"Maybe that's why I like you, Tom. I've never met anyone made being a sonofabitch such a point of pride"—Verna
Loyalty…trust…power…ethics…love…these are the corruptible elements of human nature. Even the strongest, most determined individuals find their confidence shaken and sense of purpose destroyed if any one of these personal integrities are undermined or damaged. We pride ourselves on a level of honor and reliability that, in truth, we can never fully live up to. We tie our dignity and our sense of self worth to them. We hold them up as a badge of honor and blame them for missteps and impulse. On the whole, we value virtue and determine to fight for its right to exist. And yet there are those people who relish the manipulation of this internal struggle between veracity and moral dishonesty, individuals who bank on it, utilize it to meet their sick and twisted ends or pressure it to solve their problems. Call them criminals, or heartless scum, but they are as integral a part of society as good Samaritans or the altruist. They are the mirrors that reflect our elusive goals back at us, taunting us to try and stay honest in light of the easy payday and simulated success of dishonesty. In a metropolitan town near the dense wooded glen known as Miller's Crossing exist men and women who understand the role of the rogue within society's philosophical order. Sure, they know they hold the keys to the city, both governmentally and morally. But in the end, we understand that they too, are easily tarnished by the inherent fundamentals of human frailty. In reality, they are so bound up inside these values that the mere threat creates chaos. Up is down and black is white in this world of mobsters and molls. Nothing is as it seems in the real world. It's the same in Miller's Crossing.
Facts of the Case
Tom Reagan works for Leo, powerful political boss and mobster. Together they offer protection to other rackets in town while running their own illegal enterprises. One of Leo's most faithful clients is Johnny Caspar, a minor mafia type with visions of greater power. Johnny, along with his sidekick Eddie the Dane, likes to bet on fixed fights. But recently he has learned that a bookie named Bernie Bernbaum has been selling out his wagering information and undermining the pay-offs on these corrupt competitions. Johnny wants Bernie dead and wants Leo to handle it. Leo will have no part of it. This plants the seeds of potential gang tensions between Caspar and the Irish iron man.
Tom understands how this will affect business. He tries to get Leo to turn Bernie over to Caspar. He knows that protecting the crocked bookie will be the organization's downfall. But Leo will not listen. He is romantically involved with Bernie's sister, Verna, and he has promised her that no harm will come to her brother. What Leo doesn't know is that Tom and Verna are also seeing each other. Bernie confronts Tom. He wants him in his pocket, like Leo. Leo asks Tom for help in finding out where Verna has been spending her nights away from him. And even Johnny Caspar comes calling, asking Tom to give up Bernie and square everything with the bosses. When he refuses, violence ensues.
Leo's men, with the help of the police, raid Caspar's hangout. A gangland war erupts that sees assassination attempts, violent reprisals, and an ever-rising body count. As Leo extends his fist, Tom asks one last time for him to reconsider. When Leo refuses, Tom offers a confession that changes the dynamic between the longtime friends forever. From that point forward, it's set-ups, double/triple crosses, and well planned manipulations. And at the center is Tom, trying to set things right while making sure that he is always in control, that he is one step ahead of the next betrayal.
By now, in 2003, the gangster movie is so flat and tired that it sleeps, along with Luca Brasi, with the starfish at Sea World. Ever since the mid-'90s, when Quentin Tarantino and John Woo offered their diametrically opposed takes on the world of organized crime, it seems that every screenwriter that can concoct a witty one-liner or a operatic gun battle barfs up their own version of Cosa Nostra nonsense and hopes that it turns into a quotable calling card for future success. No matter that most of these miserable mob movies are as complex as a cannolli and as enticing as a date with Moe Green. Even more interestingly, the hip hop community have almost entirely co-opted the Scarface/Tony Montana ideal of living life like the world is their ripe, plump oyster, just waiting for a little rapper hot sauce to complement the flava'. Then they go out and cross promote this new jack "gangsta" lifestyle like it's the latest FUBU clothing line. Sure, the violence and moral emptiness is carried over, reinterpreted into a cartoon confection of poses and publicity. So it's no wonder that an original slant on the genre seems next to impossible to create. With everyone and their glamour label looking to merge bling-bling with blackjacks and gunplay with Grammys, there are thousands of dull as De La Soul dissections of life as a ghetto goodfella. And honestly, even within the African American angle, there isn't much room for improvement or reinterpretation in the standard hooligan hierarchy.
