Miller's Crossing

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December 18, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Cinematographer, and later director in his own right, Barry Sonnenfeld famously described Miller’s Crossing as, “a handsome film about men in hats.” As glib as that might sound it’s an astute summation. In this world of razor-tongued gangsters, as long as you’re wearing your hat you’re in control and, make no mistake, control, or its semblance, counts for everything. With the Coens’ third film the duo mustered up their most unashamedly ‘old school’ film to date and arguably the highlight of their entire career. Though still rooted in their usual fascination with individuals grappling with larger, and invariably cruel, circumstances, what makes Miller’s Crossing all the more impressive is that it really plays down any sense of fate or chance. It is a film of conscious decisions and schemes, with multiple factions battling for supremacy in Prohibition-era America. In the thick of it all is Irish gangster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) who knows enough about everyone else to get by but seemingly all too little about his own shortcomings. He’s all brains in a world ruled by brawn and, as one of his counterparts puts it, his life is all about “reading the angles”. That being so, this film could keep a class of geometry students busy for a long time.

Although the plot is intricately drawn it boils down to a fairly simple series of conflicts. Leo (Albert Finney) is the city’s criminal top dog. He holds both the mayor and the chief of police in his pocket and business is good. It’s perhaps an exaggeration but who could resist playing up the crookedness of a world where alcohol was illegal? Prohibition-era America made many of its citizens criminals purely for indulging in some tipple and handed both business and legitimacy to criminal empires. This is the world of Miller’s Crossing where the political and the criminal are, in something of an open secret, one and the same. At Leo’s right-hand side, as a somewhat unofficial advisor, is the aforementioned Tom. He might have the intellect for the job but he can’t find any pleasure in it as he helps steer Leo’s actions and tries to keep his own hands free of blood. Tom seems to have a skill for reading the best possible play in every power struggle while remaining objective, a skill that Leo always needs assistance with.

Of course that objectivity only works when it comes to business. In Tom’s personal life problems abound, most notably a heap of gambling debts and an ongoing affair with Leo’s kept woman, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden, in her feature film debut). Like so many Coen Brothers’ films it will be the woman around whom everyone else will fall. She’s sleeping with Leo because it suits her needs, primarily by offering protection to her brother, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro, in his first Coens’ role). Bernie’s made a lot of powerful enemies while trying to escape his low status as a crooked penny-and-dime bookie. His big mistake was to cross Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an Italian mobster whose status has risen to the point where Tom recognises him as a serious threat to Leo’s dominance.

There’s no real reason to shelter Bernie, but while Leo is hooked up with his sister Bernie’s kept safe despite his dangerous meddling. In protecting this liability, Leo is threatening his own empire and the political stability of the entire city. When Tom falls out of favor with his boss, an inevitable occurrence when his affair with Verna emerges, he has to try to secure his own survival. Meanwhile relations between Caspar and Leo have escalated to full-scale war. All this violence and bloodshed leads back to one man, Bernie, and he doesn’t have any protection anymore. The plot here reaches a crossroads, represented in the eponymous location, Miller’s Crossing, a forested area where Tom is instructed by Caspar’s men to prove his loyalty by executing the recently captured source of all this trouble. Walking deeper and deeper into the woods, Tom can’t make himself do the pragmatic thing and he lets Bernie flee. As is often the case, no good deed goes unpunished as Bernie returns to try to blackmail his saviour for failing to pull the trigger, recognising that Tom’s kind deed, or lack of guts, has weakened his position and provided the bookie with a new form of insurance independent of the now compromised Leo. Tom now has to scramble to put all the pieces back together in his favour, a seemingly impossible task.

It’s difficult to decide where to begin when lauding this film. A top-notch cast certainly makes for a good start. In the central role as world-weary Tom, Gabriel Byrne is handed his finest moment and he seizes it ably with both hands. It’s certainly a world away from his humble beginnings in Irish soap-opera Bracken1. He plays things cool and assured as he reads situations and calls bluffs. Around him the other characters are more broadly drawn with Polito’s Italian gangster becoming something of a full-blooded cartoon, albeit a highly enjoyable one. Marcia Gay Harden’s turn as the sly femme fatale gets good mileage out of a somewhat limited premise whilst elsewhere J.E. Freeman’s turn as Polito’s right-hand man, the murderous ‘Dane’, provides an excellent foil for Tom’s careful planning. The Dane is almost as savvy as Tom and also has the muscle he lacks. Finally, with the next most intriguing role after the Irishman’s, is John Turturro’s turn as the conniving Bernie. He’s a nobody with big dreams and he can read the angles nearly as well as Tom. His downfall is that his hunger for position causes him to forget about the simple tact of maintaining allies. He climbs far and fast but when things go wrong he’s quickly reminded he not only has no friends but lacks the status to even have people pretend.

What really distinguishes this film from much of the Coens’ other work is that the various dastardly mechanisms of the plot are all planned and consciously developed by the various actors. The cruel hand of fate, either working invisibly or personified in one particularly cruel character, is not to be found here. Even ‘The Dane’, gunning for Tom at every turn and ruthlessly efficient throughout, is a rational participant in the grander politics of the story. The end result is that, more so than any of their other films, Miller’s Crossing easily repels accusations of wanton cruelty. Granted, the world these characters inhabit is as cruel as any other but the violence they visit on themselves and on others follows along logical principles without ever assuming that people are fundamentally like this; there’s always something at stake to warrant the devious twists and turns the plot follows. Furthermore, in the case of The Dane, we must recognise that his cruelty to Tom is not based on any insanity but on a fundamental distrust, one that we recognise is rightly placed. For all his brutality he is, in the system in which he is seated, an honourable man and easily more noble than the film’s protagonist.

