“Whether it’s the Bible or Shakespeare, murder will out.” …Not always.

Judah Rosenthal is not only the most fascinating character in all of writer / director Woody Allen’s long list of creations, he’s also one of the most fascinating characters in all of cinema. As one of the main characters of the ensemble piece Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah is a black hearted hypocrite, a cold blooded killer, and also the most beloved member of his community.

Judah is an eminently respect ophthalmologist living the good life. He has a wife he adores, grown children who are on their way to careers of their own. He has a beautiful house, travels, and discusses ski trips with other well off friends. He’s also having an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores.

As played by Martin Landau in his best performance, Judah is a weak, pathetic character that it’s hard to like. He cruelly strings Dolores along, but he didn’t plan on her being emotionally unstable. She begins to pressure him to leave his wife, which he is unwilling to do. Dolores begins threatening him, not only with exposure of the affair to his wife but also with her knowledge of questionable financial deals that could result in prison.

The answer to Judah’s dilemma is simple, and is spelled out for him by a rabbi Judah is treating – come clean. Whatever the consequences, honesty is Judah’s only hope. However, as previously stated, Judah is weak. He can’t stand the thought of being exposed and losing the adoration of those around him. That’s when he picks up the phone and calls his brother Jack, who has connections with the underworld. In no time at all Dolores is dead, with nothing leading back to Judah.

Tormented by guilt, Judah turns back to the religious teachings he had rejected in his youth. He believes for the first time that there is a God, looking down on him and judging him. His life begins to deteriorate, and he contemplates turning himself in to the police.

The brilliance of Crimes and Misdemeanors is that the Judah plot is one of two. The other story, running parallel with the Martin Landau story, stars Allen himself as a documentary filmmaker forced to make an aggrandizing film about his idiot brother-in-law played by Alan Alda. Along the way Allen falls in love with the films producer, played by Mia Farrow, who encourages him to pursue his true passion, a documentary about a renowned philosopher. It’s all very funny and romantic, vintage Woody Allen.

Now we head into spoiler territory, which I apologize for but it’s necessary to justify Judah’s inclusion in this series. Allen’s character and Judah run into each other at a wedding and end up speaking to each other. Everything has gone wrong for Allen. His marriage is over, the man he wanted to make the film about has killed himself, and Mia Farrow has decided to marry Alan Alda. The comedy has ended in tragedy.

And what of Judah? He’s doing great. He’s worked through the guilt and now doesn’t even think about the horrible thing he did. His marriage is better than ever, the murder was blamed on a vagrant, and all is right in his world.

What makes Judah such a fascinating and ultimately chilling character is that he’s so real. He has caused the death of another human being and, aside from a brief period of guilt, feels no remorse. In his mind it was better for her to die than for him to lose his prestige. After all, what would the world do without him? He’s too important to be taken down by a lowly flight attendant.

How many murderers are out there, living among us? They aren’t all thugs with guns or Charles Manson type serial killers. How many Judah Rosenthals have we met, people with blood on their hands? Have you sat beside them on a plane? Maybe dated their kids? Are they our parents? Our siblings? Our best friends? You say to yourself, “No, no one I know would do something like that!”

An entire community would have said the same thing about Judah Rosenthal, a man considered by all to be a healer. But Judah killed, and in the end he not only got away with it in the eyes of the law, but he worked through the guilt and shrugged it off as if he’d done nothing worse than litter. He is a monster living among us, who’ll never be exposed for what he really is.
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