Make no mistake about it: at its core, the glorious Miller's Crossing is about competing gangs of corrupt thugs, each looking to one up the other in the street games of racketeering and profiteering. But the funny thing about the Coen Brothers is that they are not out to reinvent the hard-boiled crime thriller at all. As a matter of fact, their movie embraces the old-fashioned Tinseltown model and dives right in, steeping itself in the formulas and benchmarks, hoping to absorb and redistribute the power in those past triumphs. The result is a work of substantial brilliance that covets and converts previous hoodlum standards in a new, exciting sensation. There are portions of the 1932 Scarface, a direct lifting of plot elements from 1942's The Glass Key, a rich re-imagining of the dialogue and jargon from dozens of movies of and about the time, and even some elements of Kurosawa (the single man/samurai playing competing gangs against each other as envisioned in Yojimbo) to add ethereal presence to the mix. Miller's Crossing delivers a simple story of corruption and the double cross. And yet, the entire film can almost be seen as a protracted exercise in careful, controlled overplotting, as the narrative and characters pile motives and mannerisms over and on top of each other like the intertwining layers of branches rising high in the film's namesake woodland. As the old saying goes, some people have a hard time seeing the forests for the trees. In Miller's Crossing, the characters all have this difficulty, caught up as they are in the immediate struggles for power and control. But not Tom Reagan. He looks beyond the woods, over and above, up through the spider web of saplings and into the gray light of clarity. Tom knows all the angles…and he knows that they aren't always pleasant.
For the story it tells and the manner in which it tells it, it's completely accurate to label Miller's Crossing a cinematic masterpiece, a definitive statement of the motion picture as lasting art form. It is one of the rare times when script, direction, design, and acting all come together to create a beautiful, cohesive universe that completely entrances and spellbinds the viewer. There is not a missed beat in this film, not a wasted moment or flat detail. Rich to the point of opulence, dense like a multi-layered, decedent pastry, it's a timeless work that improves and expands with age and repeated viewings. Joel and Ethan Coen, unquestionably the most talented writing/directing team in the history of cinema—period—use their special skills as celluloid magicians to sculpt a heartbreakingly handsome, intellectually challenging, and emotionally riveting exploration of the soul of man. Following an almost science fiction-like precision in the overall creation of a bygone era, they invent/discover a long lost language, fine tune a distinct overcoat and fedora fashion statement, and then mix in a quirky sensibility all their own to produce a movie experience unlike any other, one that steadfastly grounds the movie in recognizable, if also seemingly fanciful, realities. It is a movie that will transfix you with its power and majesty. It's a story that will incite and intrigue you, providing satisfying puzzle solving sensations as the pieces of the intricate plot fall into place. In the pantheon of undeniable classics created by these remarkable siblings, Miller's Crossing is their greatest achievement. It champions their main cinematic goals of creating intelligent beauty, of mixing the literal with lushness.
