Millers Crossing

One-line review: Mobsters with hats and hearts.

Miller’s Crossing sank at the box office despite being the opening film at the New York Film Festival and was panned by critics. One of the film’s vehement critics, Roger Ebert, did not even mention the lead character, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Bryne), in his review. Of course, it did not help that another mobster movie named Goodfellas was released the same year.   

Three decades later, Miller’s Crossing is rightfully considered a classic. In his delightful interview (see link below), cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld discusses how he and the Coens decided to make a “handsome” mobster movie than a “whacky” one. That explains the movie’s rich dark tones like a Rembrandt painting, the elegant homes and offices, the mobsters’ expensive fitted suits, their hats, and even their characters: these mobsters have genuine feelings. Joel Coen points out that rather than betrayals, the dialogues reveal “who loves whom.”   

The film opens with a meeting between mafia don Leo (Albert Finney) and a junior don, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Also in attendance is Leo’s trusted lieutenant, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Bryne). Caspar, a big believer in mafia ethics, wants Leo’s permission to finish off double-crosser Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). But Leo objects because Bernie is his lover Verna’s (Marcia Gay Harden) beloved brother. A furious and insulted Casper swears revenge. 

The rest of the film is about Leo thwarting Casper’s attacks and striking back, Tom’s anger with his boss’ decision to protect the slimy Bernie, double crossings, and a love triangle. Eventually, justice, Coenesque style, is meted out, and life goes on. What is the Coenesque kind of justice? To me, it is justice with a twisted sense of humor, but justice, nevertheless. For example, in the film, one blindly trusting character is killed by a two-timer, but then the two-timer dies too, and just when he is getting away.      

Where does one begin praising the film? The script is its backbone: sparse, sharp, mean, and wise cracking, but with plenty of heart. In an uncharacteristically eloquent interview (see link below), the Coens tell Megan Abbott how Miller’s Crossing is inspired by noir writer Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Especially the Tom Reagan character; we never know what he is thinking. 

Tarantino’s capturing of the everyday talk between hitmen in Pulp Fiction was considered pathbreaking. In the film, Travolta and Samuel Jackson casually discuss burgers on their way to carry out a bloody hit job. However, Miller’s Crossing makes you realize the Coens are the real pathbreakers. We see two mobsters laughing uncontrollably at some private joke while waiting for Reagen to complete Bernie’s execution nearby.  

Barry Sonnenfeld says this was his most satisfying film lighting-wise since the men wear hats most of the time, and their faces had to be lit from below. Much of the action happens indoors, but Sonnenfeld’s long shots capture the mystique of the sinister Miller’s Crossing (a secluded wooded area where the mobsters carry out their executions). Carter Burwell uses an Irish folk theme (whose beginning sounds like Casta Diva) to instill melancholy and terror simultaneously. There is something operatic about the film; it is a handsome film, after all.    

But it is the performances that make the film transfixing. The Coens are the experts in extracting top-notch performances from perfectly cast ensembles, and this movie is no different. Gabriel Bryne as Tom is the vanilla ice cream that goes with everything else in the film. He must convey a lot with his expressionless face. Bryne’s chiseled face is a joy to behold and rewards us occasionally with subtle smiles, fear, and even tears. Albert Finney, as Leo, is the master of cool. Why are there no memes of him casually firing a machine gun in his nightgown smoking a cigar? Polito’s emotional yet menacing turn as Caspar is a perfect foil to Finney’s Shakespearean grandeur. Caspar, who is always a hair’s breadth from coming unhinged, could go wrong and become caricaturish in a lesser actor’s hands. His heartfelt lines about mafia ethics are the most memorable in the film; they are funny yet poignant. The Coens throw in two little boys to lighten the movie and boy, do they deliver.  

It is hard to believe this is Marcia Gay Harden’s first film role. She plays Verna with the right amount of pizzazz and vulnerability; she is not a femme fatale but a woman hardened with life’s knocks with a soft heart still beating somewhere. Finally, Turturro has the role for the ages, with the unforgettable scene where he pleads for his life at Miller’s Crossing (Dick Cavett says the scene should be in a time capsule of great acting; I agree). Listen to Sonnenfeld’s interview to know on whom Turturro based his whiny yet sinister character. In my opinion, J.E Freeman, as Dane, is the film’s weakest link; he comes across as one-dimensionally evil, although, as a gay mobster, he is the most interesting character on paper. We also see an early Steve Buscemi making an impression as the gay and promiscuous Mink, delivering his lines with bullet speed (a lost art like horse riding, according to Ethan Coen). 

Watching Miller’s Crossing is like reading a beloved classic; you are in the presence of comforting greatness and will return to it often.            

(Interview with Barry Sonnenfeld)

(The Coens’ interview with Megan Abbott) 

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