Feature number three for the Coen Brothers is an eccentric gangster saga with a wonderful slate of mugs — Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi — slinging highly entertaining hardboiled dialogue. The witty, insightful story is at heart not a comedy, and the direction impresses in the formal sense — no superfluous camera acrobatics this time. Barry Sonnenfeld’s visual stick in the mind — the Byrne-Turturro execution scene in the woods is one of the highlights of 1990s filmmaking.
The Criterion Collection 1112
1990 / Color / 1:85 / 113 115 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date February 8, 2022 / 39.95
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Albert Finney, Mike Starr, Al Mancini, Richard Woods, Tom Toner, Steve Buscemi, Mario Todisco. Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand.
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Designer: Dennis Gassner
Art Director: Leslie McDonald
Costume Design: Ricahrd Hornung
Film Editor: Michael R. Miller
Original Music: Carter Burwell
Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers’ third feature is a true gem that sees them trying a period picture on for size, one set in the late ’20s, apparently in New York but filmed in Louisiana. At this point the brothers collaborated but only Joel took directing credit; it’s also their third and last collaboration with cameraman Barry Sonnenfeld, who immediately graduated to producing and directing. It’s a ‘family affair’: Frances McDormand appears in a tiny cameo (with bee-stung lips!), and new to the Coen cosmos are John Turturro and Steve Buscemi.
The gangland tale Miller’s Crossing features some of the most stylish hardboiled dialogue ever, delivered with consummate skill. The amusing play with genre elements gives way to a rather somber, affecting examination of loyalties within the mob. The most endearing character is Jon Polito’s excitable hoodlum, who is quick to remind us how positively keen he is on ethics. They may steal and kill, but there are rules to observe.
The storyline is a tangle so why try to make it too clear? ‘Political boss’ Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney) runs the town’s vice rackets and has both the mayor and the police chief (Richard Woods & Tom Toner) obeying his every order. Leo and his advisor / right hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) are Irish to the bone; Leo’s main sub-boss, nightclub owner Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) is Italian-American. Caspar wants Leo to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for selling information about Caspar’s boxing fixes, but Leo refuses, without explanation. Tom advises that Leo comply, for the reason that Caspar is willing to go to war over the issue — ethics, you know. Leo still refuses.
What Caspar doesn’t know is that Leo is refusing because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Leo doesn’t listen when Tom says that Verna sleeps around, and is manipulating Leo to cover for her brother. Caspar doesn’t know that his main enforcer Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) knows that turncoat Mink (Steve Buscemi) is the leak feeding Bernie the info about the fixed fights. There are two potential romantic triangles in play: Leo / Verna / Tom, and Dane / Mink / Bernie. Bernie admits to being called ‘a degenerate,’ and the untrustworthy, manipulative Verna admits to having seduced her own brother in an attempt to get him away from ‘those bad friends.’
John Turturro’s Bernie is a completely unscrupulous angle-player — when Tom spares his life it’s a completely selfless gesture, at great risk to himself. Bernie immediately uses Tom’s merciful act against him, saying “look at the play you gave me.” The established Italians and Irish basically like to think they’re playing with ‘rules,’ but Verna and Bernie are utter realist-opportunists willing to double-cross anyone for the slightest perceived advantage. Thus various reviewers have decided that Miller’s Crossing is somehow both anti-gay and anti-Semitic. We defend the show, reminding readers that it has not a single ‘demeaning’ North Dakota accent.
“Do you always know why you do things?”
Although Albert Finney is the biggest star on view this is Gabriel Byrne’s show all the way. Tom Reagan is a core Dashiell Hammett-style lone operator. He drinks too much and has gambled himself into such a deep hole that he receives beatings almost daily. Yet the people he owes money to like him and trust Tom — he doesn’t go running to Leo to square his debt. Tom falls out with Leo and even joins Caspar’s mob for a while, but remains loyal to all of his pledges. When the gang war begins, the cops are on Leo’s side, busting up Caspar’s clubs, bars and gaming salons. Caspar then gets the other hand, and it’s Leo’s properties that are being destroyed, with the mayor and the police chief toadying before Caspar instead of Leo.
The action scenes don’t dominate but instead serve as tasty ‘genre spice.’ Tom is beaten to a pulp at regular intervals, the most spectacular being when he breaks up with Leo, who pummels him right on the floor of his nightclub. The incredibly cynical cops fight for whichever gang happens to be on top, with ‘no hard feelings’ either way. And Leo O’Bannion proves that he hasn’t lost his prowess when two Caspar thugs try to kill him in his own house. Leo nails one, takes his machine gun away and lights up the night with a counter-attack, while his own house burns down.
To the merciless, humorless Eddie Dane, Tom’s refusal to explain himself automatically masks treachery: “Straight as a corkscrew, Mr. Inside-Out-ski, like some goddamn Bolshevik.” Tom doesn’t explain himself to Leo either: the big boss never knows that Tom is secretly fighting on his side. In beautiful Dashiell Hammet fashion, Tom remains the lonely isolated operative. He manipulates things to put Leo back on top, put paid to Bernie’s treachery and to square things with Verna — who is convinced that Bernie is dead, and Tom has killed him. That last item is not the truth, at least not until the finale.