Thematically, Miller's Crossing is a dream about the duplicity of double and triple crosses. It's a talky tone poem to a time when brains and brawn consistently battled fists and fury for control of the ever-decreasing piece of corruption and the rackets. It's a film that focuses on ethics, be they pure or prurient, and how criminals and hoods can still require a sense of justice and fair play. It's a movie about integrity, about deception, about lying, cheating, stealing, and selling one's soul for a piece of the action. In its central character of Tom Reagan we are offered a man so perverted within the world of organized crime that his very essence has become stained. His conscious is tainted from too many smokes and too few nights' sleep. He is a man for whom a shot of whiskey is breath, a cigarette a moment's contemplation, and his hat the crown of control. Like the ruler within a kingdom, he knows that he who wears the fedora controls the realm. But Tom also understands that outside forces can bury themselves deep inside of even the most focused figure of power, misguiding and manipulating them. He knows loyalty and love will destroy his friend Leo and their power within the corrupt city community. But he's hard pressed to stop it. Why? Because he feels it too. He too is being pulled by the power of passion and the desire to remain trustworthy. But Tom believes he's above it all. That he can control it. He is confident that he understands all the approaches. And he just might. But he also may be too foresighted, looking beyond the short-term violence and into the infinite of the future. And there he sees that, once the wheels of deception and betrayal are spinning, they can only lead to despair.
For if Miller's Crossing is about anything, it's about the end of an era. It captures, like a snapshot, the last days of racketeering as a gentleman's agreement. When women were dames and love was cheap and insignificant, like the bootleg liquor served in the Members Clubs. It offers the closing moments of a time where bookies apologized as they broke your legs for non-payment of debts and every shoeshine boy had a line on the afternoon races. The day that Leo denies Johnny Caspar's request for retribution, he breaks the invisible bonds that allowed mobsters to successfully integrate within higher social structures. And once these connections disintegrate, bedlam reigns over the criminal underworld. And that's the way it has stayed up to the present. In the modern, post Miller's world, the mafia is a messy, misguided ideal, a whirling dervish of desperate men seeking sinful solace from the overwhelming oppression of the legitimate world. Bands of street thugs purport to control their turf as they systematically fail to keep from killing one another. Miller's Crossing reminds us that drugs weren't always at the forefront of gang business (even though booze is a drug, right?) and that graft and corruption have long reigned within our supposedly pure palaces of power. But unlike today, the government seems to function, to fulfill the needs of everyday citizens as it takes side bets from its baneful benefactors. If there is such a thing as innocent syndicates, Miller's Crossing celebrates them in their last gasping days of control.
There has probably been no greater gathering of stellar character actors than the brilliant performers brought together to make up Miller's Crossing. Gabriel Bryne and Albert Finney both give Oscar worthy performances that prove once and for all that no one encapsulates the drunken power of the Irish immigrant better than these UK underdogs. Finney plays Leo like a porcelain creation of his insular environment, all scotch and stout, seemingly super human in his beefy, boiled potato frame. Hair plastered on his head and groomed to the point of isolation, he is a man mislaid within his own circle of control, one where the gift of gab is as valued as the ability to wield a Tommy gun. From the quiet moments of contemplation to the rugged explosions of jabs and hooks, Finney exemplifies the "labor boss" ideal, a man who wields power because he "appears" to possess it. Byrne, on the other hand, is a stark, brooding tragedy, utilizing a handsome hound dog face to exude bad whiskey and the barely detectible scent of hangover vomit. His manner is cold to the point of near frigidity, with an inner thermometer calculating at a level that many MIT math wizards would wonder over. Never overreacting or demonstrative, Byrne makes Tom Reagan a silent storm, a man who regulates everything around him through the use of his wits, not his fists. As the audience's window into the world of Leo and organized crime, he's an occasionally unreliable escort, a mis-guide if you will, working his own private positions to try and maintain the life he knows (and loves) so well. With a rugged sex appeal that nicely accentuates the low life manner of his inebriated instigator, he holds the screen with a laconic magnetism, which hangs over the entire movie like a sad, drunken conscious.
