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100 Greatest Gangster Films: Miller’s Crossing, #40

Movie still: Miller's Crossing

100 Greatest Gangster Films

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Miller’s Crossing, #40

In a cast as deep as the 1998 Yankees, two performances stand out. Character actor Jon Polito is riveting as Johnny Caspar, the perspiring old-school gangster who also serves as Miller’s Crossing’s street-level philosopher. And John Turturro steals scenes as Bernie, the double-crossing bookie at the center of all the trouble.

Movie still: Millers Crossing

Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing (1990-R)
©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Miller’s Crossing is one of those movies that critics love more than audiences do. It’s full of metaphors and cryptic symbols and elaborate plot twists. It gets a 90 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the website that distills the opinions of dozens of professional movie reviewers. On the other hand, the movie garnered a measly $5 million at the box office.

Our list is not for film critics. It’s for regular guys (and gals) who enjoy gangster movies. Our verdict? We enjoyed Miller’s Crossing as a tribute to the noir classics of the 1940s. But we don’t share the enthusiasm of renowned film historian David Thomson, who called it, “a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing.”

Perhaps if we could have just followed the story a little better.

The movie was produced, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, which may be all you need to know. The brothers are known for their quirky style, gloomy setups and witty dialogue. Sometimes, it works (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski). Sometimes, it just comes across as self-impressed thumb twiddling (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).

This one’s right in the middle. There’s a lot of wit and style, but much of the detail and dense plot seems to be there for the sake of impressing. Don’t watch this movie alone, because at regular intervals you’ll need to ask your popcorn buddy, “What the hell’s going on here?” As Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “A bit of clarity wouldn’t hurt Miller’s Crossing. Even here in Gangsterland, where random characters are cherished and non sequiturs are considered wisecracks, there is a difference between complications and impenetrability, and this plot is a bloody thicket.”

That said, we’ll aim for a lucid synopsis:

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is a cold-hearted Irish mobster with a vague code of ethics and a gambling problem. He works as the confidante to big city boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), who trusts Tom for his ability to “see all the angles” in advance. Had this movie been made a half-century earlier, a young Humphrey Bogart could have played Tom and Edward G. Robinson would have been ideal as Leo (well, maybe except for the Irish part).

Leo runs an unnamed Prohibition-era big city, but his rule is being challenged by Italian rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Caspar chafes at Leo’s protection of a small-time bookie, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who has double-crossed him.

Of course, there’s a woman involved. Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is the seductive moll who maintains an affair with Leo, ostensibly to protect her brother. Plus, she secretly sleeps with Tom on the side. There’s not much romance in that relationship, which mostly consists of them insulting each other before heading to bed. “The two of us,” notes Tom, “we’re about bad enough to deserve each other.”

Eventually, Tom divulges his affair to Leo and gets promptly beat up (not the first or last time the poor guy will be assaulted in this movie). It all happens within the larger conflict of a gangland war and leads to Tom switching sides to work for Caspar and being forced to undergo a tough loyalty test.

Internecine violence, blackmail, more double-crossing and lots of machine-gun fire follow. There’s also a subplot about homosexuality, a few violent ambushes and a final offer of reconciliation.

It’s all pretty pessimistic, which jibes with Tom Reagan’s philosophy: “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” Motivated by that bleak outlook, Tom wanders through the film, more amoral than immoral.

And that’s part of our problem. We don’t expect the protagonist in gangster movies to be heroic, but we do expect him to have dreams or, at least, emotions. Consider, by contrast, The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. He starts out with plans of saving his family and ends up lost and corrupt. We’re invested in the character. Tom Reagan never clues us in on his hopes in Miller’s Crossing. As a result, we never get fully drawn in.

The Coens created Miller’s Crossing to pay their respects to what Ethan called “dirty town movies,” the kind of gangster stories that haven’t been made in decades. For that, we admire them. The story evokes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—for our money the top pulp fiction mystery writers from back in the day.

Miller’s Crossing serves up a stew of many tasty ingredients, but perhaps a few could have been left in the fridge. You’ll enjoy the throwback dialogue (“He’s just a cheap political boss with more hair tonic than brains”) and you’ll appreciate the fine actors in small roles (Steve Buscemi, notably). But—at the risk of taking our food metaphor too far—at the end, you may feel like you ate a large, lushly prepared meal but left the table unsatisfied.

HIT: In a cast as deep as the 1998 Yankees, two performances stand out. Character actor Jon Polito is riveting as Johnny Caspar, the perspiring old-school gangster who also serves as Miller’s Crossing’s street-level philosopher. And John Turturro steals scenes as Bernie, the double-crossing bookie at the center of all the trouble.

