Miller’s Crossing (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wishes to kill Bernie (John Turturro), a bookie whom Johnny suspects to be selling information involving fixed fights, but he needs the permission of Leo (the sublime Albert Finney), a fellow mobster who promised to give Bernie protection, before he can take action. Leo admonishes that if Johnny kills Bernie, they are going to have problems. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Leo has the intention of marrying Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who occasionally engages in casual sex with Tom (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s right-hand man.
Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “Miller’s Crossing” is an elegant-looking gangster film as it is constructed. In its first scene, we are casually dropped into the middle of an intense conversation between dangerous and influential men. Although the specifics regarding why Johnny is so upset are not immediately obvious to us, it almost does not matter. What is important is the image of two men, Dane (J.E. Freeman) and Tom, standing alongside Johnny and Leo’s right, respectively. Dane holds his hat in front of him while Tom has his left hand in his pocket. They do not say a lot, unlike their superiors, but their body language informs us that they are ready if the situation turns ugly.
It is a classic Coen brothers scene: despite the commotion happening on the foreground, what is more interesting is what brews in the background. The writer-directors know how to build suspense in record time. More impressive is we know nothing yet about the characters but we cannot help but anticipate who, if any, will make it out of the room alive.
The person we follow throughout is Tom, a thinking man who easily sees through pleasantries and deduce why certain individuals are driven to do the things they do. But he is not without a flaw. With so much thinking going on in his head, there are times when inaction takes over and he turns into a pathetic punching bag. Curve balls are prevalent not just in terms of who lives or dies, as in most gangster pictures of inferior quality. The tone commands a certain unpredictability.
When Tom and Verna occupy the same room, they have wonderful chemistry. It is interesting to see them interact because they cannot help but argue. They want to be together but some of their loyalties belong to someone else: Tom wants to protect Leo (friendship) while Verna wants to protect Bernie (family). There is tension between them because they know that they eventually have to choose which holds more importance.
“Miller’s Crossing,” based on the novels “Red Harvest” and “Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett, is strong because the electrifying dialogue and memorable voices behind the performances reach a synergy. For instance, Mink (Steve Buscemi), someone close to Dane, is given only one scene which lasts just under a minute. His name is mentioned several times throughout the film but since that one scene that unfolds early on is so well-crafted, we do not forget who he is.
The film is efficient with its characterization and is very exciting tonally because it sandwiches elements of modern noir in classic gangster storytelling. People say that they are at a loss on why the picture has not gotten the mainstream recognition it deserves. I’m not the least bit surprised. The unfortunate reason is that it holds a reputation of being difficult to understand upon first viewing. I disagree. If you can observe and think at the same time, as most people should be able to, the challenge to put the pieces together should be welcomed, even demanded, but not feared.