Friday, April 26, 2013

My Science Project


My Science Project had the misfortune of being released during the summer of 1985 and competed with like-minded movies such as, Weird Science, Real Genius, Explorers, and Back to the Future. As a result, it got lost in the shuffle. This is nothing new as everyone knows how competitive Hollywood is and that summer saw studios trying to attract a youth audience with disposable income via teen comedies that mixed elements of science fiction to varying degrees. In retrospect, My Science Project suffered from a lack of recognizable names (Back to the Future had Michael J. Fox and Weird Science had Anthony Michael Hall) and a pretty unusual premise, but it more than made up for it with imagination, a welcome sense of humor and cool special effects.

Two weeks before graduation, high school senior Michael Harlan (John Stockwell) still hasn’t completed his science project because he’s been working a double shift down at Charlie’s garage, which eats up most of his free time. Bob (Dennis Hopper), his cool science teacher, lays it down for him in simple terms: no project = failing grade and no diploma. Harlan’s your typical gearhead (in a nice touch, when asked what’s his sign he replies, “Pontiac.”), much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Crystal (Pat Simmons) who is tired of being dragged to car shows and junkyards. She’s looking for romance straight out of the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Harlan’s best friend Vince (Fisher Stevens) is a transplant from Brooklyn – a wisecracking Italian stereotype that anticipates the Jersey Shore reality television show by decades. Ellie Sawyer (Danielle von Zerneck) is a nerdy girl on the yearbook committee who is sweet on Harlan despite being the polar opposite of his dream girl. She asks him out anyway and much to her surprise he accepts, but mostly to make Crystal jealous. However, Harlan’s idea of a hot date is taking Ellie to a United States Air Force junkyard that used to be a military testing ground back in the 1950s. He’s looking for something to rebuild and use as his science project. They end up stumbling upon an old fallout shelter and Harlan uncovers a strange, pulsating gizmo that absorbs electricity, draining two flashlights and the battery in his car.

The next day, Harlan takes the gizmo to school and figures out how to activate it. In no time it begins to absorb more electricity and two historical objects materialize. Harlan and Vince realize that time has sped up by two hours. It turns out that the doo-dad warps time and space, causing things from other dimensions to appear. So, our heroes consult Sherman (Raphael Sbarge), a gawky nerd sweet on Ellie, to help them figure it out.


It’s safe to say that Dennis Hopper plays ex-hippie now science teacher Bob to perfection. It’s as if Billy, his character from Easy Rider (1969), somehow survived and became a high school educator. As you would expect, Hopper adds his own unique flourishes to the role, like in his first scene, where he lays down the law with Harlan, he proceeds to take a hit of oxygen after the student leaves. Was Hopper getting a little practice in before making Blue Velvet (1986) with David Lynch? Once the gizmo goes haywire, Hopper has a lot of fun morphing into a mad scientist as Bob loses his mind … or is experiencing one hell of an acid flashback.

Fisher Stevens plays Harlan’s sidekick and comic relief. The actor understands that Vince is all swagger and attitude, cracking jokes to break the tension and as a result, he gets the lion’s share of quotable dialogue, like when the gizmo puts on a snazzy little light show, Vince jokes, “I seen lights like this at an Ozzy Osborne concert.” John Stockwell’s Harlan is a little on the bland side. The actor does a fine job with what he has to work with, which ain’t much. He’s not the most charismatic actor and this may also be part of the problem. This allows Stevens to steal the scenes they have together as the much more colorful character.

Much like Jordan in Real Genius, Ellie is a smart and beautiful nerd. She starts off as a strong, independent character, but by the film’s exciting climax she’s basically reduced to a damsel in distress that Harlan must rescue. That being said, Danielle von Zerneck and Stockwell have good chemistry together as evident in a nice scene where Harlan and Ellie learn something about each other and he confesses to her that he’s better with cars than with people because he trusts them more. 1980s mainstay Richard Masur shows up as a laconic lawman complete with cigar and ten gallon hat. Veteran character actor Barry Corbin plays Harlan’s good-natured single dad and Raphael Sbarge is quite good as the hopelessly geeky Sherman. I like how in one scene we see him deeply immersed in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Nice touch.

