Sunday, November 4, 2012

Film # 89: Miller's Crossing (1990)

Director: Joel Coen

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: five or six

Rapid-Fire Summary

*The plot of Miller’s Crossing is complex, indeed. I’ll keep it streamlined, but if you want a full blow-by-blow, you can check it out here at imdb.

In a Prohibition Era city (name unknown), Irish mobster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) serves as the right-hand man and consultant to mob boss, Leo (Albert Finney). Tom is highly loyal to Leo, except for the fact that he is sleeping with Leo’s special lady, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Verna is known as a con woman of highly questionably morals who is sleeping with both Leo and Tom, possibly in order to protect her brother, Bernie (John Turturro). Bernie is a fellow con artist and bookmaker who has put himself in the crosshairs of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) by undercutting his fixed boxing matches.

Even in the tightest of situations, Tom Reagan is as cool and unflappable as they come. 

Over the course of a few days, Tom gets mixed up with Bernie and has to navigate his way between the rival mob bosses Leo and Caspar, seeming to double-cross one after the other. He uses Bernie, Verna, and whoever else he can in order to keep himself alive. After tensions rise to point of several beatings, murders, and raids on speakeasies, Tom manipulates Bernie into killing Caspar. Tom then kills Bernie, either as a final cover up or a final act of revenge. This leaves Verna, who Tom may secretly love, free to marry Leo, who is finally returned to his place of power atop the criminal underworld. At Bernie’s funeral, Tom refuses Leo’s plea to have him back as his chief lieutenant, but Tom stoically refuses. Tom then watches Leo and Verna walk away.

My Take on the Film

I didn’t even know about this movie until about seven or eight years after its big screen release. Once I did see it, though, it instantly became one of my favorites.

Even after seeing it about a half dozen times now, I still love it. There is so much skill put into how this movie is crafted that I still marvel at it. I’m an enormous fan of the Coen brothers, and I appreciate their studied approach to film making. Miller’s Crossing exhibits so many of the things that they clearly love about movies, and they blended them into a gangster tale like none other.

The story itself is actually pure noir. The plot twists, the seedier elements, the femme fatale, and the gallows humor is exactly what one can find in noir classics like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. Tom Reagan is as fatalistic and deadpan as the protagonists of the best James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett novels. As he carefully plots his course through the maze of the deadly forces around him, he might seem devoid of any real emotion. But if you look carefully past his cold words, and you look closely enough at his actions, you can see that there is indeed a soul. The character Verna even points it out in the film when she says, “…you have a heart, Tom. Even though it’s small and feeble, and you can’t remember the last time you used it.”

Despite Tom's apathetic demeanor and biting insults, Verna sees the glimmer of a man who cares. These two corrupted souls dance with and around each other in fantastic exchanges of dialogue.

Actually, the notion of Tom’s heart is really at the center of the movie, as symbolized by his slick Fedora hat. Many of the characters are motivated by pure greed. Leo the mob boss does actually have empathy for others, and Verna seems to care for Tom, but Tom himself is an enigma in many ways. It is only during the few calm, quiet moments in the film that we can see that Tom is not purely a selfish pragmatist. The truth is that he’s clearly smarter than Leo and, if he wanted, could easily manipulate his way to usurping and eliminating Leo to take his position as the top crime lord in the city. The reason he doesn’t is loyalty. We the viewers can’t be sure until the very end, but once you know what has been guiding Tom throughout his ordeals, we can see just how steadfast and intelligent he is.

Maybe the most singular element in the film is the presence of homosexuality. It's not overt, but it is heavily implied that Bernie, Mink, and even the hard-case Eddie Dane are gay lovers. It still seems mildly out of place in what is otherwise a pure compound of the noir and gangster genres. Miller's Crossing is an unusual mob movie in many ways, but perhaps no more so than in this.

True to noir cinematic storytelling, Tom Reagan is in virtually every scene, with very few exceptions. While he certainly holds the screen, the supporting characters are equally engaging (something that is a hallmark of Coen brothers movies). From Leo to Verna, from Bernie to Johnny Caspar and Eddie Dane, and even very minor cameos like Mink (played in staccato by Steve Buscemi) or “Drop” Johnson, the characters indelibly etch themselves into your minds. A lot of this has to do with the dialogue, which has always been a Coen brothers strength. This is where they show their ability to write dialogue that can be tough, poignant, hilarious, or revealing. And in Miller’s Crossing it’s always delivered in a rapid-fire style usually reserved for screwball comedies (which I hate, but the style works brilliantly in this film).

Of course, strong dialogue alone does not a classic movie make. The acting has to be spot-on, and it certainly is in Miller’s Crossing. Gabriel Byrne is absolutely perfect as the ever-stoic, ever-cunning, morally ambiguous Irish mobster Tom Reagan. The other characters all nail their roles perfectly, and there are too many for me to give a role call. However, I will say that an often-overlooked performance is J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, the dark counterpart to Tom Reagan. Every interaction between these two arch-nemeses has a great amount of tension, as the two try to out-cool, out-stare, and out-intimidate each other.

Johnny Caspar's right-hand man, the brutal and heartless Eddie Dane. Where Tom uses his wits and tongue to maneuver in their criminal underworld, "The Dane" uses fear and raw force.

Finally, the cinematography itself. This should also come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Coen brothers’ movies, but this movie looks incredible. It’s easy to see that the sets and costumes were carefully selected to create frame compositions that are simply a pleasure to look at. On top of that, this movie features several great examples of the nearly lost art of visual storytelling, yet another film technique that the Coens have always shown affinity for. In fact, the scene in which Leo dispatches several would-be assassins with a Thompson machine gun is one of my favorite pieces of visual storytelling in any film. No dialogue for about five minutes – just “Danny Boy” playing in the background and some sound effects. I love that stuff, and very few directors have the guts or the skill to do it well.

Miller’s Crossing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re expecting a more traditional gangster movie in the vein of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The Coens imbue their pictures with more “only in the movies” style than those other, more naturalistic films do. Still, if you appreciate superb film making and a novel approach to a time-honored genre, you should give it a try. Anyone who likes the Coen brothers but has not seen this one needs to run to the video store right now and watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

That’s a wrap. 89 shows down. 16 to go.

Coming Soon: Goodfellas (1990)

This will be quite the contrast in gangster films. Miller’s Crossing uses old-school gangsterism as a backdrop for a slick noir tale. Goodfellas was really the quantum leap forward for realism in mafia films. Come on back to see how I enjoy my next viewing yet another of Scorcese’s masterworks (and enjoy it, I certainly will).