...whether we're supposed to take it as a dark comedy or a straightforward melodrama is up to the viewer.... The Coens have always been a little twisted.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I tend to think of "Miller's Crossing" as the Coen brothers' lost film. Many young people I talk to who love the Coens' films are only familiar with their most-recent work like "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Big Lebowski," or "Fargo." But they seldom remember or even know much about the Coens' third film, their off-kilter 1990 gangster yarn. People forget that "Miller's Crossing" was the first film after "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona" to bring the Coens international critical attention. Perhaps because it's the darkest of the brothers' creations, it's the one most likely to be passed over. A shame, really, because it's one of their best movies.

Directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, and written by both Coens, the movie opens in what can be described as either a parody of or a homage to "The Godfather," with a close-up of a man seated in a dark-paneled room talking to a crime boss across a mahogany desk. He's not the undertaker looking to obtain justice for his daughter's rape, however; he's a mob underboss complaining that a bookie is chiseling him, and he wants the big boss's permission to rub him out. He ironically talks of "ethics" and says with a straight face, "If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"

The Coens told cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (the same Sonnenfeld who has since gone on to glory of his own as a director) that they wanted "a handsome movie about men in hats." They wanted a masculine movie and they got one. But whether we're supposed to take it as a dark comedy or a straightforward melodrama is up to the viewer. A little of both, maybe. The Coens have always been a little twisted.

The movie's time frame is the Prohibition Era of the late 1920s or the early 30s, it's unclear, and the setting is a large city, possibly Chicago since it's run by an Irish gang headed by Liam "Leo" O'Bannon (Albert Finney). In real-life, Irish and Italian mobs contended for the Windy City before Capone finally prevailed. Leo is the big cheese, so big he's got the Mayor and the Chief of Police in his pocket. His counselor and most-trusted friend is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a rummy addicted not only to booze but gambling, who sits at his side in all decisions. Tom owes a bookie big time, but he won't let his boss square it; he insists on paying his own debts.

All the same, trouble develops when Tom advises Leo to allow the aforementioned underboss, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), murder a weasel, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who's cheating him. Seems it's an imprudent suggestion, though, because Leo is in love with Bernbaum's sister, a femme fatale named Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and Verna has asked Leo to protect her brother. One other complication: While Leo is thinking of proposing to Verna, Tom is surreptitiously sleeping with her! It's the kind of situation that can break up a good friendship, and Leo is eventually faced with having to decide between his best friend and his best girl, while at the same time trying to deal with a gangland war that's erupting between himself and Caspar.

Basically, and regardless of its serpentine plot twists, the story is about one man, Tom Reagan, and the Coens never let you forget it. Tom is in virtually every scene, and this is his journey, a flight into hell, you might say, a quest to discover if he has a heart, or a trek to lose one. Byrne, with his smoldering good looks and dark, sometimes sinister mannerisms, makes an ideal subject for this modern Dante descent.

Although the movie toys with big themes like love and friendship, loyalty and honor, power and betrayal, it largely turns these traditional values upside down and leaves you, instead, with a series of quick but lasting impressions. Accordingly, rather than fretting the large-scale points, cherish the film's smaller moments.

Take in the beauty and serenity of the woods, for example, that are known as Miller's Crossing, a place where mobsters bring people they're about to execute and where they dispose of the bodies. The location becomes a crossroads in Tom's life as he returns to it twice literally and once more figuratively by the end of the picture.

Notice, too, the great faces the Coens capture, like the little boy staring at the body of a dead gangster in an alleyway and the kid touching the corpse's skewed hairpiece, which just happens to resemble the coat of a dog standing nearby. Wonderful stuff.

Observe the colorful cast of supporting players, so essential to the gangster genre: Not only Leo, Tom, Verna, Bernie, and Caspar, but the menacing Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman), Caspar's right-hand man; and Frankie (Mike Starr) and Tic-Tac (Al Mancini), a pair of Caspar's dim-witted henchmen; and Mink (Steve Buscemi), a weak-kneed underling. Great character roles.

Mark the use of musical irony as every scene is underscored by contrasting tunes: "Good Night, Sweetheart" as Tom gets the crude beat out of him, or "Danny Boy" as Leo, still "an artist with a Thompson" submachine gun, blows away his enemies with alarming accuracy and calm. Yes, the film is violent, and the music makes it all the more brutal for its subtlety and grace.