For the time and the budget they had, the special effects for My Science Project are pretty impressive, gradually building in scope and spectacle over time as the gizmo gains more power, culminating with Harlan, Vince and Sherman making their way through the mist-enshrouded corridors of their high school caught in the heart of a multi-dimensional warp. Our heroes soon find themselves doing battle with various historical figures from primitive man to Roman gladiators, which are just a warm-up for the main event involving a fantastic stop-motion animated beastie as the school gym is transformed into the Jurassic era. Naturally, if this film were made today it’d all be CGI’ed to death and so, the old school effects give everything a tangible quality that seems more real.


In the early ‘80s, Jonathan Betuel worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm while writing screenplays in his spare time. His persistence paid off when his script for The Last Starfighter (1984) was made. He used this buzz to shop around his script for My Science Project, but would only go with a studio that would allow him to direct it and include an exciting battle between the protagonists and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Producer Jonathan Taplin (The Last Waltz), who was making the effects-heavy dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985), liked Betuel’s pitch and based on the strength of his work on The Last Starfighter, agreed to make My Science Project under his Touchstone Pictures production agreement.

Betuel was a huge science fiction fan and employed the structure of placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations as he remarked in an interview, “You must start with one foot in reality, so you can take that next big step somewhere else.” He cited George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) as partially inspiring his film as well as various theories about time warps being linked to black holes allowing travel through time and space: “I think a time-space warp is a logical and interesting development. That’s the theoretical jumping-off point that I used.” He wrote 14 drafts over 14 weeks on evenings and weekends during principal photography on The Last Starfighter.

Principal photography began in August 1984 with a $10 million budget, $500,000 of which was spent on the T-Rex sequence, and lasted for ten weeks with November dedicated to filming the live-action aspects of the aforementioned set piece. For the puppetry aspects of the T-Rex, the studio had considered Phil Tippett, but he was unable to do it because of busy schedule with The Ewok Adventure. The next person they approached was Rick Baker, but he hedged his bets, not having worked since Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), but eventually took on a consultant role. It is a testimony to Betuel’s strong script and powers of persuasion that a novice director like himself was able to enlist the likes of veteran make-up FX artist Baker and actor Dennis Hopper, the latter whom met with Betuel three times before agreeing to do the film.

My Science Project received mixed reviews from what few critics saw it. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden felt that the film, “started out as a likable teen-age comedy with snappy repartee, turns into a dull, heavy-handed series of encounters between the kids and stick-figure historical creatures that materialize behind overturned gym lockers.” The Globe and Mail’s Salem Alaton wrote, “Because of all the flubbed secondary characters in My Science Project carries around, it hardly coheres until its big moment, and then it simply goes kablooey.” In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen found the “principal pleasure” of the film to be Dennis Hopper’s performance and little else.


If My Science Project teaches us anything it’s that we shouldn’t meddle in things we don’t understand, especially when it threatens the very fabric of our existence. Of all the teen science fiction films to come out in ’85, Back to the Future was easily the most popular, Real Genius went on to develop a small cult following, while My Science Project was relegated to obscurity, not regarded with the same nostalgic love as say Joe Dante’s Explorers. It’s too bad because My Science Project is arguably the most unabashedly fantastical and funny of them all. This particular trend of film reached its zenith with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), which closed out the ‘80s with a light-hearted romp through time and space featuring two goofballs also trying to make their way to the end of the school year. I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for My Science Project as I saw it at an impressionable age. Looking at it after all these years it has aged pretty well and was as fun and entertaining as I remember it being back in the day.


This review was inspired by two excellent takes on this film - The Film Connoisseur and Junta Juleil's Culture Shock.

SOURCES

Lowry, Brian. "Jonathan Betuel: SF Fan, SF Filmmaker." Starlog. June 1985.

Rebello, Stephen. "Shooting for an 'A' on My Science Project." Cinefex. August 1985.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Falling from Grace


Rock stars that attempt to make the move from the stage to the big screen are often met with cynicism and outright condemnation. Just look at how the likes of David Bowie, Sting and especially Madonna have been regarded by critics. With the notable exception of Bowie, most of the criticism has been warranted as either their on-stage charisma failed to translate on-screen or they just delivered terrible performances. And so, when John Mellencamp made, not just his acting debut, but also directing, it was anticipated as merely the latest rock star hubris.

