Despite opening the New York Film Festival in 1990, Miller’s Crossing was buried by a tidal wave of other gangster films that year, including GoodFellas, King of New York, Dick Tracy and The Godfather Part III. They all drew some kind of buzz or hype, whether it was through controversy, awards or a massive marketing blitzkrieg. The Coen brothers’ film was a modestly budgeted film that did not contain a recognizable movie star like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino for audiences to latch onto and, coupled with a detached, distanced approach to the characters and a densely textured plot with several implicit and explicit events occurring concurrently, Miller’s Crossing became something of a cinematic oddity, a critical darling that was ignored by mainstream audiences.
Set during the Prohibition era in an unnamed northeastern city, Miller’s Crossing weaves a complex web as two warring gangs face off against each other. Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), a headstrong Irishman, is the gangster who controls the town, but his power is in danger of being usurped by a rival gang headed by the ambitiously violent Italian, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) and his silent but malevolently evil henchman, Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman). Caught between the two sides is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a brooding thinker and right-hand man to Leo. Tom’s only hope for survival rests in his ability to play off both men until only one side emerges victoriously.
Miller’s Crossing begins with a riff on the opening of The Godfather (1972) except that instead of a man asking for a favor and having it granted from the head of a powerful mob family, as happens in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, the man – Johnny Caspar – is rebuffed and admits that he’s not really asking, “I’m telling you as a courtesy, I need to do this thing so it’s going to get done.” This “thing” is Johnny killing small-time grifter Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for letting word out on a fixed boxing match that the mob boss set up. Besides losing money, Johnny sees this as a betrayal of the highest order as evident from the monologue he delivers about ethics, which is his way of pitching permission to whack Bernie.
All Leo has to do to avoid trouble with Johnny is give up Bernie, but he refuses out of his love for Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), his girlfriend and Bernie’s sister. This decision sets everything in motion. Jon Polito acts the hell out of this scene as Johnny starts off all genial and then he comes on a bit stronger, getting indignant when Leo refuses him and then outraged when Leo tells him, “So take your flunky and dangle.” Johnny is tired of getting the “high hat” from Leo. It’s a fantastic introduction to the three main characters while also setting the story in motion.
The opening credits play over a stately tracking shot looking up through a forest of trees where the film derives its title from while Carter Burwell’s elegant music plays. Finally, a black hat comes to rest in a forest clearing, and then a gust of wind lifts it into the air sending it flying down an avenue of trees. It was the first image the Coen brothers conceived and an image that best describes the evocative, visual style of Miller’s Crossing. Aside from establishing the atmosphere for the film, the opening credits also set up a repeating visual motif of hats.
Tom Reagan is a fixer, someone who can see all the angles and spends the entire film trying to figure out how to play them for his advantage. If he has any weak spot it is an inability to kill someone when he needs to. For someone who, on the surface, shows little emotion, he has strong feelings for those close to him, namely Leo and Verna. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom as an intelligent guy who is always thinking. The actor does a great job of maintaining Tom’s poker-faced façade and uses his eyes to convey the emotions that exist underneath. Over the course of the film, Byrne shows Tom’s internal conflict of logic vs. feeling and how he resolves it to chilling effect.
Miller’s Crossing would introduce two important actors to the Coen brothers’ stable of regulars. Steve Buscemi has a small, but memorable role as Mink, a fast-talking grifter in league with Bernie, but who is also “friendly” with Eddie Dane. He would go on to have memorable cameos in the Coens’ next two films before being given a meaty role in Fargo (1996). John Turturro plays Bernie, Verna’s scheming brother and Tom’s doppelganger. He thinks he has all the angles covered, like Tom does. On the surface, Bernie is all emotion, cracking jokes and, at one point, shamelessly begging for his life, but underneath he is cold and calculated. Tom is generally a good judge of character; able to figure out someone’s strengths and weaknesses. Some people, like Leo and Johnny, are easier to read than others, while some people are more difficult, like Bernie because he’s so similar to Tom, which is why he takes the longest to figure out.