In opposition is Jon Polito, playing Johnny Caspar like a bundle of about-to-explode resentment. He represents the opposite of Tommy and Leo. He is the new immigrant, all fat and old country connections, unable to cast off the customs from his previous culture as he willingly tries to overwhelm the new one he's arrived in. Casper even changes his name (from the more foreign sounding Casparo) to reflect his desire to fit in. Anyone shocked by her recent Oscar win for Pollock need look no further than Marcia Gay Harden's portrayal of worn angel Verna to confirm her ability as an actress of power and subtly. Underplaying almost every emotion and manipulation in the movie, Verna is the cracked crystal catalyst to the gang warfare, a sick grifter who wants to manipulate everyone, even if she's long ago lost the final goal. Sprinkled about the edges, but no less important, is marvelous work by J.E. Freeman as the demonic Eddie Dane and a young Steve Buscemi as the mincing, mysterious Mink. A close eye will see an uncredited Frances McDormand as the mayor's secretary and Michael Jeter as street informer Adolph. But of all the supporting roles, John Turturro and his human weasel, Bernie Bernbaum, stand out as a pure example of intense acting power. Be it scheming for power or squealing for his life, Turturro turns Bernie into the indirect villain the plot needs, both loathsome in his slimy corruption and pathetic in his cowardly convolutions.
But no matter how gifted the dramatis personae, without a visionary center, a movie like Miller's Crossing would fall upon its own preoccupations, pretensions, and pomp. Thankfully, there are no better cinematic scenarists than Joel and Ethan Coen. They seem to reinvent the language of film each and every time they make a movie, either from a narrative or imaginative approach. Here, they combine a distinct look with the verbal acrobatics that make for favored line repetition, all the while managing the tone and the textures to create a visceral, vital motion picture experience. Their compositions are flawless, their framing infectiously simple, and their reliance on the self-contained set piece (the angry and balletic Danny Boy gun battle, Frankie and Tic-Tac's beating of Tom) noteworthy, what with its debt to Hitchcock and David Lean. Anyone who argues that the Coens are all technique fails to truly understand the magic in their filmmaking. The precision is the package. All other aspects, from set design to dialogue, are the delectable, delicious chocolates inside. And if there is one consistently forgotten member of the enchantment of the Coens confections, and Miller's Crossing specifically, it is the unbelievably beautiful lament of a score by long time Coen collaborator Carter Burwell. Like a gilded frame surrounding the brilliant canvas inside, the musical cues he crafts heighten and illuminate the emotions, the dark clouds and corruption worming its way throughout the entire film. While his work on other soundtracks has been powerful and noteworthy, in Miller's Crossing he creates a true time capsule, a sonic scenario as powerful as the Coens' carefully crafted world. From the lonely opening wail of the oboe to the gradual swell of the entire orchestra, Burwell tenders a memorable, emotional set of themes that resonate with authority and passion equal to the director's images. Together, they make Miller's Crossing an unforgettable feast for the ears as well as the eyes.
Still, there is one divisive aspect to Miller's Crossing, one that has critics guessing and obsessives writing overlong pontifications. It's the final shot of the film. Without giving the plot away, many people interpret it as being Tom's final kiss off to Leo, a chance to look down the brim of his "high" hat for once at the man who caused all this commotion. Still others feel it's a warning, a secret message Tom is sending out that he is now in control of everything. But if one looks closer, there seems to be a more complicated set of emotions at work. There is a distinct sense of loss in Byrne's face, a near tears look of eternal isolation that seems to reinforce Tom's discoveries about his world. He has always been a loner, and has known loneliness. But in that final stare down, that moment of facial clarity, we witness the façade about to crack under the weight of understanding and acceptance. Tom knows that no matter how hard he fought to control the chaos and regain his station in the towers of power, his reward is solitude, of being simultaneously thanked and pushed aside, of being the only one who understands everything and is therefore destined to live alone with his knowledge. In his victory, he has lost everything. And as he watches his previous life walk off into the distant, it's that look that signals his sad state. Just like all other aspects of the film, the final shot in Miller's Crossing is loaded with meaning and ever open to interpretation. And it's this ambiguous facet within a clockwork plot that elevates the film into one of the great works of cinema. If they never made another motion picture, the Coens would be remembered for this startling look at the preservation of ethics at the cost of one's humanity.