However, several critics were surprised at how good Falling from Grace (1992) was. Mellencamp was smart in that he didn’t stray far from his strengths by portraying a successful singer/songwriter who returns home to face his past. Known for making music that not only celebrates America’s heartland, but also examines its darker aspects, he wisely asked author Larry McMurtry to write the screenplay. His novels Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show feature the kinds of characters that Mellencamp wrote about in many of his songs so the two of them seemed like a good fit. Unfortunately, Falling from Grace was barely released in theaters and tanked at the box office. It was quickly relegated to obscurity and regarded as yet another example of rock star folly, but deserves to be rediscovered.

Bud Parks (John Mellencamp) is a successful musician who returns home for his grandfather’s 80th birthday and on the surface he’s greeted with warm smiles and open arms, but old wounds are soon reopened. As with his songs, Mellencamp has a good eye for the details of life in Middle America with its small-towns populated by pickup trucks of everyday people struggling to get by. Bud’s sister Sally (Deirdre O’Connell) is upset because her husband Mitch (John Prine) drinks too much and is never around. Bud’s brother Parker (Brent Huff) is married to P.J. (Kay Lenz), the musician’s high school sweetheart. There’s still something between her and Bud, which surfaces upon his return, much to the chagrin of his wife Alice (Mariel Hemingway). The main source of strife stems from Bud’s father Speck (Claude Akins), a real piece of work whose past bad behavior casts a dark cloud over the entire family.

Falling from Grace is a character-driven film propelled by their behavior as opposed to the plot. Fortunately, McMurtry’s script is populated by well-developed characters with complicated relationships between them. As he demonstrated with books like The Last Picture Show, McMurtry has an innate understanding of how small-towns work and the secrets that exist in the people that populate them. Mellencamp came from this kind of town and so he is able to tap into the author’s sensibilities rather comfortably and confidently for he not only knows these people, he is one of them. As a result, we get a montage of picturesque small-town America and Bud interacting with various townsfolk. Where an outsider might look at these people condescendingly, Mellencamp has an affinity and affection for them.


On the acting front, Mellencamp wisely doesn’t stray from his comfort zone, playing a character close to himself and thanks to the music videos he’s done over the years, the singer is comfortable in front of the camera. Some reviewers saw Falling from Grace as a vanity project, but Mellencamp portrays Bud as a character full of flaws. One gets the impression that Bud left town to avoid turning out like his father and was successful, but returning has also brought back old habits. Alice even calls him on it, reminding him that he didn’t grow up until he left town and that if he stays home he’ll end up just like Speck. Mellencamp understands this push and pull dynamic all too well because he’s lived it. He gets and conveys the contradictions that exist within Bud, which is quite an accomplishment from a novice actor.

It helps that Mellencamp surrounds himself with veteran actors like Mariel Hemingway and Claude Akins, with the former playing Bud’s strong and smart wife, and the latter playing his monstrous father. Hemingway eschews the trophy wife stereotype by playing a woman that loves her husband, but refuses to live in a toxic environment like the one she finds herself upon returning with Bud to his hometown. Akins is very good as an abusive man who specializes in sleeping with married women and who is used to getting what he wants, not caring who he hurts in the process.

Originally, John Mellencamp was approached to star in films like the ones Elvis Presley did, but he wasn’t interested nor did he want to make his life story. He had always written songs about small-towns and was interested in making a film about one that would be an extension of his songwriting. Around 1982 or 1983, he got together with long-time friend and author Larry McMurtry at his home in Indiana. He stayed with Mellencamp for a week and during that time they talked about a story involving a successful Los Angeles country singer who returns to his small-town to rediscover his roots. They both agreed that they would not romanticize the subject as Mellencamp remarked, “I never liked putting rose-colored glasses on things.” McMurtry returned home and wrote the screenplay, which was then called The Kentuckian. The project bounced around four different studios over 10 years with an initial budget of $20 million, but none of them were willing to finance it unless Mellencamp sang in it and did not direct. He stuck to his guns and Columbia Pictures eventually agreed to back it, but only if he could do it for a lean $3 million. The singer agreed.