We watch Miller’s Crossing with a big grin on our faces, enjoying its rich old-school dialogue. Tom’s smart one-liners seem to roll off his tongue. Yet the film’s relationships are serious. Gabriel Byrne perhaps makes Tom too melancholy to win the audience over 100%. That lack of a clearcut hero might have been an impediment to the audience that requires one.
This was Marcia Gay Harden’s feature breakthrough role. Her duplicitous Verna has Leo wrapped around her finger and perhaps Tom as well; for her sake Leo lets the whole town erupt in a deadly, counterproductive Warner. Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar is by far the most lovable character, a lowlife ever in fear of being ‘high-hatted.’ He delivers outrageously self-serving speeches about ‘doing the right thing,’ and leans in to punctuate his points with his eyebrows, like an Italian-American Fats Waller. J.E. Freeman (Wild at Heart) is a wholly convincing antagonist for Tom, the only one smart enough to see through Tom’s schemes, but not fast enough to keep up with them.
Steve Buscemi’s ‘Mink’ is indeed a weasel. In his one scene Mink talks so fast we can barely keep up with him, yet we receive the clear impression that everything he says is a cowardly lie. The Coens clearly realized Buscemi was a gold mine, an actor with unlimited character opportunities.
We expect Albert Finney’s Leo to be a take-charge guy. He is, but his Achilles heel is his infatuation for Verna. Nobody spins the patter better than Finney, however. We all recall the actor’s excellent line of hardboiled gab in Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe. The main tragedy of Miller’s Crossing is that Tom Reagan’s extraordinary efforts to undo Leo’s folly and prove his loyalty mainly go unrecognized. Leo takes Tom for granted, and at the finish doesn’t seem to have learned anything. We worry that Verna will be his undoing.
[Note: It had to be explained to me that Leo’s wearing of a yarmulke at the woodsy funeral shouldn’t be confusing — he’s not Jewish, but he’s so dominated by Verna that she’s asked him to wear one for the ceremony. At least, that’s the conclusion arrived at by two other writers — with my limited background a guy wearing a yarmulke equals Jewish.]
The heaviest scene is the execution in the woods known as Miller’s Crossing. This gangster picture is all about personal codes of loyalty, something that’s a necessity in a situation where all activity is crooked and the quickest way to advance is through treachery. Tom is a thinker and a schemer but he’s never used lethal violence personally. He’s forced into a position where he must kill Bernie Bernbaum in cold blood: “Your first shot puts him down, then you put one in his Brain. Then he’s dead. Then we go home.” John Turturro had already delivered a score of strong performances but this showcase scene was his biggest to date. Whining, pleading, crying, begging, Bernie spits out arguments to convince Tom not to shoot him — because they’re alike, because ‘killing isn’t what Tom does.’ Bernie’s litany keeps coming back to the same plea “I’m praying to you — look in your heart — look in your heart! You can’t kill me — look in your heart.”
The show wraps up in fine form. Tom exits alone and basically unsatisfied despite the small miracle he’s accomplished in bringing himself, Leo and Verna through the fracas in one piece. Miller’s Crossing isn’t the Coens’ funniest or most outrageous show but we find it one of their most satisfying. The filmmaking brothers would proceed directly to a new narrative challenge with Barton Fink, a novelistic conceit that aims to make artistic pretention safe for moviegoers again.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Miller’s Crossing is a beautiful transfer from a 2K scan and overseen by the Coens and Barry Sonnenfeld. A new stereo mix has been created as well.
It’s an extremely handsome movie. Sonnenfeld’s images are stunning, even though the Coens have taken a break from the cute camera acrobatics of Blood simple and Raising Arizona. The more sober approach takes care to give Marcia Gay Harden a traditional glamour treatment, which comes off extremely well. The direction is simplified and restrained, minimizing cuts outside of the action sequences. When scenes become really serious, as out at Miller’s Crossing, the formalism of the Coens’ wide shots conveys real authority.
As was explained in February when the disc was released, the Coens did a bit of revising for this go-round, snipping some bits of dialogue. The movie is now reported to be two minutes shorter. Since I didn’t detect what was missing, I have no reaction to report. Whatever the differences are, it’s not like ‘Han Solo doesn’t shoot first.’
The picture’s now 32 years old, yet Criterion has new interviews with the filmmakers and a couple of the lead actors (see below). Glenn Kenny’s insert essay is an excellent introduction to the Coens’ first ‘costume picture’ that’s also not a comedy.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements (from Criterion):
Author Megan Abbott talks with the Coens about film noir and hard-boiled crime fiction
Abbott moderates new interview with actors Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro
New interviews with Sonnenfeld, composer Carter Burwell, music editor Todd Kasow, and production designer Dennis Gassner
Archived interviews (1990) with Byrne, Turturro, plus Marcia Gay Harden and Jon Polito
Plus a foldout insert with an essay by Glenn Kenny.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson