30 Years of Coens: Miller's Crossing

An overdue love letter to the extraordinary meta gangster movie

Twentieth Century Fox

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.)

• The ending of Miller’s Crossing makes even clearer reference to the immaculate final scene of The Third Man: a funeral, a protagonist abandoned by his car, who watches as the last person he cares for in the world walks away down a dirt road hemmed by trees. (Yes, the love interest and best friend roles are inverted here, but you get the point.) And while it may be more of a stretch, I’ve always heard echoes of All the King’s Men throughout the film as well, with Tom standing in for Jack Burden, Leo for Willie Stark, and Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) for Anne Stanton. And despite the different roles the locales play, “Miller’s Crossing” sure seems to evoke “Burden’s Landing.” Did I give this too much thought in my early twenties? Yes, I did.

• Of course, plenty of films that abound with clever references nonetheless make for lousy cinema. But Miller’s Crossing is an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order on nearly every level. Begin with its almost intolerably sumptuous cinematography, with reds and greens so deep one is in danger of falling into them. This was the last film that Barry Sonnenfeld shot for the Coens—and one for which he persuaded them to use long lenses instead of the wide-angle variety they had favored—and no one involved has mustered a better-looking work since. The production design by Dennis Gassner is comparably extraordinary: the long, long oak rooms with their endless oriental rugs and all the furniture seemingly tucked into one corner.

• And did I mention the score? It is not only the best work Carter Burwell has done for the Coens (or anyone else), it set a model that he would later follow for his almost-as-good scores for Fargo and True Grit: taking a traditional piece of music with some culturally relevant connection and using it as the central motif of the broader arrangement. In this case, it was the Irish ballad “Limerick’s Lamentation.” (It’s usually played on a fiddle, I think, but here’s an interesting version on a hammered dulcimer.) Burwell’s score has lived on since: It was used for the trailer of the (astonishingly bad) Melanie Griffith vehicle Shining Through as well as that of at least one other 1990s movie I can’t quite recall at the moment. [Update: It came to me after publication that the trailer I was thinking of was for the 1995 movie Powder. In addition, I was reminded that the score was used in the trailer for The Shawshank Redemption(!) in 1994.] It also served, as I recently discovered, in an ad for Caffrey’s Irish Ale. It is one of the truly great film scores of the last 30 years.

• Befitting its Hammettian roots, the plot of Miller's Crossing is fairly convoluted, a fact that is made all the more noticeable by the extraordinary informational density of the dialogue. Characters are discussed before they’re introduced, unfamiliar slang (e.g., “twist” for woman) peppers the chatter, and the plot rarely slows down long enough to be usefully untangled. One exchange, following the attempt on Leo’s life, is so abbreviated that it’s almost as if the characters are speaking in code:

Tom: Who's winning?
Terry: We are, for the nonce.
Tom: What's the disposition?
Terry: Four to one. Dana Cudahy went up with the house.
Tom: And theirs?
Terry: One burned...
Tom: The other three...?
Terry: Lead...
Tom: Whose?
Terry: Leo's... the old man's still an artist with a Thompson.

One could make the case that this willful complicatedness is a flaw. (It is certainly true that Miller’s Crossing benefits from a second—or probably 22nd—viewing.) But it is of a piece with the rest of the movie, which plays less like a classic gangster film than like a 99 percent pure, Heisenberg-quality, blue-crystal distillation of all the tropes and themes and moods of the classic gangster film. It is an intoxicating achievement in cinematic chemistry.

• It wasn’t until I was preparing to write this installment that I read Roger Ebert’s original review of the movie, in which he expressed a fair amount of skepticism. He cited the unearthly perfection of Leo’s office (“What a wonderful room”), the refinement of the dialogue (“People make threats and we think about how elegantly they are worded”), and the overall polish of the film (“Everything is too designed”). His conclusion: “This doesn't look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie.” As if that were a bad thing! Ironically, I often made a near-identical case on behalf of the movie back in my proselytizing days—yes, I am pretending that this post is not an extension of them—noting to friends that virtually every frame is so immaculately composed as to look like an ad in a magazine.