Prior to making the film, Mellencamp had come off a grueling tour for The Lonesome Jubilee album and contemplated retiring from touring. He took up oil painting as a hobby, which excited him more than making albums. Three years and one divorce later, he had finished another record and made Falling from Grace. In order to get the film made on a modest budget, Mellencamp called in a lot of favors from friends and acquaintances. Appearing in music videos helped Mellencamp act in front of the camera, but running a group of musicians helped prepare him for directing: “In rock ‘n’ roll you’ve got the roadies; in movies you’ve got all the technical people. Then there’s the talent – the guys in the band and the actors. In both jobs, you move these people around and direct them.”


Over that time, the film’s title had changed to Riding the Cage until principal photography when Larry Crane, one of Mellencamp’s bandmates, wrote a song called, “Falling from Grace.” Mellencamp liked it so much that he decided to name the film after it. Not surprisingly, music plays an important role in the film. In addition to Crane’s song, Nanci Griffith supplied one called “Cradle of the Interstate,” Janis Ian provided “Days Like These,” and Mellencamp wrote “Sweet Suzanne,” assembling a group to record it that consisted of himself, McMurtry’s son James, Joe Ely, Dwight Yoakam, and John Prine, who also wrote a song called, “All the Best” for the film.

Falling from Grace received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Mellencamp turns out to have a real filmmaking gift. His film is perceptive and subtle, and doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that because something is real, it makes good fiction. The characters created here with McMurtry are three-dimensional and full realized.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman called it, “a movie of heart, subtlety, and dramatic zest.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Mellencamp does bring out the naturalness of his actors, and he has assembled a large and believable cast. Although his own performance is often passive, he is surrounded by characters who have a galvanizing effect.”

However, the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “This thorough embarrassment, the cinematic version of vanity publishing, takes 45 minutes to begin to be about anything … and ends up being about nothing at all – except Mellencamp’s desire to direct a movie starring himself.” USA Today gave it two out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “The result, sincere to a fault, plays like a collection of soul-bearing scenes that couldn’t be jury-rigged to dramatic effect.” Mellencamp blamed the film’s commercial failure on a lack of advertising from the studio and said, “It wasn’t something that could come out of the chute real strong and finish real quick, and make millions for the company … Ten years ago – 20 years, maybe – people found those little movies interesting. They just don’t anymore.”


Bud is used to the rarefied atmosphere of a celebrity where everyone tells him what he wants to hear and this makes him susceptible to bad habits. He’s grounded by the women in his life – his wife and his sister – that aren’t afraid to call him on his bad behavior, but it is ultimately up to him to change. Once he realizes this and then acts on it can he finally put the past behind him. Falling from Grace is a slice of Americana, albeit one that celebrates the postcard perfect façade as well as exposing the dirty secrets that exists underneath. This film is a potent example of the old adage that you can’t go home again.



SOURCES

Bream, Jon. “Renaissance Rocker.” Star Tribune. March 6, 1992.

Falling from Grace Production Notes 1992.

Graff, Gary. “Mellencamp Film Finished After 9 Years.” Baltimore Sun. November 20, 1991.

Harris, Paul A. “The World’s A Canvas for John Mellencamp.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 22, 1992.

Kot, Greg. “Mellencamp Tries His Hand at Film.” Chicago Tribune. January 19, 1992.

Larsen, Dave. “There’s Still A Little Cougar in the Art and Artistry of John Mellencamp.” Vancouver Sun. February 26, 1992.

MacInnis, Craig. “No American Fool.” Toronto Star. February 16, 1992.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bachelor Party


I had to laugh when I read reviews describing the raunchy comedy The Hangover (2009) as "fresh" and "edgy." Obviously, these critics had never seen Bachelor Party (1984), which came out in the mid-1980s and is a much edgier, raunchier comedy because it was made at a time when movies like that could get away with a lot more. Does The Hangover have a donkey snorting lines of cocaine? I think not. Does The Hangover have a two-time Oscar winner playing its protagonist? I think not. Yes, Bachelor Party stars a so unfunny it's funny Tom Hanks in a performance I'm sure he'd like to forget as Rick Gassko, a wild and crazy guy (in the Steve Martin sense) whose friends throw him a bachelor party to end all bachelor parties.