MISS: Gabriel Byrne is a terrific actor. We loved him in The Usual Suspects. But he seems bored here. More than once, we turned to each other and asked, “What did he say?” as Byrne mumbled through another line.

“To play enigma, you can’t give away much,” Byrne explained to the New York Times. Perhaps, but it might have helped if he at least took the marbles out of his mouth.

REALITY CHECK: Tom gets beat up eight—count ‘em eight—times in the movie, sustaining kicks to the ribs and a right cross that splits open his lip. Somehow, he always manages to fully recover by the next scene. The guy has better healing powers than Wolverine.

PIVOTAL SCENE: With so many key plot turns, it’s tough to choose just one. But the best moment comes when Tom—after he has switched his allegiances to Caspar—is driven into the woods with two of Caspar’s thugs and Bernie. Tom assumes Bernie will be killed; but he doesn’t know he’ll be assigned to carry out the execution. “Put one in his brain,” orders one of the thugs, handing Tom a gun. “The boss wants you to do it.”

The car is parked at Miller’s Crossing. Tom marches Bernie deeper through the trees, as Bernie panics. “You’re not like those guys,” Bernie implores. “I’m just a grifter. I don’t deserve to die for that.”

They keep walking, traveling what seems like a half-mile from the car. Tom orders Bernie to his knees as Bernie whimpers, “I’m praying to you. Look into your heart.”

Finally, Tom aims and shoots—into the ground. He spares Bernie’s life, but orders him to leave town. “You’re dead, get me?” Tom says. “You have to disappear for good.”

Bernie flees, and Tom heads back to the car to tell Caspar’s men he has done the deed. But in his eyes, you can see Tom is already having second thoughts about sparing Bernie’s life. Those doubts will turn out to be legitimate.

REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Watch it twice—once just to take it in, and a second time to try to better comprehend it.

DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The use of men’s hats as a symbol throughout the movie. They float through the air, they get knocked off, they get pulled over furrowed brows. And the meaning? Even the actors did not know what the Coens were getting at.

“I asked Joel, ‘What’s the significance to the hat?’ “ Byrne told the New York Times. “And he said, ‘Oh, that hat is very significant.’ “ In our opinion, if the lead actor doesn’t know, it’s unclear how the audience is supposed to figure it out.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A noir with a touch so light, the film seems to float on the breeze like the Frisbee of a fedora sailing through the forest.”—Richard Corliss, Time

(Yeah, sure. Anyway, in 2005 Time chose Miller’s Crossing as one of the 100 greatest movies produced since the publication debuted in 1923.)

GOOF: Watch for the scene where Verna dials 9-1-1 to call the cops. In fact, the three-digit emergency system didn’t begin until 1968, and didn’t reach any major American cities until 1976.

CASTING CALL: Trey Wilson was cast to play Leo, the Irish mob boss. You may recall Wilson as the manager in Bull Durham or as furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. He died shortly before shooting, so Albert Finney was hired.

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Moderate. The best moments come during an attempted hit on Leo, in which the savvy boss mows down his attackers with a Thompson M1928 submachine gun. It’s all choreographed to Irish tenor Frank Patterson’s beautiful rendition of “Danny Boy.”

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The portrayal of cops as bought-and-sold commodities was partly influenced by the Coen Brothers’ dealings with police while filming the movie in New Orleans. That city’s police continually held up shooting, Joel Coen said, to assess fines (or take bribes) for permits the crew had already procured.

BEST LINE: Johnny Caspar lamenting the lack of a moral code among his peers—one of whom has sold inside knowledge of a rigged boxing match: “It’s getting so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you’re gonna have to go betting on chance, and then you’re back with anarchy. Right back in the jungle, on account of the breakdown of ethics. That’s why ethics is important. It’s the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals.”

“I KNOW THAT GAL”: Joel Coen’s real-life wife, Frances McDormand, makes a brief appearance as the corrupt mayor’s secretary. Under all that pancake makeup, it may be tough to recognize her as small-town police Chief Marge Gunderson from Fargo.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Glass Key, the 1942 film noir based on the novel of the same name written by Hammett, a book that clearly inspired Miller’s Crossing.

BODY COUNT: Fourteen. Or fifteen, if you want to count the bad toupee left askew on one poor victim’s head.


Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies

George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and author of several books, including "Blood and Honor" which Jimmy Breslin called "the best gangster book ever written." Glen Macnow was a writer for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Detroit Free Press." He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia. George and Glen have co-authored "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies."

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