In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations about one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, is my subsequent entry on Raising Arizona.)
Notes on Miller’s Crossing (1990):
• Miller’s Crossing may not be the Coens’ best film—that would probably have to wait almost two more decades—but it has been my favorite ever since its release. I saw it in the theater at least four times, and on at least one occasion remember weeping quietly during the title sequence (the skyward gaze into the forest canopy, the plaintive oboe of Carter Burwell’s score…). It is without question the movie on whose behalf I have proselytized most obsessively in my lifetime. To know me in the early 1990s was to be harangued with the necessity that you see the movie right now.
• What was not to like, after all? Following the commercial success of Raising Arizona, which made $22 million on a $6 million budget, the Coens were granted the money (accounts vary, but somewhere between $11 million and $15 million) to make a substantially more ambitious film. They settled for a period gangster film loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (also the inspiration for Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars) with elements from the author’s Red Harvest (which gave Blood Simple its title) thrown in as well. But the movie’s nods and references go far deeper. The opening scene, in which Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) confronts Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is an obvious nod to the opening of The Godfather: another small, balding Italian man, asking a lethal favor of a crime boss seated behind a large desk, while throwing in a reference to people behaving like “animals.” (The fact that Tom, Leo’s de facto consigliere, has a name essentially separated from “Tom Hagen” by a single consonant also seems unlikely to be a coincidence.)