Additionally, notice the emphasis on hats, the headgear the Coens use so prominently as symbols throughout the film: things like Tom's dreams about losing his hat; Caspar's complaints that he's receiving dismissive treatment, the "high hat"; and the characters' vulnerability without their hats. When Verna tosses Tom's hat away, it's like Delilah cutting Samson's hair. Note that Tom is one smart fellow playing everyone against everyone else, and that in the end there's always that hat. "Nobody knows anybody," remarks Tom, twice, "not that well." It's a good summation of the plot, where every character is shadowy and unknown, and every hat conceals what's in a man's eyes.

Over the years I've heard or read any number of interpretations of "Miller's Crossing." The most arresting ideas involve the frequent homosexual references in the film, particularly to Bernie's character, Mink's, and even Dane's. But when people begin suggesting that a liaison between Leo and Tom underlies their relationship, I have to take pause no matter how well the argument is presented. It would appear that if there's any hint of almost any idea in the film, a person can probably make a case for exaggerating it. Certainly, incest is referred to, and that may have something to do with at least one of the character's actions.

Possible spoiler:
Which brings up a pet theory of my own. I believe Tom Reagan is in fact Tom Hagen of "The Godfather." No, I don't mean they're very much alike; I mean they're actually the same person. Hear me out: Tom Hagen in "The Godfather, Part I" appears to be in his forties during the 1940s, meaning he was probably born around the turn of the century. Tom Reagan is in his early thirties in the early 1930s, so the two Tom's are about the same age. Next, you've already observed the similarity in their names. Could that truly have been coincidental, or did the Coens want us to see the parallel? And you might have also observed that both Tom's are Irish and both are counselors to gangland bosses. Is it possible for Tom Hagen to have been raised by the Corleones, sent to law school, and then to have gone to work for Leo, the Irish crime boss in Chicago? When Tom leaves Leo in the end, where does he go? Back to the Corleones, I figure.

Look for cameos, by the way, from director Sam Raimi as a snickering gunman; Oscar winner and wife of the director Francis McDormand as a secretary; and star Albert Finney as a ladies' room attendant. Yes, Finney put on a black-and-white matron's frock, a wig, lipstick, and makeup for a background shot that lasts all of two seconds. It's that kind of movie.

Wide angle and long shots dominate the picture, so there's an abundance of detail in every frame. The movie's anamorphic widescreen transfer, matted from its original 1.37 aspect ratio, measures about 1.77:1 across a normal television and well captures the many shifting moods and subtle nuances of the story. Tones are often dusky, colors deep and rich, with darker areas of the screen revealing good inner definition. Images are sharply delineated, and hues are brightly represented despite the film's noir look. A few moiré effects are visible, but grain is almost nonexistent. It's basically a terrific picture to look at.

The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 4.0, which does a terrific job in the front channels and almost nothing in the rear. There's a wide stereo spread left-to-right, with good midrange projection and strong dynamics. When sudden, impulsive blasts of noise come out of the silence, they are startling in the extreme. But hardly a peep can be heard from the surround speakers, not even for musical ambience reinforcement.

The most valuable bonus is the new, sixteen-minute featurette, "Shooting Miller's Crossing: A Conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld." Here, Mr. Sonnenfeld, who shot the picture, reminisces about the film's production and what it was like working with the Coens on this film, plus "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona." Next, there is a series of interviews called "Soundbites," with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, and John Turturro, where they, too, reminisce about their work on the film and what they think it all means. Then, there's a still gallery of production photos to look through. The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections and widescreen theatrical trailers for "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink," and "Raising Arizona." English, French, and Spanish are provided as spoken language options, with English and Spanish for subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
I've loved "Miller's Crossing" from day one, and I think it's among the best gangster character studies ever made, albeit a bit of a tongue-in-cheek one. Yes, I also enjoyed 2002's "Road to Perdition," a much more serious look at Depression Era crime, and I would suggest that if you liked that movie, and you're sufficiently open-minded, you're sure to like "Miller's Crossing" equally well. At the moment, it may be an overlooked gem.


Film Value