Friday, September 25, 2009

The Movie That Changed My Life

By Shane Gericke

I've climbed a mountain of crime books, swum a river of crime movies. Some were masterpieces. Some were beasts. The vast majority were good and did their job--entertain me for a couple of hours.

But only one made my brain hum about the moral implications of murder and those who commit it.

That movie is Crimes and Misdemeanors, by Woody Allen. It came out in 1989, and my thoughts about crime, punishment, redemption, and living with yourself after committing a terrible act were changed forever.

I grew up as a Boy Scout. Both literally--earning my Eagle at age 15--and figuratively: I firmly believed good always triumphed, bad guys always got caught, and those few who escaped the Long Arm of the Law felt the cancer of guilt eat at them the rest of their cold, miserable lives. It's not surprising, that world view I had: My dad was a policeman, mom a traditional homemaker, we lived in a small town in farm country, and it was the 1950s and '60s. Believing stuff like "winners never quit and quitters never win" and "do the crime, do the time" was easy. The institutions of the time--school, religion, neighbors, parents, media--supported that world view all the way.

Then came 1989 and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

In the movie, Martin Landau is a wealthy, powerful opthalmologist at the height of his Man-ness, complete with adoring wife, well-scrubbed kids, and all trappings of success. But his mistress, Anjelica Huston, insists that he dump his wife and marry her instead. Martin refuses. So Anjelica threatens to blow up his precious little world by going public with the carnal abyss into which he throws himself, night after night. Her revelation would ruin Martin forever.

So he turns to his brother, Jerry Orbach, who's connected with the underworld. Martin is the "good guy," the successful businessman, the community leader, the philanthropist, the family man, the saint. He's the epitome of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," everything that America like to mythify in its leading citizens. Jerry, on the other hand, is the "bad guy," the black sheep, the one who traffics not in platitudes and goodness and Rotary awards, but in harsh, unclothed reality of the street. Naturally, Martin always looked down on Jerry. Until the day he needs him.

Martin mentions his Anjelica problem to Jerry, and how exposure would ruin the life he's worked so hard to build. Jerry says he can get rid of the problem--permanently. Martin agrees ... and the deed is done, violently, at the very moment Martin is receiving yet another public accolade for the Goodness That Is He.

The moral heart of the movie is when Martin finally realizes that he's gotten away with it, and that not only does he not feel guilty and ashamed, as he'd expected, but that he feels at ease, and completely self-justified in having sold his lover to his killer brother. Or, as film critic Roger Ebert explains in his "Great Movies" writeup of this film:

How does it feel to be responsible for the death of another person? Can you live with yourself? "Suddenly it's not an empty universe at all," Judah (Martin Landau) tells Cliff (Woody Allen). God occupies it, and has eyes, and sees. "The man is an inch away from confessing to the police." Then suddenly one morning, he wakes up, the sun is shining, his life is good, and he has returned to "his protected world of wealth and privilege." The moral of this story? "We define ourselves by the choices we make," Judah says. By choosing to have Dolores (Anjelica Huston) murdered, Judah has defined himself as a man of wealth and privilege, respected by society, "idolized" by his wife, and a murderer. He can live with that. (See the entire review at )

And for the first time, I understood that people can and do get away with murder, mayhem and evil and still sleep well at night. That people can live with two contradictory impulses simultaneously, and be just fine.

That compelled me to start considering the moral component of evil deeds and the people who do them, and it has influenced how I treat crime and
criminals--and good guys who sometimes do bad things--in my own writing. Which makes for better, more honest, more human books than I might otherwise write.

So thanks, Woody, for showing me the way.


It's official: I'm the new chairman of ThrillerFest, the four-day annual gathering of writers, readers, editors, publishers, publicists, wannabes, do-bees, and other thriller lovers from around the world. ThrillerFest V--yes, it's our fifth birthday, can't believe it's gone by so quickly--will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City next July. As chairman, my job is to make sure things run smoothly for everyone who's attending, and to ensure that the terrific thriller writers who are our volunteer committee people have the resources they need to put on a really nice show for attendees. Like all the others on the team, I'm a volunteer, too, and it's a labor of love--International Thriller Writers is a tremendous organization, and Tfest is the single best book conference in the world, bar none. Check out the official announcement at, and read all about how my very first assignment as a minty-fresh ITW member back in 2005 was to buy liquor and snacks for a hundred people.

My kinda job.


Because we're still in recession, we're running a terrific deal that you should jump on if you're going to attend ThrillerFest next July. From today through the end of the month, you can sign up at the Early Bird discount rate ... from 2009. That's right, you get the price from 2009. It's a tremendous savings. The catch: you have to register by 11:59 p.m. September 30. One minute later, at midnight, the new prices take effect. Details and registration link are at, right at the top. Do it now!


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Bobby Mangahas said...

That is one of my favorite Woody Allen Movies. I also thought Manhattan Murder Mystery was pretty good.

Hope to see you at Thrillerfest next year Shane.

Jen Forbus said...

Congratulations Shane! I'm sure you'll throw a heckofa party at Thrillerfest! Maybe this needs to be my first...

I haven't seen many Woody Allen films, but MATCHPOINT was one I caught. I seem to remember a fairly similar theme taking place in that movie, but I could be wrong. It's been awhile since I saw it now.

Shane Gericke said...

Yep, I'll see you in NY, RJ.

And Jen, you should come. It's a great time and you can meet a bunch of your fave authors! Me and RJ will buy you a drink ... after all the other Sevens buy you one. We'll get ya plastered fer sure!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Shane - I should have guessed that you are an Eagle Scout! But at the age of 15??!! Overachiever!! We're trying very hard to nag our son through the last of it but he may miss the deadline...

Sophie Littlefield said...

yes i will for sure buy jen a drink :)

Shane Gericke said...

It nearly wasn't an Eagle, Sophie--couldn't swim worth a damn. I got through it on sheer determination and helpful currents in the strip-mine river that we swam in when I was a kid.

Tell your son not to miss the deadline--cause when he's 53, he can blog about it to his friends. That'll motivate him for sure :-)

I'm doing nine-author book signing today at Waldenbooks at the local mall. Should be fun. Be even more fun to sell a few books!