who must be killed.
Adapted from a novel of the same name, Strangers on a Train captures the moment Guy Haines’ life is unexpected changed. Guy is a tennis star, and a fan named Bruno introduces himself to Guy onboard a train. Bruno knows everything about Guy, including that he is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Miriam and has fallen in love with socialite Anne Morton. Bruno suggests he kill Miriam for Guy and, in return, Guy can kill Bruno’s father, whom Bruno despises. Thinking Bruno is crazed, Guy yeses Bruno and exits the train. Bruno, feeling encouraged, commits his murder; he kills Miriam and seeks out Guy. Panicked, Guy, with Anne by his side, tries escaping Bruno’s madness, but Bruno catches on and quickly understands Guy has no intention of holding up his end of the bargain. Bruno blackmails Guy, threatening to plant evidence that would lead police to believe Guy murdered Miriam. However, in the end, Bruno’s insanity catches up to him; Bruno is killed and peace is restored for Guy. In fact, without Miriam, Guy happily ends up with Anne, the woman he is in love with.
While Strangers on the Train is an entirely different film from Crimes and Misdemeanors, two female roles seem plucked directly from Hitchcock’s film and are inserted into Allen’s work, perhaps in homage from one director to another. First, Strangers on the Train’s Miriam is the same character as Crimes and Misdemeanors’ Dolores. In Hitchcock’s film, the protagonist’s wife blackmails him, but in Allen’s the mistress does the blackmailing. Allen captures a frantic Dolores, a woman on the edge, and dangerous because of her wild behavior. Repeatedly the camera captures Dolores drinking or purchasing alcohol, all contributing to speculation that Dolores is unstable. Hitchcock characterized his Miriam from Strangers on a Train as dangerous also. Miriam admitted she would lie about the father of her unborn child, and was seen gallivanting through a fair with not one but two men who, seemingly, did not know she was married or pregnant. Both women were entirely unrestrained, which, in both cases, threatened the man they were attached to.
Moreover, more subtle connections between the two women exist. For example, Bruno steals Guy’s cigarette lighter, an object he shows Miriam just before her death, as he offer to light her cigarette. Smoking and the cigarette lighter are an essential part of the film. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Dolores and Judah are both smokers, and while a similar lighter in not as essential in Allen’s plot, the parallel characteristic between the characters binds them to Hitchcock’s characters.
Also, in Strangers on a Train, Miriam wear thick glasses, calling attention to her ability to see, in this case to see and opportunity to blackmail Guy for money from his tennis success. Drawing on feminist film theory, the glasses give Miriam a masculine quality, as men are typically the seers because that is a dominant and powerful position. Dolores does not were glasses in Allen’s film, but she does attempt to take power and ends up being a seer. In lieu of glasses, Dolores is occasionally called Del, which removes the feminine tag in her name. De-feminizing is further supported by Allen’s casting of Dolores. Anjelica Houston plays the role, and, although attractive, she is a tall, dark-featured woman. Houston’s physique is not standard for a mistress, particularly when juxtaposed with the women Lester (Alan Alda) constantly introduces as his mistresses. Like Miriam, Dolores, “Del,” blackmails Judah by constantly trying to contact his wife. Therefore, like Hitchcock’s Miriam, she had to die. And, in that death, Dolores keeps her eyes and wide-eyed, which is how Judah finds her on the floor. Although he describes her eyes as black and lifeless, her death did not strip her of sight; Dolores sees just as Miriam did.
Furthermore, if Strangers on a Train’s Miriam is Crimes and Misdemeanors’ Dolores, then Strangers on a Train’s Anne is Crimes and Misdemeanors’ Miriam (Claire Bloom). Anne is the ideal woman, in large part because she never questions anything or tries to take Guy’s masculine power away from him. Allen’s Miriam is exactly the same. Although irritating at times, Miriam is devoted to her husband, Judah, and never attempts to emasculate him. She trusts him blindly, just like she loves him. She never sees the mail which holds Dolores’ letter because she has no reason to go through the mail; Judah will handle bills, engagements, and other responsibilities. Like Anne, Miriam ends up happy in Crimes and Misdemeanor; however, her happiness is bleak for the audience. She is happy because she is clueless, somewhat intentionally blind to her philandering husband’s capability of murder.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is full of references to Chaplin and Keaton, as well as Hitchcock and other Hollywood royalty who influenced Woody Allen. All of these references build meaning into Crimes and Misdemeanors. According to this claim, the inferred reference to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train slants the female characters Hitchcock was working with because it reverses the characterization between wife and mistress. But, even with the slant, building off prior characters easily shapes Dolores and Miriam, which is particularly important in a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors because, with all the characters and subplots present, pre-understood characterization is essential for the audience’s engagement.