Along with Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing is one of the most highly anticipated DVDs to finally hit the market. Fans and fanatics have long speculated what treasure trove of extras 20th Century Fox would treat us to once they released this sought after title. After all, since the film's initial theatrical release, the Coens have been celebrated with Oscars (for Fargo) and public acceptance (for O Brother Where Art Thou?). Unfortunately, Fox drops the digital disc here, moving just one step above a bare bones offering of Joel and Ethan's best film. They even shortchange the transfer. The issue with the image may seem trivial, but it is bothersome nonetheless. While the print is pristine, offering the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in all its anamorphic widescreen wonder, the picture, frankly, feels a little flat. There is very little clarity in the woodland sequences (in the theater, the scenes of the camera passing under the trees sparkled with a near high definition, three dimensional quality) and there is an occasional "softness" to all the outdoor scenes. One could argue that the film looks as gorgeous as it did the day it was released and when solely focusing on interiors, they would have a point. But to take a film that relies so heavily on the external moments and then to offer a less than ideal version seems futile. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 4.0 is light on bottom, but the overall aural experience is atmospheric and immersive with the remaining channels presenting the glorious Burwell score and sound design ambience brilliantly.
But then there are the so-called extras. The best is a featurette interviewing Barry Sonnenfeld, now famous director, but at one time the Coen Brothers cinematographer/collaborator. Sonnenfeld is a character, but he is also a wealth of information about the imagining and making of the film. Starting with the supposition that he and the Coens set out to make a "handsome" movie, he then describes the lens selection, the setup and framing issues, and the weather conditions he strove to emulate as part of the film's cinematic palette. He also jokes about the early days of working with the Brothers and even laments that past, pre-professional pinnacle time period. It's the sole bonus feature that keeps the DVD of Miller's Crossing from being a complete contextual bust. Other additions include a few "interview soundbites" which basically offers Gabriel Byrne (the best), Marcia Gay Harden (the most anxious), and John Turturro (the most vague) discussing their work in the film. At no more than a minute or two each (and with each actor having no more than five), they are cursory and mostly derivative. Only Byrne spends any time dissecting his character. Add to this mix trailers for Crossing, Fink, and Raising Arizona, and a dozen or so still images in a step through gallery, and that's it. A seminal work by two of the most creative complex filmmakers in recent cinematic history and we can't be bothered with a commentary (either by the Coens or a critic), a more complete documentary or even an up to date set of interviews (the ones offered date from the film's release). Miller's Crossing deserves better than the perfunctory treatment Fox gives it. While not completely disrespectful, it does show that, sometimes, major studios have no idea just what manner of gemstones they have in their possession.
You have to love revisionist history. At the time of its release, Miller's Crossing was viewed as a flawed endeavor, the kind of film that relied too much on an unspoken, secret cinematic language that your average film fan could hardly fathom. Many found it an exercise in style and technique over substance. And there were even critics who marked it as the end of the Coens' streak of winning cinematic experiments. Now, over a dozen years later, most agree that Miller's Crossing is the Coens' singularly greatest work, one that matches their mastery of the English language with decades of motion picture style and substance. Far from heartless, it offers a portrait of wounded soldiers in a battle for the human spirit. It offers timeless characters caught between the comfort of loyalty and the necessity of betrayal. It preaches ethics as it tosses them aside. But what it does better than any other offering in the recent retread of the gangster genre is create a crime thriller that actually enthralls, a movie about mobsters and their syndicate machines that surpasses the type as it recalls its purest examples. Decades from now, when future critics are voting for the American movie that best represents the artistry of filmmaking at its most unadulterated form, don't be surprised if Miller's Crossing takes first prize. It doesn't succeed with special effects and stunt casting. Instead, it uses ideas and their literate investigation to excite and inform. It is a movie of exquisite beauty. It is a film of challenging moral questions and complicated narrative diversions. It stands for many things for many fans and critics. But mostly, it represents one simple idea. It is a classic for all time.
Miller's Crossing is one of the greatest films of all time. The Coens are unquestionable geniuses of cinema. This DVD presentation from 20th Century is flawed, but still a welcome inclusion to the digital library. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
• "Shooting Miller's Crossing: A Conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld"
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