Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Unsung!: Miller's Crossing

When the conversation turns to the Coen brothers, no one ever talks about Miller’s Crossing. Blood Simple? Sure. Fargo? You betcha. Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; No Country for Old Men; and True Grit? Obviously. But not a word about Miller’s Crossing. Why?

Miller’s Crossing is certainly screened less than other Coen brothers’ films. The Coens made two movies for the now-defunct ABC/Circle Films, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona. These films have been endlessly released and rereleased on DVD, but are suspiciously absent from cable television and art house theater screenings. I have always suspected this might have something to do with rights issues, but I could be wrong. (I would like to be proven wrong, so I could see these two films in a theater.)

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with mob boss Leo (Albert Finney). A bookie has been spilling the beans about Johnny’s fixed fights, which costs Johnny money. Johnny would like to kill the bookie in question, Bernie Birnbaum (John Turturro). Trouble is, Johnny needs permission from Leo, and Leo is sleeping with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), so Bernie is protected. Leo’s #2 man and advisor, Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), says to let Johnny have his way. Tom has also been sleeping with Verna, but has no love for her brother. Leo takes the news that his mistress has been two-timing him badly. All hell breaks loose.

As I mention in our Fargo podcast, the Coen brothers have an eye for talent and have slowly built a dependable repertory company of actors who show up again and again in their films. John Turturro makes his Coen brothers debut here in the pivotal role of Bernie Birnbaum. He would go on to star in Barton Fink and play memorable supporting characters in The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
As in every other Coen brothers’ film, the dialogue in Miller’s Crossing is unique and hyper-evocative of the period. The Coens have a keen ear for dialogue and dialect; like the mock-heroic Southwestern argot of Raising Arizona, the thirties-era gangster slang in Miller’s Crossing is perfectly evocative of the film’s place and time. It may not be the way people really talk, but it defines good movie dialogue and adds dimension to the actors’ performances. Besides, it is a Coen brothers trademark. Obviously “rumpus” was already a word, but I am convinced it was the Coens who actually coined the phrase “What’s the rumpus?” as the all-purpose gangster greeting repeated throughout the film.

The Coens’ sense of story and structure has always impressed me. Rewatching Miller’s Crossing to prepare for this column, I was struck by the narrative’s savvy pacing and dramatic turns of events. A lesser filmmaker would have Tom keeping his affair with Verna a secret for the entire film, but the Coens wisely spring that little surprise about halfway in. Not only is Leo’s reaction not quite what the audience was expecting, but the revelation becomes the turning point of the film. Bad writers keep things hidden in a misplaced bid for suspense; good writers know that audiences crave revelation – the suspense comes in the consequences.

Here at F This Movie! we frequently throw around the old saw that “a great movie has three great scenes and no bad scenes.” (Actually it may be just me that throws that around. It is a useful rule of thumb.) My son maintains that Miller’s Crossing has many more than three great scenes. Be that as it may, here are my three favorites:

In the first, Tom is about to catch a beating from a low-level thug; he picks up a chair and smashes it across the thug’s face. The thug, crestfallen, says “Gee, Tom” and walks away… but it is only to get another thug from the next room. The two proceed to give Tom a proper beating.

In the second scene, Johnny’s minions force Tom to take the bookie into the woods to shoot him. The bookie begs and pleads for his life so pathetically and convincingly that Tom lets him go. Tom lives to regret that decision.

In the third, the Coen brothers pull off a tour-de-force, a scene that (like the supermarket chase in their previous film, Raising Arizona) is meant to be the centerpiece of the entire movie. Leo is relaxing at home, enjoying a cigar while “Danny Boy” plays on his gramophone. Thugs break into his house, kill his bodyguards, and set the place on fire. Leo intuits all of this from the smoke rising up between the floorboards. Showing surprising agility, he springs into action, grabs a machine gun, climbs out the window, and swings down to the ground floor. He gets the jump on both thugs, machine-gunning them to death, then calmly strides forward, his house ablaze in the background, to finish off the getaway car drivers. He moves toward the car like a man invulnerable, gun blazing, all with the inspiring and sentimental strains of “Danny Boy” reaching a crescendo on the film’s soundtrack. It is really something to see. This scene is one of the reasons that we all go to the movies.

In the same loose way that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on Homer’s Odyssey, the genus of Miller’s Crossing seems to be The Glass Key, a gangster film based on a book by Dashiell Hammett. Like Miller’s Crossing, The Glass Key focuses on the #2 man (Alan Ladd) in a criminal organization, who sleeps with his boss’s girl and jumps to the opposing side. There are so many similarities between the two stories that I am surprised that Hammett does not at least get an “inspired by” nod in the opening credits.

(By the way, thanks to the Northwest Chicago Film Society for actually SCREENING The Glass Key a few months ago. I have talked about this group before; they do great work. They are screening an honest-to-goodness 35mm print of Night of the Hunter at The Portage Theater this Thursday, December 20, at 7:30 pm. Admission is only $5.00.)

It would be great if the Northwest Chicago Film Society could some day screen Miller’s Crossing.


  1. "But not a word about Miller’s Crossing. Why?"

    Evidently you don't hang around with the kind of people I do. :-)

  2. I think that Miller's Crossing is my favorite Coen Brothers movie, and I am always surprised it never gets talked about more when people are talking about great Coen Brothers movies. The scene with Leo defending his house from Casper's men and eventually killing them has to be one of the greatest movie scenes of all time, you can obviously tell that Leo has been through this kind of thing before and his confidence and ease can attest to that. What the old lady told Patrick at the end of his first time seeing Fargo is how I feel about this movie, "It's just so beautifully done", dispite having many twists and surprises, the movie flows so perfectly and a pitch-perfect tone is maintained throughout.

  3. Never seen it (can't think of a clever title comparison for movie shame but I did just watch all of the Police Academy movies....again), now its on the top of my list.