Cinematic Century

1990 – Miller’s Crossing

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We’ve made it into another decade here on Cinematic Century, and what better way to start the 1990’s off than with a slow moving crime drama! We went from the sheer excess of Tim Burton’s Batman last week to our very first trip into the weird world of the Coen Brothers this week with one of their more straightforward films, the great Miller’s Crossing. And, that actually did end up being a easy decision to make. Because, 1990 was a pretty decent year for movies, just not the type of movies that I connect with. Perhaps the most obvious movie that came out this year to highlight would be Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a movie that quite a few people adore, and that just has never clicked for me that way. By and large I’ve found myself drawn to Scorsese’s less mobster-focused movies, and while there’s certainly a lot to appreciate about Goodfellas, it just doesn’t do it for me.  I also know that people really enjoy Total Recall, perhaps for semi-ironic purposes, but I’ve always preferred Running Man if we’re talking weird Arnold Schwarzenegger dystopia nonsense. I guess we also could have talked about Edward Scissorhands and just had a Tim Burton marathon here, but that film has never really meant as much to me as it clearly means to so many other people. I like seeing an earnest Tim Burton though. Weirdly, the only movie that really stood a decent chance of dethroning Miller’s Crossing as my pick this week would have been the absolutely insane Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Which, is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen in my life, and which really shaped a broken sense of humor in me that has survived for decades. It’s weird, it makes essentially no sense, it shatters the fourth wall, and I found it endlessly fascinating as a child, really opening up the possibilities for what stories could even be. But, when I had to sit down and really think about it, I decided to go with my old stand-by. A quick-witted noir about terrible people doing terrible things.

While their career has largely gone in a different direction, the Coen Brothers began their career clearly fascinated with neo-noir crime thrillers. Their first film, Blood Simple, is a straight-forward crime thriller, and really showed their love for noir, which seemed to be dropped in their second film, Raising Arizona. But, setting up the precedent that the Coen Brothers would switch between goofy and serious movies, they came back to the world of noir with their third movie, a long-getating project that eventually became Miller’s Crossing. The Coen’s clearly drew on a life-time love of hardboiled crime stories, specifically those of Dashiell Hammett, to create this script, which sent them into periods of writers-block trying to fully unravel the script long enough that they just went ahead and wrote their next film, Barton Fink, while trying to figure this one out.  And, after eventually getting a working script pieced together, they started work on the film, getting together a rather low-budget film for the time. Thankfully, they were able to find locations in New Orleans that were able to replicate the 1920’s aesthetic they wanted to go for without having to do much set dressing. And, after assembling a crew of actors the film began a fairly straight-forward production, relying heavily on the performances of their lead actors. The Coens seemed to have given quite a bit of freedom to Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney, who were able to convince the brothers to let them speak in their natural Irish accents, lending some authenticity to the characters. Unfortunately, as I mention so often on this site, it just didn’t find its audience at the time. Critics enjoyed it, as they are wont to do for a new Coen Brothers movie, but it was by all regards a flop. However, as the Coen Brothers’ star continued to rise for the rest of the decade, the film eventually was rediscovered, and is now frequently regarded as one of their best films, while also serving as a bit of an outlier in their filmography.

 

 

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Miller’s Crossing is set during the Prohibition era, in an unnamed city, and revolves around a man named Tom Reagan, who works as a confidant of a powerful mobster named Leo O’Bannon. O’Bannon runs the town with an iron fist, but he’s starting to get a little bit of push-back from an Italian gangster named Johnny Caspar, specifically around O’Bannon’s inaction regarding an annoying bookie named Bernie Bernbaum. Caspar wants Bernie killed for this indiscretions, but O’Bannon makes it clear that he’s going to protect Bernie, primarily because Bernie is the brother of a woman named Verna, who O’Bannon is in a relationship with. However, Tom can tell that this isn’t a very goof idea. He can tell that O’Bannon is being played by Verna, who just wants her brother protected, specifically because he’s also having an affair with Verna, and knows full well that she isn’t actually in love with O’Bannon. But, after tensions reach a point where Caspar has his ment attempt to kill O’Bannon, Tom realizes he can’t take it anymore, and reveals his affair to O’Bannon, hoping to show him that Verna isn’t to be trusted. Unfortunately, all this accomplishes is throwing O’Bannon into a rage, leading to him kicking Tom out of the organization.