It’s in this sort of fashion that the ethical concerns of the film are teased out, with situational awareness filling in for ‘morality’. In a world of gangsters and thieves whatever gets you by and gets your enemy killed is the moral thing to do. Importantly, in this system the actions of those involved are adduced for reasons of necessity rather than by some innate misanthropic urge as could be argued in much of the Coen’s other work. Miller’s Crossing might bring with it a dim view of humanity but it is one couched in a justifiable spectrum.

So once again, in a manner similar to but infinitely more nuanced than their debut Blood Simple, what we have here is a portrait of ethical quandaries. The characters fall into two primary categories, broad caricature and more delicately sketched individuals. The former consist of grand actors such as Leo, Caspar and The Dane who shape the larger events while the latter consist primarily of Tom and Bernie, small-timers who must shape their own future through manipulation. The former can move objects whilst the latter must present a version of events that will encourage those same people to shift things in their favour. This brings up the core question of the film, the goals of Tom Reagan.

It’s certain that he didn’t plan every single development in the film and we see him struggle in a few places to maintain composure but the resolution he finally does engineer suggests some kind of loyalty to Leo. Obfuscating this is his continued relationship with Verna. The truth is that Tom seems to dislike most everyone he is associated with despite his attempted easy swagger. Leo is a fool but places a huge amount of trust in Tom. Meanwhile Leo gets Verna—their relationship seems founded on feelings every bit as ambivalent as the central coupling in the Coens’ debut film—and the only person in this whole sorry saga Tom really does like. With all these issues raised it’s near impossible to work out the ethics of Tom’s actions. If Leo is a friend at all, which is debatable, then he has been defended against his own worst impulses but perhaps that was only done to maintain Verna’s position. Or perhaps it was to help Tom escape all this, as the ending suggests he does, as Leo offers him begrudging thanks before letting him know they can never work together again.

The ethics seem hedged only in the immediate situations in which they arise and no grander motives seem discernable. The film never really suggests that Johnny Caspar and The Dane were more deserving of defeat than their counterparts on the other side of the fray, but by dying they served their part in Tom’s larger scheme. Although it’s only hypothetical, it’s not difficult to imagine that Tom might just have easily sacrificed Leo if it had simply been the more efficacious path at the time. There are no friends here, only acquaintances. And whoever heard of someone offering up their life to save a mere acquaintance?

On the subject of Sonnenfeld’s self-proclaimed ‘handsome’ film, his work behind the camera certainly is a great contribution. Although heavily steeped in noir tradition the film avoids much of the visual stylisations of that movement, a wise decision given the colour film stock. With an emphasis on browns and greys the palette here is often slightly dull and uninviting, perhaps a tad reminiscent of the likes of Melville’s Le samouraï, where the lack of striking colour seemed a comment on the lack of humanity or honesty within the world it portrayed. At the centre of Melville’s great film was not a protagonist but rather an absence of character, merely borrowing the shape of Alain Delon. Similarly the muted palette of Miller’s Crossing, dwelling primarily indoors, suggests an absence of honest representation. A world of posturing and pretend. Furthering this effect is a preference for lenses with short focal lengths, creating narrow fields of focus and abstracting that which lies outside.

There are exceptions to this such as the shine and surface of Leo and Caspar’s respective offices. These grand, stately rooms are all surface with quality materials reflecting the wealth of their owners. They take on the appearance of sets, not in the sense of filmmaking per se, but in the idea that none of these locations seem lived-in. They are creations of their owners, self-conscious evocations of how they wish to be seen. They too are absences of character rather than real people. The other major exception is, of course, Miller’s Crossing itself. With its wooded environs and simple, calm surroundings it suggests an escape from the threatening constraints of Tom’s usual milieu. Of course he’s still there to kill someone on someone else’s behalf but, as he walks deeper and deeper into the forest, he recognises that the boundaries here are less clear cut, less immediately pressing. Here he has wriggle room and he uses it to spare Bernie his life. Be it a good deed, a cowardly surrender, or perhaps even another ticked box in a larger plan, it still finds origin in this place away from the frantic world of appearances that the rest of the film occupies.

There might be nothing exemplary to Miller’s Crossing within the grander spectrum of American cinema aside from its magnificent construction, but that’s more than enough. The various crosses, double-crosses, toils and travails of the characters are nothing new and, indeed, that’s a large part of the film’s charm. Mixing elements of the popular gangster films of the 1930s2, and certain aspects of the ‘film noir’ that characterised the 1940s, Miller’s Crossing is both a beautifully rendered ode to those movies whilst also living and breathing its own dynamics with such conviction that it seems to simply be a late arrival to a long abandoned party. Its steady adherence to so much of what crackled in those old films shows the real power of the medium, an energy and verve that survived the censorship put in place to disperse it. It seems there’s always a way to make things work out right. Just ask Tom Reagan.

1 Which everyone knows stood as the mid-point in a trilogy of Irish soap-operas which spun-off from one another beginning with the groundbreaking The Riordans and ending with the clod-hopping Glenroe. Everyone knows that, right?

2 Many made, it’s hard to believe, while American Prohibition was still in full swing and the likes of Capone and Dillinger still lived and breathed. In the latter’s case his execution occurred just outside the cinema in which he watched Manhattan Melodrama, a film featuring Clark Gable playing a streetwise racketeer.

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