Despite playing an untrustworthy character, Turturro’s charisma gives Bernie a certain charm that is fascinating to watch, especially in the film’s signature scene where Bernie pleads pathetically for his life as Tom has been ordered to kill him out in the forest. Turturro goes to hysterical extremes so that you’re almost hoping Tom will whack Bernie if only to shut him up and silence his incessant pleading. The actor would go on to star in the Coens’ next film Barton Fink (1991) and appear in many more of theirs, always delivering memorable performances.
Marcia Gay Harden is excellent in an early role as a tough-talking dame who loves Tom despite how poorly he treats her at times. As she tells him at one point, “I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride.” Yet, for all of her bravado, Harden also conveys Verna’s vulnerable side when things go sour and she tries to kill Tom. J.E. Freeman has played his share of tough guys and heavies (most memorably in Wild at Heart) and cuts quite an imposing presence as the much-feared Eddie Dane. He knows that Tom is no good for his boss and can’t wait to kill him. Freeman gets his moment when the Dane takes Tom out to the forest to kill him. It really looks like Tom has finally gotten the angles wrong and Freeman’s Dane really makes you fear for the protagonist’s life.
As with all of the Coen brothers’ films, the attention to dialogue, in this case period gangster-speak, is fantastic as characters greet each other with a, “What’s the rumpus?” and throw around racial epithets like, “schmatte.” There’s the snappy back and forth banter between Tom and Verna, Bernie’s smartass pitches to Tom, and Johnny’s gangster philosophizing about ethics. The plotting is also a marvel to behold. The Coens had such a time trying to put it all together that they developed writer’s block while writing the screenplay and wrote Barton Fink before returning back to Miller’s Crossing. In addition to the escalating war between Johnny and Leo, the Coens also devised three love triangles between various characters. There’s the obvious one between Leo, Tom and Verna, however, two others are hinted at: that between Tom, Verna and Bernie, and the one between Mink, Eddie Dane and Bernie. These last two only become readily apparent upon subsequent viewings. If that weren’t enough, there are all kinds of colorful flourishes that the Coens sprinkle throughout, like the tough guy (Mike Starr) who takes off his coat and rolls up his sleeves before laying a beat down on Tom (whose reaction is priceless), or the polite henchman who roughs up Tom for owing money to his boss, only to leave him battered and bruised with kind rejoinder, “Take care now.”
That being said, the Coens did not forsake the visual pizazz of their first two films as evident in bravura scene where a team of rival gangsters tries to kill Leo in his home at night. It’s a wonderful bit of virtuoso filmmaking as Leo dispatches his killers to the strains of “Danny Boy.” For such an exciting action sequence, the rather somber rendition of “Danny Boy” gives it a decidedly melancholic vibe, perhaps hinting at the gradual crumbling of Leo’s empire. This would be the last film Barry Sonnenfeld would shoot for the Coens. He would go on to his own successful directing career. The Coens never broke stride, hiring Roger Deakins to shoot Barton Fink and he’s been there go-to cinematographer ever since.
Originally called The Bighead (a nickname for Tom), Joel and Ethan soon got lost in the intricate plottings of the story and went to stay with their good friend William Preston Robertson in St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping that a change of scenery might help. One night, they went and saw Baby Boom (1987), returned to New York City and wrote Barton Fink in three weeks before returning to the Miller's Crossing screenplay. The first image they conceived was that of a black hat coming to rest in a forest clearing, then, a gust of wind lifts it into the air. Ethan said, "I mean, the whole hat thing, the fact that it's all hats, is good, because even if it doesn't mean anything, it adds a little thread running through the whole thing that's the same little thread." Furthermore, he has said that "the hat doesn't 'represent' anything, it's just a hat blown by the wind." Joel continued, "It's an image that came to us, that we liked, and it just implanted itself." The Coens were interested in making “a film with people who were dressed in a certain manner, hats, long coats, and put them in an unusual context like a forest.”
Interestingly, the Coen brothers weren’t inspired by classic gangster films, but rather fiction of the period. After the cartoonish slapstick comedy that was Raising Arizona (1987), they shifted gears with Miller’s Crossing, a love letter to the works of Dashiell Hammett, a famous pulp writer of the 1930s. The film mixed aspects of crime and corrupt politics involved in running a city from the author’s novel, Red Harvest, with several triangular relationships and sadistic, often homoerotic undertones found in another of his books, The Glass Key. In regards to Red Harvest, Joel said, “It gave us the idea of making a movie where everybody is a gangster … Also typical of Hammett is the enigmatic central character.” The Coens first thought of gangsters in a small town and not a big city. They were also interested in putting an emphasis on ethnicity: “The more established Irish, the recently arrived Italians and the sort of outsider Jews all struggling for a piece of the pie.”