• In Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, the Coens offered their most conventional leading man (smart, handsome) to date, and arguably since. He is by no means a prototypical hero, but he stands notably apart from the parade of schnooks and oddballs who typically populate their films. However flawed, brooding, and even cruel he may be, overall Tom is a sympathetic, attractive, and even admirable character. (Not as admirable as, say, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, but considerably less offbeat.) These may be “conventional” attributes to look for in a protagonist, but they play a substantial role in why most of us go to the movies. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Byrne delivers the best performance of his career here. (Yes, better—much better—than that in The Usual Suspects.) Nor were Byrne’s contributions limited to his performance. The Coens initially conceived of their Irish mob characters as fully assimilated: It was Byrne who persuaded them to let him play the character in his natural accent. This was no small feat: The Coens were famous for arriving on set with a finished script and storyboards from which they allowed no deviations. (This was the primary reason for the friction with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona: He offered many ideas for tinkering with his character; few, if any, were used.) And if all that were not enough, it was Byrne, too, who recommended "Limerick’s Lamentation," the traditional Irish song from which Burwell built his magnificent score.

• A few words about Tom’s hat, the hat, perhaps the most character-defining piece of headgear to hit the screen before Timothy Olyphant put on Raylen Given’s Stetson. The Coens are characteristically mum on its meaning, but the general contours seem clear enough. It is Tom’s cloak and his armor. It keeps his motives and intentions hidden (“under his hat”) and it protects his brain, his “smarts,” his “thinking” from the weaknesses of his “heart.” (The words “smart,” “think,” and “heart,” appear in pretty much every scene with Tom, the first two always in direct opposition to the third.) Without his hat, Tom is vulnerable—not merely physically (though he certainly is that: Nearly every removal is the prelude to a beating, and just before the Dane intends to kill him he contemptuously flings the hat away), but emotionally, too. Why does he impulsively—and uncharacteristically—give in to his desire to sleep with Verna, his boss’s girlfriend? Because she has already taken his hat away from him at a card game. The second time that he sleeps with her, he dreams of his hat blowing away, perhaps never to be recovered. And what does he do at the conclusion of the film, after he’s lost not merely Verna, but Leo as well? He lowers his hat over his eyes. He’s going to need it now more than ever.

• A brief shout-out here to John Turturro as well. The entire cast is excellent, but like Byrne, Turturro may have done the best work of his career as oily grifter Bernie Bernbaum. It’s commonplace to cite his big scene pleading for his life at Miller’s Crossing, but it’s the pair of scenes with Tom in the latter’s apartment that have always most impressed me. In them, he manages such a range of moods, such sudden, remarkable swerves between anger (“She’s a sick twist”) and dismissal (“Yeah, well, you stick by your family”), between triumph (“I wanna see you squirm”) and defeat (“And when you smart me, it ruins it”). A formidable performance.

• Like Raising Arizona (the chase scene), Miller’s Crossing has one truly iconic set piece: Leo’s response to the attempt on his life. (Judging from the evidence provided by the scene, Albert Finney, even now at 78, could singlehandedly kick the asses of all the Expendables.) What a magnificent sequence: the surprise narrative inversion, the stunning flare of the tommyguns, and of course, “Danny Boy” as sung by the Irish tenor Frank Patterson. Rather than use a vintage recording—which would have made cinematic sense, given that Leo was listening to the song at the time of the attack—the Coens had Patterson record his masterful take in tempo to the unfolding action, creating a sublime synthesis of music and visuals. I have only one complaint…

