Reconsidering “Miller’s Crossing”

“Look into your heart.” “Look at this bullet.”

What makes a great gangster movie?   It has to have great actors, sudden bursts of violence, style, a terrific director, memorable, iconic characters you can pull for (or against).

But what it absolutely positively must have is great dialogue so when you’re throwing lines everyone knows what movie you’re talking about without naming it.

YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!

 It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!

Just don’t go busting my balls, Billy, okay?

You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would ya?
No, I’ll let ya warm up a little.

Don’t wait for it to happen. Don’t even want it to happen. Just watch what does happen.

 If you want me to keep my mouth shut, it’s gonna cost you some dough. I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable, so I want two.

Any true aficionado of the gangster genre should be able to name all six of these fabulous flicks, but for the amateurs, I’ll name them:  The Godfather, The Godfather Part II,  Goodfellas, White Heat, The Untouchables and Miller’s Crossing.

Miller’s Crossing?   Yeah, you read that right, yegg.  Miller’s Crossing is the third movie by the Coen Brothers and my favorite.    Fargo and No Country For Old Men won the awards and Raising Arizona put them on the map and True Grit made more money, but Miller’s Crossing is my go-to movie when I’m in the mood for some Joel and Ethan Coen madness.

And I like it every bit as much as any of those four better known films.  As much as  I like Fargo, I have to be in the mood for Marge Gunderson and her weirdly dark world.  No Country For Old Men would be a strong contender for the best from the brothers, but man, does that ending leave me cold.    Yes, yes….I know it’s faithful to Cormac McCarthy‘s book, but things that work well in print fall flat on-screen and boy, does that unsatisfying ending quality.

Vera makes being a bad girl look good.

There are only a select few films I can watch repeatedly and pick up something new in each viewing and this is one of them.   You almost have to pick up the subtleties and nuances of the knotty plot and to keep up with the double and then a triple-cross.    Miller’s Crossing can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment and graphically violent the next.  As Tom Reagan, the nominal hero who’s on nobody’s side  but his own, it’s certainly the best role Gabriel Byrne ever had and  Marcia Gay Harden as Vera is knows how to wrap men around her finger to get what she wants. Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar is an ambitious schemer with a strange sense of “ethics.”   J.E. Freeman is  scary good as the  menacing Eddie Dane.  John Turturro personifies cunning and cowardice as the unethical and unscrupulous Bernie  Bernbaum.    Albert Finney nails the part of Leo, the political boss who runs things until his wish to protect Bernie, Vera’s brother against Tom’s advice sparks a deadly gang war with Johnny Casper.

Nobody has ever sniveled, blubbered and begged for their worthless life the way Bernie does.    You almost want to  kill him just so he’ll shut up.

   I’m… I’m… I’m just a grifter, Tom. I’m… I’m… I’m… I’m… I’m an nobody! But I’ll tell you what, I never crossed a friend, Tom. I never killed anybody, I never crossed a friend, nor you, I’ll bet. We’re not like those animals! This is not us! Th… th… this is some hop dream! It’s a dream, Tommy! I’m praying to you! I can’t die! I can’t die… out here in the woods, like a dumb animal! In the woods, LIKE A DUMB ANIMAL! Like a dumb animal! I can’t… I can’t… I CAN’T DIE OUT HERE IN THE WOODS!… like a dumb animal. I can’t… die!  I’m praying to you! Look in your heart! I’m praying to you! Look in your heart! I’m praying to you! Look in your heart! I’m praying to you! Look in your heart…

A great movie builds a world, populates it with colorful characters and invites you to live there for a few hours.   Miller’s Crossing looks like it could be any crime-ridden city in the Roaring Twenties, but its such a stylized world it feels like there’s never been anyplace like it.  Maybe its Barry Sonnefeld’s cinematography and maybe its Carter Burwell’s evocative score, but mostly it’s that dialogue.   It sounds like something David Mamet might have written, but it only sounds like he did.   In real life people are never as interesting as the ones that speak Mamet fluently.     While the hard-boiled dialogue suggests Mamet, the actual inspiration  comes from novelist Dashiel Hammet’s  The Glass Key

What is this movie about?   Mostly the usual topics  you would expect.  Tough guys.  Crooked cops.  Dames that don’t need white knights.  Double-crosses.  Triple-crosses.  A good bad guy whose on everybody’s side, but nobody’s side, but always his side.  Bosses that think they’re smart but are prone to get outsmarted.  None too subtle hints of conflicted alliances,  hidden agendas and questionable sexual orientations.    It’s funny, layered, dense, and never boring even for a minute.

But  it’s also about a guy named Tom who knows how to play all the angles and his hat.  That hat is almost a character all by itself.  It certainly gets a lot of good lines.

The Coen brothers have built a reputation for  making movies that aren’t like what anyone else is doing.   From the way their movies look to the way their characters act, Miller’s Crossing is an underrated entry in their filmography.   It didn’t win any awards or make much money when it was released in 1990.   Squeezed between Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, its been mostly ignored by audiences, but if they’re fans of the Coens, they won’t make that mistake.   It’s an entertaining and involving film that requires attention be paid, but it rewards the viewer with a different take on the gangster film genre, but stack up quite nicely with its better known cousins.

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One thought on “Reconsidering “Miller’s Crossing”

  1. When I read your title – I was thinking: ‘what to reconsider?’ I regard ‘Miller’s Crossing’ as a classic of a sort, it is one of the best film I have ever seen – the dialogue in this film deserves an Oscar of its own, and acting was just brilliant. This is no trash which they show to us these days, that film is something truly special.

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