St. Patrick’s Day Pick: Miller’s Crossing

My all-time-favorite Coen Brothers film is Miller’s Crossing (1990). I have never understood why more people — with the exception of Christopher Orr of The Atlantic— don’t adore it as much as I do. It is an elegantly beautiful film on all levels and darkly, wickedly funny, but with none of the yuck-yuck humor of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski. Maybe that’s why.

It’s a gangster film and a meta gangster film at the same time. That is, it operates as a perfect specimen of the genre while gently turning it inside out and interrogating it (and the film noir manliness it spawned). Whereas, The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) revisited the gangster genre to interrogate the American dream and its violent underbelly, Miller’s Crossing is more Po-Mo. It is interrogating a century of such cinematic interrogations.

It was the Coens’ third feature, and the last with Barry Sonnenfeld as director of photography. Of course Roger Deakins, who picked up with Barton Fink (1991), is no slouch, but Sonnenfeld’s cinematography seems to me to have been a tad more emphatic and idiosyncratic. For Raising Arizona (1988) his use of wide angle lenses and snappy camera movement to gave everything a zany, looney-tunes look.

For Miller’s Crossing, on the other hand, Sonnenfeld’s camerawork is more pensive, sliding slowly through spaces and across surfaces, in shallower (long-lens) focus and soft, low key lighting. Thus one’s eyes feel all the textures of this world: a polished wood desk, well-worn felt fedora, lace curtains in a breeze, dead damp leaves on a forrest floor, whisky on the rocks in a cut crystal glass.

Sonnenfeld’s work is matched by Gabriel Byrne’s brooding performance, Dennis Gassner’s luscious set design in manly browns and greens, and Carter Burwell’s haunting score that modulates between delicate and ominous.

It all adds up to a reveling fetishization of this manly, gangster, 1930s world — but not gratuitously so. Miller’s Crossing while it revels in this world of men, honor, sex and violence, it also gently subverts it. For example, most filmies are familiar with James Cagney’s infamous The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) scene in which he slams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face.

The Public Enemy (1931)
The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931)

In Miller’s Crossing, it’s the dame, Marcia Gay Hardin as Verna, who’s the two-timer and who delivers the most memorable wallop.

The tommy-gun rhapsody of  Scarface (Howard Hawks, Robert Rosson, 1932)…

Scarface (Hawks, 1932)
Scarface (Hawks, Rosson, 1932)

… is taken to absurdist, glorious heights in Miller’s “Danny Boy,” set piece scene.

Albert Finney is always perfection, but one can imagine he was having a hell of a good time here. His Leo is one minute badass — it doesn’t get any more badass than that “Danny Boy” scene — the next befuddled father figure to Byrne’s angst-ridden Tom, and then giddily lovesick sugar daddy to Vera.

[Did I mention that our heroes are Irish mobsters in opposition to the less cooly composed Italians? But don’t worry, my fellow Italians, all is not quite what it seems.]

Let’s not forget John Tuturro. I agree with Orr; this is my favorite of his performances. He doesn’t usually get the chance to show this much range in one character. He turns on a dime and takes you and Tom right with him.

Also look for Steve Buscemi in a bit part and Sam Raimi in a silly cameo.

And then there’s the hat.

When I used to teach screenwriting (thank god, that’s over), I taught this film/script. I was continually surprised that almost no students got the metaphor. Yes, as Orr says, it’s Tom’s “armor” (another metaphor), but, I think, more essentially, it’s his honorMiller’s Crossing, somewhat playfully and somewhat thoughtfully, concludes that a man’s honor is the only real armor he has. I kind of love the simplistic profundity of that.

I also love that it’s Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar, the wheezing, sweaty, Italian mobster who launches the whole film, in a sideways homage to The Godfather, thusly: “I’m talking about friendship. I’m talking about character. I’m talking about — hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — I’m talking about ethics.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to clink some ice cubes into a glass and pour in some Tullamore D.E.W. — (If you don’t have time to watch Miller’s Crossing, at least take 3 minutes for their short, “A Parting Glass.”)

Happy Saint Pat’s!

Other Irish-Themed Favorites:

  • “The Wearing of the Grin” (Chuck Jones, 1951)
  • The Informer (John Ford, 1935)
  • The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952)
  • Darby O’Gill and the Little People (Robert Stevenson, 1959)
  • Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
  • The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
  • The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, 2009)
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