Miller’s Crossing [retro review]

“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”

The Scoop: 1990 R, directed by Joel Coen and starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and Marcia Gay Harden.

Tagline: Up is down, black is white, and nothing is what it seems.

Summary Capsule: Gabriel Byrne stretches his acting chops to play an Irish crook who gets entangled in a complex web of deceit and betrayal.

Drew’s Rating: If they made a movie about where I kill people, it would be titled “In The Study With A Lead Pipe.”

Drew’s Review: You’re reading this because of a comic book.

I should explain. I’m a huge fan of Y: The Last Man, which tells the story of Yorick Brown, the sole survivor of a plague that kills every other male on earth. As the series begins, Yorick is about to propose to his longtime girlfriend Beth, and one of the things he mentions loving about her is that her favorite film is Miller’s Crossing. Yorick usually has pretty good taste for a fictional character, so I figure if it’s good enough for his girl, it’s good enough for you and me. Let’s see if reality bears that out.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is right hand man and adviser (but not enforcer) to Leo (Albert Finney), the crime boss of a large Prohibition-era city. As always, a dame with a pretty face brings complications- Leo takes up with Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden), who continues seeing Leo in exchange for him protecting her brother Bernie (John Turturro). But when Bernie pisses off Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Leo’s closest rival for control of the city, gang war is threatened. Tom’s in favor of handing over Bernie to keep the peace, but Leo won’t allow it; and to complicate matters, Tom himself is sleeping with Verna on the side. When Leo discovers this, Tom’s only option is to switch sides and begin working for Caspar, where his first assignment is simple: kill Bernie. But what angle is Tom really playing, and how will the cards fall when everything is said and done?

The Coen brothers are major fans of film noir and detective fiction, and it shows in most of their movies… even those that aren’t directly about crime, like Raising Arizona, still usually involve unsavory types wielding guns, seductive femme fatales, or a mystery to unravel. Hell, The Big Lebowski, ostensibly a stoner film about slackers who like bowling, is nothing more than one giant love letter to Raymond Chandler when you actually look at the plot. Like the bulk of the neo-noir movies of the ’80s and ’90s, most of the Coens’ films bring hardboiled fiction trappings into the modern day… but then there’s Miller’s Crossing.

Set in the bad old days of Prohibition, it features a story that’s nothing you haven’t seen before: a lone, smart individual plays two opposing sides of a turf war against each other for his own ends. Simple, right? In a way it is — but then, is anything truly simple when money, sex, and family enter the picture? The Coens do a nice job of adding numerous twists and turns into the story to keep the audience engaged — it’s not a whodunnit, but you definitely will wonder who is going to discover whose lies and double crosses first.

But if the story is effective, the acting is far more than that. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom is laconic, cynical, and functionally amoral — even with his best friend, he’s not loyal enough to not sleep with Leo’s girl, even while badmouthing her all the while. As a result, it’s hard to exactly root for him, but he definitely keeps you engaged with his easy quips and masterful manipulation. The viewer may walk away wondering whether Tom’s pacifism is due to squeamishness or possessing more sentiment than he admits to, and the fact that it’s even a question is a tribute to Byrne’s performance. Turturro plays Bernie effectively as a weasely little con artist who nonetheless is smarter than he normally lets on, and as for Albert Finney, well, Leo is a crime boss who’s such a tough and lovable bastard that you can’t help but feel bad for him that his best friend and his girl Friday are stepping out on him. The rest of the cast is solid, and while Verna doesn’t appear too often, Harden makes her seem like the kind of girl who can keep up with Tom while simultaneously stringing Leo along.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending — I’ve watched it twice now, and when I figure out whether I liked it or not, I’ll let you know. But it does bring resolution to a satisfying story, and when you get right down to it, that’s what matters, not whether I would have made the same choices as some of the characters. I can definitely recommend this movie — certainly you’ll get more out of it if you, like the Coens, are a fan of hardboiled mysteries and film noir, but even if you normally aren’t, there’s plenty of good character study and intrigue to be had. Take a tip from Beth and me, and make a trip to Miller’s Crossing.

Think you brought enough guys?

Yeah, I'm pretty tough when I've got five guys with shotguns behind me too.

Intermission!

  • Miller’s Crossing is loosely based on “The Glass Key” and “Red Harvest,” two stories by Dashiell Hammett (writer of “The Maltese Falcon”). “Harvest” had previously been adapted as the Japanese film Yojimbo, which in turn inspired the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Several roles had to be recast — Leo was originally to be played by Trey Wilson, who portrayed Nathan Arizona Sr. in Raising Arizona, but he died before filming started. In addition, Peter Stormare was supposed to play “The Swede,” but he was appearing as Hamlet on Broadway and thus unavailable, so Eddie Freeman was brought in and the character renamed “The Dane.”
  • The submachine gun Leo steals from a gunman holds roughly four times the bullets of any tommy gun ever created.
  • Sam Raimi makes a cameo as a laughing gunman during the attack on the Sons of Erin social club.
  • Every time the bartender appeared, I remember thinking, “Yeah, that actor’s okay… but man, Bruce Campbell would’ve been even better!”
  • Miller’s Crossing contains several references to the Coen brothers’ next film, Barton Fink, which they took three weeks off from writing Crossing to pen. Among them, Tom lives at Barton Arms apartments, and a newspaper headline reads “Seven Dead In Hotel Fire.”

Groovy Quotes:

Caspar: It’s gettin’ so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?

Leo: But maybe you’re wrong about this. You don’t know what’s in Verna’s heart.
Tom: Leo, if she’s such an angel, why are you lookin’ for her at 4:00 in the morning?

Tom: You’re a fickle boy, Mink. If Eddie Dane finds out that you got another “amigo”… well, I don’t peg him for the understanding type.
Mink: Find out? How’s he gonna find out? Damn it, Tom, you and me ain’t even been talkin’!

Adolph: Tommy, the way you’re going — hey, horses got knees?
Tom: I don’t know. Fetlocks.
Adolph: Well if I was a horse I’d be down on my fetlocks praying you don’t bet on me.

Verna: I barely knew the gentleman.
Tom: Rug? A bit of a shakedown artist, not above the occasional grift. Bet you’d understand that. All in all, not a bad guy, if looks, brains, and personality don’t count.
Verna: You better hope they don’t.

Verna: You think I murdered someone? Come on, Tom. You know me a little.
Tom: Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.

Bernie: How’d you know it was me?
Tom: You’re the only one I know who’d knock and then break in.
Bernie: Your other friends wouldn’t break in, huh?
Tom: My other friends want to kill me, so they wouldn’t knock.

Tom: I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable, so I want two.

The Dane: I followed you this afternoon, and I wondered why Einstein would wanna talk to a gorilla. So I grabbed the gorilla, and I beat it out of him. You give me a big guy every time, they break easy. Not like you.

Verna: What are you doing?
Tom: Walking.
Verna: Don’t let on any more than you have to.
Tom: In the rain.

Bernie: Look in your heart.
Tom: What heart?

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