Tom Reagan is a man of self-preservation though, so he immediately heads over to Caspar, looking for work from him. And, eager to establish himself as the new head of crime in the city, Caspar decides to welcome Tom in, hoping that he’ll help him accomplish this goal. But, in order to prove his loyalty, Caspar also demands that Tom bring Bernie, who they’ve captured, out into the woods at a location called Miller’s Crossing, and kill him. But, when put alone together in the woods, Tom can’t do it, and lets Bernie go, setting up a lie that he actually did kill the man. So, with that, Tom is welcomed into the fold by Caspar, who has begun to really press against O’Bannon, realizing that his control of the city has become weakened. And, he starts to do quite well, managed to topple O’Bannon’s reign and become the new head of crime. But, Tom’s quick rise in Caspar’ organization earns him the suspicion of Caspar’s right-hand man, a killer known as The Dane. He gets it in his head that Tom didn’t actually kill Bernie, and carts himself, Tom, and Caspar out to Miller’s Crossing where they indeed find a rotting body, much to Tom’s shock. He’s pretty baffled as to the identity of this corpse, and the answer ends up leading to even more complications. Because it turns out that Bernie decided not to skip town, and has decided to get revenge on Caspar, using Tom. He killed a man named Mink, who the Dane was in love with, and placed his body out in the woods in his own place. And, he now wants to blackmail Tom into helping him kill Caspar and Dane, taking over their new position.

Tom really wants no part in this plan, but does see ways to turn this all to his benefit. So, he begins sowing discontent between Caspar and the Dane, setting up a schism while also keeping one step ahead of the Dane’s suspensions. Tom begins convincing Caspar that the Dane is seeking to overthrow him, and the strange disappearance of Mink is related. Dane does his best to fight back against Tom’s whisper campaign, but Tom proves to be more adept at playing with Caspar’s paranoia, causing the mobster to finally snap and brutally kill the Dane in front of Tom, placing Tom as his new right-hand man. And, at this point, Tom decides he’s done with it all. He ends up sending Caspar to the same location that Bernie would be at, letting the two kill each other. But, when he goes to see the results he sees that Bernie actually did kill Caspar, and Bernie begins planning their new reign together as crime bosses. But, Tom just kills Bernie, resetting all of the machinations. And, with Caspar and his entire organization destroyed, O’Bannon is able to regain control of the city, and he wants to reinstate Tom in his old position, pleased with the way that Tom was able to destroy the competition. But, Tom is no longer interested in the life, refuses O’Bannon’s offer, and leaves to go find his own way in life.

 

 

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I love the Coen Brothers. They are more than likely my favorite living filmmakers, and I adore just about every single one of their films. This will certainly not be the only time that I discuss their work in this last chunk of the Cinematic Century, and one of the things that I most appreciate about them is their range. I feel like often the Coens get thought of as masterful crafters of wacky comedies. And, they’re quite good at that. But, people tend to forget that they’re also amazing at crafting dramatic crime stories, leading to people being shocked every time they do it. And, this is one of their best crime movies. It’s a slow-moving movie, which really is just a series of conversation scenes in various offices with a bit of crazy mobster action thrown in for good measure. And, as a result, this movie lives and dies by its script, and the actors ability to deliver these lines. The Coen Brothers are some of the best script-writers working, and they have an amazing ability to not only craft wonderfully complicated stories, but also incredibly fun and witty dialogue. The only problem is, quick-witted dialogue can sometimes be wasted on actors who just don’t have the right skill to deliver it in a realistic way. But, the actors in this film, especially Gabriel Byrne and Jon Polito, knock it out of the park, delivering us a bunch of scumbags with delusions of grandeur who are all scheming around each other and trying to stab each other in the backs.

Which, is one of the things that I love most about the Coen Brothers. Because, regardless of the tone of their films, they almost always tell stories that reveal that no one is as clever as they think they are. Their movies are almost exclusively full of numbskull characters who all think they’re geniuses, and who are just trying to get one over on every other character. This film pulls quite heavily from hardboiled detective fiction, specifically the works of Dashiell Hammett. It’s not a specific adaptation of any of Hammett’s novels, but the story shares quite a bit of elements from the Glass Key and Red Harvest. Hammett is often considered one of the finest writers of detective fiction in history, and his works elevate the genre, possibly stemming from his own experience in the Pinkerton’s, to create incredibly serious and powerful pulp literature. But, the Coen Brothers are able to take Hammett’s work, and find the inherent ridiculousness inside, playing off that. They see bare-knuckle stories about bad men doing bad things, engaging in mob wars and trying to backstab everyone in sight, and decide to show how absurd they all are. While this movie isn’t a comedy, it still shows two seemingly powerful men who are easily led astray by Tom, who is able to play off of their paranoia and insecurities beautifully, showing them to be the absurd figures that their bluster is constantly trying to hide. Because, at the end of the day, everyone is a little more ridiculous than they think they are. That seems to be the driving ethos behind the Coen Brother’s filmography, and this film handles that concept beautifully.

 

Miller’s Crossing was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Joel Coen, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1990.

 

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