The silver screen at the close of 1990 was dominated by gangster movies. As Martin Scorcese’s GOODFELLAS opened to critical and popular acclaim, anticipation was building for the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART III in December. It was at this precise moment a pair of upstart filmmakers unleashed on an unsuspecting world the most satisfying, cerebral and cinematic piece of work in that genre to appear in years. Joel and Ethan Coen’s amazing MILLER’S CROSSING, incredibly only their third feature film, is a beautiful and meticulous piece of craftsmanship that hearkens back to the glory days of Hollywood and shows the audacious duo’s confidence and skill growing by leaps and bounds.
Bursting onto the scene with BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), a dark, suspenseful thriller that cleverly updated classic “Noir” tropes for a new generation, the brothers upped the ante significantly with RAISING ARIZONA (1987), a hilarious work of outrageous originality that became a modest success and resulted in a bigger budget for their next project. Some of the over-the-top elements found in their previous effort resurface in MILLER’S CROSSING, and one of these moments even features a cameo by the Coens’ old friend Sam Raimi, mastermind behind the shlock masterpieces EVIL DEAD (1981), EVIL DEAD 2 (1987) and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992). But mostly the Coens play it straight, taking Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key as a starting point and constructing a dark, intricate love letter to the “Noir” sensibility that fairly bursts with the filmmakers’ distinctive touches and recurring themes. Innovative camerawork, an instinct for purely visual storytelling (that is, the essence of cinema), and effective use of dialect and lingo to flesh out characters and add depth to their world are all on full, glorious display here.
I have always detected a kinship between the Coen brothers and Billy Wilder, the great writer/director whose films likewise brilliantly depicted wildly different slices of the American experience with a wry, darkly comic touch, and who, while also being a great visual storyteller, relied on the strength of his scripts to create a succession of strong, memorable characters both male and female, and the distinctive way in which they use language to communicate. In MILLER’S CROSSING this kinship is at its height. It is one of the Coens’ most satisfying screenplays, containing unprecedented depth in all the principal roles, unexpected and thrilling twists, a symmetry that is both comical and comforting (consider the appearances of O’Doole and the Mayor) and a number of well-constructed speeches and sparkling dialogue between many well-drawn and diverse characters, peppered with unique catchphrases whose repetition provides a welcome sense of familiarity in a story filled with multiple mysteries, double crossings and reversals of fortune. With such a strong script, it is no small feat that perhaps the highlight of the entire enterprise is a bravura scene containing no spoken words at all, a cinematic tour-de-force that unfolds to the accompaniment of Frank Patterson’s classic recording of “Danny Boy.”
Legend has it the entire project was sparked by the single image of a hat lying on a bed of leaves in a forest: A dreamlike, mysterious juxtaposition, symbolic of civilization versus the wild, or perhaps the life of the mind versus the life of the hands, a fascinating conflict that would continue to be explored throughout the Coens’ entire body of work, from BARTON FINK (1991) to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013).
Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne, in one of the many great performances of the movie) lives the life of the mind, among men of the other type. Like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in CASABLANCA, he may be the coolest and smartest of the players, but his morals are questionable. In any event, like Rick he is the ideal character to follow through the story, as he remains aloof and removed from the dirtier goings on as much as possible. Piercing the veil of smoke and subterfuge is his specialty, and watching him do it, and let people know he’s done it, is a vicarious thrill like precious few in the movies these days. Morality is one of the themes of MILLER’S CROSSING, right from the opening monologue, and in a typically subtle touch the first thing we see is ice clinking in Tom’s glass as he pours the drink that will become his constant companion, making us dimly aware of his presence in the background drinking, listening, and thinking.
That opening monologue is delivered by Jon Polilto, in a career performance as Johnny Caspar, one of a number of Coen brothers regulars making their remarkable debuts in the film; MILLER’S CROSSING also marks the first of many appearances in the brothers’ films for John Turturro and, in a spectacularly squirrely bit part, Steve Buscemi. The great Albert Finney and the unsung Marcia Gay Harden, more than holding her own against the cast of tough guys, round out the major roles.
Coen regular Carter Burwell is also on hand with a subtle and delicate score that surges when appropriate. Visually, the film is stunning; the last of the Coens’ to be photographed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and the production design by Dennis Gassner is simply gorgeous, all elements contributing to make this film larger than the sum of its parts. The simplicity of Tom’s apartment, to cite an obvious example, allows the drama to truly take center stage as he receives a number of lone callers over the course of the movie in a series of exquisitely written exchanges, the most foreboding ones involving Turturro’s Bernie Birnbaum, whose entrance is delayed, to great effect, until we have heard much about him, and whose powerful performance shifts from comic to ominous, desperate, and something more sinister, often within seconds.
Ultimately, MILLER’S CROSSING takes us to a place where words are no longer effective, and after the steady barrage of language the ambiguous ending is somewhat unexpected, leaving us much to muse upon, from mysteries solved to those that remain, even to this day, not the least of which is the eternal question of the significance of Tom’s hat.