In addition to the literary influences on Miller’s Crossing, the Coens referenced several films. For example, the opening sequence with Johnny Caspar and Leo evokes the beginning of The Godfather. The climactic forest scene references Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970). The film's final scene partially quotes the ending of The Third Man (1949) and The Long Goodbye (1973).
After the success of Raising Arizona, the Coens stayed with the same production company, which gave them between a $10-14 million budget. They decided to make Miller’s Crossing in New Orleans because they were attracted to the look of the city, as Ethan commented in an interview: “There are whole neighborhoods here of nothing but 1929 architecture. New Orleans is sort of a depressed city; it hasn’t been gentrified. There’s a lot of architecture that hasn’t been touched, store-front windows that haven’t been replaced in the last sixty years.”
Gabriel Byrne was a fan of Raising Arizona and eager to work with the Coen brothers. A casting director recommended him to the filmmakers and he was one of many actors that read for the role of Tom Reagan. The Coens originally envisioned the character to be an American, but Byrne decided to use his natural Irish accent and they liked it. The actor found Tom to be a rather enigmatic character and to keep the audience interested in him he sought to convey a vulnerable side. This was achieved in the scenes spent in his bedroom. “That’s when Tom did his thinking; that’s when Tom did his worrying; that’s when he did his plotting and his strategy.”
The Coen brothers knew John Turturro through Frances McDormand (who was married to Joel) and they had seen him in several plays. As a result, they wrote the part of Bernie specifically for him. The role of Johnny Caspar was originally written for a 55-year-old man and the Coens felt that Jon Polito was too young. They wanted him in to play the character of Eddie Dane, but he would only come in and read for Johnny. Trey Wilson, who played Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona, was supposed to play Leo, but two days before the first day of principal photography he tragically died from a brain hemorrhage. The Coen brothers called Albert Finney in London and asked him to take on the role of Leo on two days notice. Much to their surprise, he accepted.
Miller’s Crossing received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “The pleasures of the film are largely technical. It is likely to be most appreciated by movie lovers who will enjoy its resonance with films of the past.” USA Today gave it four out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Often accused of employing jazzy film school ‘tricks,’ the Coens have now gone the other way – all the way. Cold and cut to the bone, the film is a primer in screen virtuosity.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Miller’s Crossing is most fun when the actors bite into their roles. Polito is superb as the gravel-voiced vulgarian Johnny. John Turturro plays Bernie with a giggly hysteria that recalls some of Richard Widmark’s desperate weasels.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott hailed it as “a masterpiece, but of a unique kind. It’s a gangster movie so morally and ethically bleak, it evokes the dead-end world of the ultimate twentieth-century playwright, Samuel Beckett: lower or higher than this, you cannot go.”
In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “And Miller’s Crossing is very much a story of honor among thieves. In its hard heart of hearts, it is a masterfully written and visually unsettling study in manly love.” However, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it, “a movie of random effects and little accumulative impact.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “the double crosses are so intricate and the cynicism so enveloping that it becomes increasingly difficult to care about the characters.”
A brilliant gangster melodrama, Miller’s Crossing is arguably one of their best efforts, if not the best, with complex characters and an attention to detail that makes it one of the most atmospheric films to come along in some time. As Richard T. Jameson said in an issue of Film Comment, “It has always been one of the special pleasures of movies that they dream worlds and map them at the same time.” This is exactly what the Coen brothers do with their film by creating a living, breathing world with authentic period costumes and gangster language of the time. But like their other films, they are clearly aware of the conventions of the genre that Miller’s Crossing is set in and pay to homage to it and parody its elements simultaneously.
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Goodman, Joan. “The Coen Brothers Return to the Screen with Miller’s Crossing.” The Globe and Mail. October 5, 1990.
Jameson, Richard T., “Chasing the Hat.” Film Comment. October 1990.
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