Like many protagonists in ‘80s comedies, he is a man-child with a job befitting his social status: school bus driver. His best friends also have blue-collar jobs – department store portrait photographer, incompetent mechanic, concert ticket seller, and barely literate waiter. They all work 9 to 5 jobs and live for the weekend. If you like raunchy comedies from the '80s featuring Adrian Zmed, then this one might be for you. Bachelor Party sets out to offend as many people as possible and succeeds. So, here are 15 highlights (or lowlights depending on your view) from this beautiful disaster of a movie that has fascinated me and my friends for years.

1. “Let’s have a bachelor party! With chicks and guns and fire trucks and hookers and drugs and booze!” Rudy (Barry Diamond) is the obvious John Belushi surrogate, a vulgar party animal that shoves food in his mouth, smashes beer bottles against his head when excited, and makes a toast to “girls with big tits” without a hint of irony.
 

2. Tawny Kitaen: She plays Debbie, Rick’s fiancée who works with her friends at a hip (well, for the ‘80s) clothing store. People tend to forget that Tawny was quite the sex symbol back in the day thanks in large part to the Whitesnake music videos she appeared in three years after her stint in Bachelor Party. Here, she plays Rick’s dream girl – all adorable curls and instantly dated new wave fashion sense. There’s something nice about seeing her at the apex of her hotness instead of the hot tabloid mess she later became known for.

3. “A little vino would be keen-o.” Early in his career, Tom Hanks was known for appearing in popular comedies like Splash (1984) and Big (1988) so it’s rather interesting to see him so thoroughly unfunny in this movie. Every joke he tells feels forced and falls flat, from his unorthodox cooking skills to crappy tennis playing. In fact, it gets so bad that he becomes unintentionally funny. This is no more apparent than in the scene where Rick prepares dinner for Debbie and himself culminating in a hilariously awkward moment where he selects Paprika to be his spice of choice for the meal. It makes you long for the meaningful subtext in The Man With One Red Shoe (1985).

4. Slobs vs. Snobs: Animal House (1978) laid down the blueprint for so many other comedies to follow and Bachelor Party is no different as Debbie’s very rich, ultra-conservative parents understandably disapprove of their beautiful daughter marrying an “immature asshole.” Her father (George Grizzard) even lists off all of Rick’s bad qualities, which only provokes the future son-in-law to be more obnoxious (and unfunny) at a lunch with her folks.

5. Cole (Robert Prescott): Every slobs vs. snobs comedy has to have a villain. When he’s not crushing tennis balls with one hand, Cole is enlisted by Debbie’s dad to pay off Rick and when that doesn’t work he proceeds to repeatedly sabotage the bachelor party. Much like William Atherton, Prescott was typecast in the ‘80s for playing asshole antagonists and would go on to play the dimwitted bully in Real Genius (1985). Fortunately, the actor managed to escape playing a lifetime of pompous jerks when he appeared as an efficient corporate assassin in Michael Clayton (2007).

6. Brad (Bradford Bancroft): Hey, if you can’t laugh at a suicidal drug addict, then who can you laugh at? The filmmakers will go to any lengths to get a laugh and at one point poor Brad tries to slash his wrists with an electric razor prompting Rick to deadpan, “Well, at least your wrists will be smooth and kissable.”

7. Battle of the Sexes: Throughout Bachelor Party, Rick and his friends play practical jokes on Debbie and her pals only for them to retaliate. For example, when O’Neill (Adrian Zmed) screens a porno for his buddies they find out that all the dirty bits have been cut out. So, when the girls go to see some male strippers, the guys pay one of them to serve some food with his dick in a hot dog bun. Hey, they don’t call him Nick the Dick for nothing.

8. “You’re a pimp? You look like Gandhi!” The film’s casual attitude towards racism first rears its head with an Indian pimp that supplies Rick’s party with hookers. He’s actually not too bad – certainly better than Ken Jeong’s overt Asian stereotype in The Hangover. However, Bachelor Party more than makes up for it later on.

