The film follows two stories: the "A" story is about Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful opthamologist and active philanthropist, struggling to break free of a mistress who wants him to leave his family for her. The "B" story is about Cliff Stern (Allen), a documentary filmmaker who finds popular culture and materialism repellent. Rosenthal is forced to make a fateful decision by his insistent mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston), while Stern, hopeful to complete his masterwork, agrees to profile his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a wealthy and successful television producer Stern considers shallow and crass, and finds himself falling for Lester's assistant Halley (Mia Farrow).
Tropes appearing in Crimes and Misdemeanors include:
- Author Avatar: As usual, Woody's character is a Deadpan Snarker with relationship issues.
- A Rare Sentence:Cliff: A strange man... defecated on my sister.
- Big Brother Worship: Cliff's wife Wendy is Lester's sister. It's unclear which is the older sibling, but Wendy greatly admires her brother.
- Body Motifs: The eyes. Judah's father, a religious man, was fond of saying that "The eyes of God are on us always" when Judah was a boy. Judah grew up and became an opthamologist. Judah's rabbi went blind right about the same time Judah had Dolores killed. When Judah visited the scene of the crime, he found Dolores dead but with her eyes still open. He took a moment to close them.
- Cool Uncle: Cliff is this to Jenny.
- Covers Always Lie: The image most commonly used for this film shows Martin Landau and Woody Allen sitting next to each other. In fact, their characters share exactly one scene.
- Death Seeker: Arguably Dolores. She repeatedly threatens to ruin Judah's life both personally (by revealing their affair to his wife) and professionally (by letting his partners know of his embezzlement). Assuming she knows of his gangster brother, it's not hard to guess what he might resort to. Could also qualify as an Idiot Ball if she wasn't deliberately seeking death.
- Dies Wide Open: Dolores. Her dead eyes pierce through Judah's soul.
- Doing It for the Art: Cliff. His wife Wendy urges him to use his filmmaking talents for greater financial gain and peer recognition. To that end, she arranges for her brother Lester to get profiled by Cliff.
- Driven to Suicide: Woody's favorite documentary subject, a professor who seems to have a sunny outlook on life, kills himself. Cliff is especially depressed about his suicide note: "I've gone out the window."
- Gallows Humor: Honestly, a story about a man whom Cliff's sister meets through a personal ad and debases her and might have raped her shouldn't be funny - but it's hilarious.
- Heel Realization: Judah. Subverted in that he learns he can live quite comfortably with his deeds.
- Idiot Ball: Cliff is offered a high-paying, high-profile job by his arrogant but well-connected brother-in-law Lester to create a hagiographic documentary that could potentially lead to more lucrative work. Instead, he deliberately sabotages it by comparing the egocentric Lester to Mussolini, getting himself fired.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Judah uses this as a personal mantra as an excuse for killing Dolores.
- Ignored Epiphany: Judah realizes what he's doing is morally bankrupt, and agonizes over it, then just shrugs and basically says I Am a Monster and a Villain with Good Publicity and lives with it.
- Jerkass Has a Point: While Lester is indeed an arrogant and narcissistic egotist, he's also spot-on when he calls Cliff a loser and says that he needs to grow up. Cliff's attitude has made it all but impossible for him to be gainfully employed.
- Karma Houdini: Judah isn't even suspected of having his mistress murdered, let alone punished.
- Large Ham: Lester.
- Ominous Legal Phrase Title: From the use of the term in US impeachment proceedings.
- Meaningful Name: Dolores spends most of the movie severely depressed. "Dolores" means "sorrows".
- The Mistress: Dolores.
- Mood Whiplash: From tragedy to comedy and back again.
- My Card: Detective: "If you remember anything that might help..."
- My God, What Have I Done?: Judah experiences this, but he gets over it.
- Serial Numbers Filed Off: Lester is basically Larry Gelbart, whom Woody Allen and Alan Alda had both worked with and weren't enamored of. The quotes Lester makes like "Comedy is tragedy plus time"? Gelbart constantly prattled those aphorisms on the set of M*A*S*H and elsewhere. Also falls under the No Celebrities Were Harmed trope.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The Central Theme of the film, and basically what Judah tells Cliff when Cliff suggests a Happy Ending for the "story" Judah tells him (which he doesn't know is actually a confession.)Judah: What do you expect him to do? Turn himself in? I mean, this is reality. In reality, we rationalise, we deny, or we couldn't go on living.
Cliff: Here's what I would do. I would have him turn himself in. 'Cause then, you see, your story assumes tragic proportions because, in the absence of a God, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.
Judah: But that's fiction. That's movies. You see too many movies. I'm talkin' about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.
- Take That!: Cliff, to Lester. Cliff screens his profile doc for Lester, who is treated to seeing himself making a sleazy pass at an actress and hearing his words set to footage of Benito Mussolini and Francis The Talking Mule. Lester was not amused.
- This Loser Is You: Cliff is idealistic and well-intentioned, but he doesn't have the maturity to realize that he can't support himself financially with the types of projects that we wants to pursue. Cliff quit his job as a newsreel editor and then intentionally sabotages an opportunity that his brother-in-law reluctantly gave him (true, it was a demeaning assignment, but a more realistic and enterprising person than Cliff have used the money and publicity as a launchpad for bigger and better things). Cliff becomes a case study in pig-headed, misplaced idealism when he ultimately winds up at a place in life where nobody except his twelve year-old niece likes his company or takes him seriously.
- Villain Has a Point: Jack tells Judah that the right time to confess was to his wife about his affair before any actual crimes were committed, not to the the police after having his inconvenient mistress murdered.
- Yandere: Dolores.