Saturday, November 8, 2014

From My Collection: Miller's Crossing

The extent to which I thoroughly enjoy and absolutely love Miller’s Crossing can hardly be put into words. It is by far my favorite Coen brothers film even if I don’t think it their greatest achievement. But I get a thrill every time I watch it, and that’s about ten or a dozen times over a period of nearly twenty years. I think Miller’s Crossing arrived on my radar at a particularly impressionable time in my development as a cinephile. It was pre-Fargo and so prior to the Coens being almost household names. I was also just very recently enamored with Quentin Tarantino, although had yet to discover Sam Raimi. I don’t even think I knew about the Coens as filmmakers yet. Raising Arizona had played on TV and I’d seen it, but I had no idea who was responsible. There was no IMDb in my world yet.


So I know that my love for Miller’s Crossing is pure and not guided by an obligation to filmmakers I loved. It wasn’t about my conscious genre preference because I hadn’t started examining those implications in film. Surely the stylization, especially where some of the violence is concerned, had something to do with it. It wasn’t even about the actors, basically all of whom were unknown to me. This movie, in fact, led me to seek out other Gabriel Byrne movies under the naïve assumption that anything he touched must be gold. I was misguided and mistaken. However, it was no mistake to see Byrne as one of the major reasons Miller’s Crossing works so well.

The central character of Tom Reagan is a cipher. He is at once an unreadable blank slate and a man who makes his opinions crystal clear. He sees all the angles and knows the best plays, but he gets his ass kicked more than any movie hero I can think of. He’s taciturn except when he has something to crack wise about. And even then, his silence suggests careful study of the situation at hand while searching for an angle. Does Tom’s plan develop improvisationally or is most of it mapped out like a chess master? The former means he’s the beneficiary of some very good luck (certainly he is when the Dane takes him to the woods to find a dead body that shouldn’t be there). Tom Regan is quite simply my favorite Coen brothers character to date. One bit of sample dialogue with Verna, his sometime bed partner, and girlfiend to Tom’s boss, sums up what I love about him:
                “What are you up to?”
                “Walking.”
                “You never let on more than you have to.”
                “In the rain.”
See how the withholding of information keeps him both a step ahead and also establishes him as kind of a dick? Then he gives just enough extra to indicate he’s in no mood for bullshit and further exemplifying what a dick he is.

Miller’s Crossing is classic gangster cinema stuff with a plot that pits Italian mobsters in an unnamed American city against the Irish during Prohibition. There’s Albert Finney as Leo, Tom’s boss, running the town. He’s got the mayor and chief of police in his pocket. Up and coming crime boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) become incensed when Leo won’t give up Bernie Birnbaum (John Turturro), a bookie who’s been selling information on Caspar’s fixed fights. If the Coens weren’t Jewish themselves and, in several other places throughout their work, sensitive to Jewish characters, it might be easy to peg Bernie as a stereotypical caricature of a miserly and cunning Jew. He’s so whiny, sneaky, underhanded, and utterly detestable, with other characters constantly referring to him with outright anti-Semitic contempt that you almost have to question Joel and Ethan’s opinion of him as they wrote. One thing for certain is that Turturro’s performance is one of his best. Bernie masks deep sadness and anger with his weasely wheeling and dealing. Is there a more contemptible character than one who cries and begs for his life who then, upon receiving the gift of not being shot dead, returns to make life difficult for the very man whom he has to thank for it?

Marcia Gay Harden plays Verna as a real dame. She socks Tom in the jaw and generally holds her own against the tough guys of the city. The Coens clearly modeled her on the tough old broads from the classic era of film noir. It’s surprising how long it took before she became more recognized and established in Hollywood. Smaller roles are filled out by Steve Buscemi as Mink, a character mentioned a lot more than he’s seen; Al Mancini and Mike Starr as two of Caspar’s goons; and an absolutely wonderful J.E. Freeman as Caspar’s right-hand man Eddie Dane.

Dashiell Hammet’s influence is all over this movie. It’s no secret that the Coens are heavily influence by not only Hammet, but the other two paragons of noir writing, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Miller’s Crossing has a plot that is as complicated as anything since The Big Sleep, a story that has one death that even the author couldn’t explain. It took several viewings before I thought I got all the ins and outs of the plot, and then a couple more before I realized that hadn’t quite gotten it yet. Even now when I sit through it, I still find I don’t entirely remember the details of who did what to whom and why.

But as much fun as the plot is in terms of piecing it all together and watching Tom arrange everything to suit himself, it’s all secondary to just watching a couple of master filmmakers still in their early stages (this was only the Coens third feature film), but with tremendous confidence. A scene of an attack on Leo’s house at night while he rests comfortably in bed with a newspaper and cigar remains one of the great scenes of organized crime violence in the movies. The entire scene is without dialogue, builds suspense through shot setups, reveals Leo to be far more than the big boss who sits behind a desk, all to the beautiful tune of “Danny Boy” playing on Leo’s Victrola. The scene still gets me and almost brings a tear to my eye.

Then there’s the matter of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous and plaintive musical score without which I don’t think I would have half the opinion of this movie that I have. The musical accompaniment adds so much to how I feel when watching the movie, as it should. Burwell took as his starting point a traditional Irish folk song and reworked the themes to make it his own darker version. It’s so beautiful and at time haunting, as are many of the Coens visuals that make up their palette, aided by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld before he became a director himself.

Without Tom as the central character to stand behind, there’s little to the movie. The Coens’ great achievement was in crafting that character. He is almost always in control and even when he’s not, he certainly appears as if he is. That is until the moment right before he believes he has no out and falls to his knees vomiting. But it’s that moment of vulnerability that rounds out his humanity. He’s a brilliant strategist, able to play all sides against each other for his benefit. He is, as Verna calls him, a real son-of-a-bitch and scoundrel, but he’s eminently likeable.

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