By ELLSWORTH BENCHWOOD
The Coen Brothers didn’t invent the gangster movie, but with the handsome, haunting and hilarious “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) they observed it to a degree and elevated it to a height no entry in that genre has touched before or since.
This is one of those movies in which the complex plot can’t really be grasped upon a first viewing and is really beside the point. Set in the 1930’s in an unnamed Chicago-esque Midwestern city, a self-assured Irish political boss, Leo O’Bannon (played by Albert Finney) insults a subordinate Italian boss, hot-headed Johnny Caspar (played by Jon Polito), by refusing to grant him permission to kill Bernie Bernbaum (played by John Turturro), a low-level Jewish bookie whom Caspar suspects of undermining his gambling racket by obtaining and selling information about his fixing prize fights. Leo’s counselor, Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne), advises Leo against offending Caspar – it’s clearly bad for business and could cause a war. He also knows that Leo is only protecting Bernie because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister, Verna (played by Marcia Gay Harden).
All of this is conveyed in a pre-credits opening scene in Leo’s office, which begins with a close shot of ice cubes clinking into a tumbler. As whiskey pours into the glass, we hear Caspar in the background, making his case to Leo for killing Bernie, waxing philosophical about the need for rules, order and “et’ics” in their chosen business. There’s a good chance you’ll finish this opening scene and not get the intended plot exposition described above. You might only get that Leo’s is a really cool-looking 1930’s mob boss office, dimly lit, beautiful mahogany, leather chairs, etc., or that Caspar’s henchman, The Dane (played by J.E. Freeman), looks really menacing standing behind Caspar as he makes his case to Leo. No matter – whatever you get out of the opening scene is fine, and whatever plot machinations you don’t get can be processed upon subsequent viewings.
Better not to think too much about it, and just enjoy the foreshadowing opening credits: the camera glides through the woods, looking up at the treetops, as a wistful oboe plays the first few notes of Carter Burwell’s beautiful score, a riff on the traditional Irish ballad, “Limerick’s Lamentation.” The rest of the symphony joins in, and we cut to a ground-level shot of a clearing in the woods. A hat falls into the center of the frame, the title card appears above it, and after a beat the hat is blown away from us by the wind.
With this, in its first 10 minutes, “Miller’s Crossing” has shown you everything it’s setting out to do over the next 100 minutes. You’re going to get gangsters and crooked cops and molls exchanging snappy, funny 1930’s-sounding dialogue, replete with expressions like “What’s the rumpus?” and “Take your flunky and dangle,” delivered by characters who play for Leo’s team, play for Caspar’s team, or just try to stay out of the violent fray. You’re going to get gorgeous set-pieces, the peak of which is a scene at Leo’s house in which he uses a tommy gun to fend off a crew of Caspar’s assassins, while a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” (sung by Ireland’s Golden Tenor, Frank Patterson) plays on the Victrola in Leo’s bedroom.
Detractors of the Coen Brothers have often criticized their work as being too stylized, and their dialogue as being too “written.” Roger Ebert gave “Miller’s Crossing” a qualified endorsement, noting that it “looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie” – taking the position that the movie is too good-looking, and that the dialogue is too skillfully worded to be enjoyed as anything more than an exercise. That might be a valid charge if there was nothing of substance beneath the meticulous set design and idiomatic dialogue, but that’s not the case here.
Like many of the Coen Brothers’ movies, “Miller’s Crossing” ponders what makes us who we are, and why we do the things we do. Tom implores Leo to reconsider his position of offending Caspar: “You do things for a reason. It helps to have one.” Yet his falling out with Leo later in the first act is attributable to the exact reason (one that Tom dismissed as a poor one) why Leo decided to protect Bernie in the first place – he’s also in love with Verna. Banished by Leo for this betrayal, Tom joins Caspar’s gang as an advisor, to help Caspar topple Leo in the rising gang war and ascend to Leo’s throne. Or does he? Is his falling out with Leo, caused by the love triangle with Verna, merely a ruse to ingratiate himself with Caspar, so that he might be in a better position to help Leo prevail?
Loyalty, betrayal, the head versus the heart, the struggle to understand one’s own reason for doing things – “Miller’s Crossing” explores these themes with a sense of sadness and loss, depicted brilliantly by Gabriel Byrne. Tom’s defining trait is that he’s a thinker who knows all the angles and can anticipate everyone’s every move. His head knows what the smart play is, but the irrational heart might dictate otherwise, as the wind that blows his hat off. In grappling with this, he must consider the question of whether he even has a heart at all. That’s the source of the sadness in his eyes and the plaintive Irish ballad playing over the proceedings.