• You may have gotten the sense over the course of this post that I’ve been waiting 24 years to write about Miller’s Crossing. (It certainly feels that way to me.) Don’t worry: I’m almost through. As is by now abundantly clear, I fell in love with the film when it originally hit theaters. (Few others did, alas. Released nearly simultaneously with Goodfellas, it died at the box office, bringing in a paltry $5 million.) However, there were—and remain—three moments in the film that struck me as fundamental missteps marring the film’s otherwise near-perfection. With the presumption of a 23-year-old, I actually began drafting a letter to the Coens explaining my objections and recommending the shots that should be taken out if they ever decided to re-cut the film. With the fecklessness of a 23-year-old, I never bothered to figure out where I ought to send it. The letter’s long gone, of course, but the segments in question were:

1) The moment, after Tom has confessed to Leo, and the latter has punched him across the hall and down the stairs—hat coming off repeatedly, of course—when Tom falls into the arms of an elegantly dressed, overweight woman, who screams horribly and beats him with her purse. C’mon, Coens, you’re better than this.
2) The entire scene involving the shootout at the Sons of Erin, with the Irishmen on one side and the police, accompanied by an Italian thug, on the other. The scene serves no narrative purpose, it is pointlessly violent, and it makes no sense. We already know that the cops are now working for Johnny Caspar. But we also know that they don’t much like the situation, owing to the fact that, insomuch as we’ve seen, they’re all Irish themselves. The idea that they’d be yukking it up with some Italian scuzzball after he executed an unarmed Irishman with whom they had probably been enjoying pints of Guinness a couple days earlier is utterly ridiculous. Yes, the scene served largely as an excuse to give their friend and colleague Sam Raimi—who plays the Italian scuzzball, or “Snickering Gunman”—a bit part in the movie. But seriously: If you’re not going to give the man a role that actually fits within the context of the movie, don’t give him one at all.
And finally 3) The “Thompson Jitterbug.” When I first saw Miller’s Crossing, I did not know that the Coens considered this sequence to be one of the film’s greatest triumphs, and now that I do know I still consider the idea absurd. I refer of course to Leo’s 20-second(!) machine-gunning of one of his would-be assassins, during which the dying man delivers a spastic death-dance in a picture window, his own gun spiraling wildly, endlessly as his body is riddled by bullets. There goes the wall, there goes the chandelier, there go his own toes… A few seconds would have been fine, but the joke is prolonged to such bloody, tedious extravagance that it utterly upsets the flow of Leo’s great escape—and, to some degree, the film itself.

Throughout Miller’s Crossing, there are plenty of moments of humorous absurdism that fit within the tone and style of the film: for instance, when Tom hits Caspar’s massive flunky Frankie (Mike Starr) with a chair, and receives the bewildered response “Jesus, Tom.” Even the bits with Caspar’s imbecile child do not meaningfully interfere with the movie's mood. But the Lady with the Purse, the Shootout at Sons of Erin, and, yes, the Thompson Jitterbug all do. The film would be better, and more of a piece, without them.

At least, that’s what my 23-year-old self wanted to tell the Coens—and, I suppose, what I do still. In the exceptionally unlikely event that you happen to be reading, Joel or Ethan, that’s my letter to you, 24 years late.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank Miller’s Crossing among Coens films: #2 (out of 16)

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #1 (out of however many I decide to rank)

Best line: “Then find one, and intimidate her.”

Best visual: Leo’s office

Best sound: The clink of ice cubes

Notable locale: A Nameless Northern city (played, however, by New Orleans)

Notable influences: Dashiell Hammett

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “Jesus, Tom.”

Bonus catchphrase for hard drinkers: “I’ll think about it.”

Looking ahead: Tom Reagan lives at the “Barton Arms”

Things that roll: Tom Reagan’s hat

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Deranged Hair: Yes (Leo's lieutenant, Terry)

Number of characters who vomit: One (Tom, twice)

Next up: Part 2 of 12 on Miller’s Crossing. [Ed: Kidding! Next up: Barton Fink]