9. The Power of Zmed: Photographer, fashionista, singer (but only with all-girl bands) – Adrian Zmed is a true renaissance man. He was all things to all men, and judging from his antics in Bachelor Party, several women as well. With Hanks proving to be consistently unfunny throughout the movie, Zmed picks up the slack and makes Bachelor Party halfway watchable as Rick’s best friend O’Neill. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t have any pressure to carry the picture and that frees him up to steal it away from Hanks as he channels Tim Matheson at his smarmy best in Animal House with his smartass ladies man. Or maybe it’s his raw sexuality. Hell, Zmed is even able sell crude lines like, “Hey, look at the cans on that bimbo,” and make them sound amusing.

10. Sex with a transvestite: Nerdy concert ticket seller Gary (Gary Grossman) finally hooks up with a woman and she turns out to be a transvestite named Tim, which sends a stunned Gary to the bathroom for a Silkwood shower. You have to hand it to the filmmakers for leaving no stone unturned when it comes to offending. Yep, they even try to piss off transvestites with this crude joke.

11. Gratuitous nudity: ‘80s R-rated comedies were known for their liberal, dare I say cavalier use of nudity. Remember, this was before the Internet when people had to rent videos to get their fix. O’Neill sets Rick up with Tracey (played by Penthouse Pet Monique Gabrielle) and while she offers up her fetching naked body, he can’t do it because he’s loyal to Debbie.

12. “Any of you guys from out of town?” Debbie and her friends decide to infiltrate Rick’s bachelor party dressed as hookers only to get mistaken as actual prostitutes and are delivered to a room full of pervy Asian businessmen in the movie’s most blatantly racist moment. Even more disturbing is when one of Debbie’s friends stays behind so that everyone else can escape; thereby implying that she is gangbanged by the Asian businessmen.

13. Max the Magical Sexual Mule: “Something interesting is going to happen here,” foretells Rick as an exotic dancer and her mule entertain the bachelor party. While she’d dancing, Max decides to help himself to a buffet of pills and three lines of cocaine. He then proceeds to go apeshit and promptly drops dead from an overdose/heart attack thus saving us all from an inevitable bestiality gag. The Hangover has a tiger? Big deal. They don’t have Max whose drug habit would make Hunter S. Thompson proud.

14. Best reaction shot EVER! Now, there's an actor who knows how to commit to a performance. Our heroes hide the recently deceased Max only for the beleaguered hotel manager to discover the animal. His scream of revulsion still haunts me to this day.

15. “This is the best 3-D I’ve ever seen!” The early ‘80s saw a revival of 3-D movies and Bachelor Party decided to spoof/comment the trend by having the climactic showdown between Cole and Rick take place in a movie theater with their fight mirroring the one the audience is watching in a meta moment evoking Sherlock, Jr. (1924). Take that Buster Keaton! As an added bonus, they also parody the notion of multiplexes by having Rick and co. search through 36 theaters crammed in one building; including one “screening room” that is a janitor’s closet.

And with Cole vanquished, Rick and Debbie get married and head off for the honeymoon in his school bus with Brad driving, having found a new lease on life. Tom Hanks would never look back, going on to become a well-respected, award-winning actor, while everyone else involved with Bachelor Party wasn’t as successful, most of them are still working in show business in some form or another. Now that he’s become a well-respected actor, one would expect Hanks to pretend that the movie never happened or embarrassed by it, but on the contrary, in 2009 he did an interview with Empire magazine and said, “I’m proud of a lot of the stuff in Bachelor Party. I think I’d just turned 27 years old and I’m ripping it up. We all did. Ripped it up.” That you did, sir. That you did.


Special thanks go to Matt and Rob for their spot-on observations and recollections that were invaluable to this article.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Miller's Crossing


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.


SOURCES

Bergan, Ronald, The Coen Brothers, Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, 2000

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, "A Hat Blown By The Wind," Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, edited by Paul A. Woods, Plexus: London, 2000, pp. 91

Dudar, Helen. “Gabriel Byrne, Bound for Miller’s Crossing.” The New York Times. September 16, 1990. Pg. 19.

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.

Levine, Josh, The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers, ECW Press: Toronto, 2000.

Levy, Steven, "Shot By Shot," Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, edited by Paul A. Woods, Plexus: London, 2000.