Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen.
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, J.E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Al Mancini, Richard Woods, Thomas Toner, Michael Jeter, Michael Badalucco, Sam Raimi, Frances McDormand.
“You ain’t got a license to kill bookies and today I ain’t sellin’ any. So take your flunky and dangle”.
It was in 1984 that we were introduced to (what would become) two of cinema’s finest writer/director’s in Joel & Ethan Coen. Their darkly cynical debut Blood Simple grabbed audiences by the crotch yet their wacky follow up, Raising Arizona, managed to tickle said area. By their third film, Miller’s Crossing, there was no denying that this was truly a creative partnership that knew how to construct and deliver films of great substance and enjoyment. In an unnamed town during prohibition times, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is the right-hand man to crime boss Leo (Albert Finney). Leo is heavily involved with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and losing his judgement as a result. When rival boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) comes to Leo for permission to kill Verna’s brother Bernie (John Turturro) for double-crossing him, he’s refused. What follows, is a war between gangs and Tom finds himself shifting allegiances while playing one side against the other.When it was released in 1990, Miller’s Crossing was a box-office failure. It took about half of it’s reportedly $10 million budget and I often wonder if this could have been affected by Martin Scorsese’s more realistic gangster film, Goodfellas, being released in the same year. In hindsight, though, it has achieved somewhat of a cult status and celebrated for depicting it’s criminals and their unlawful activity in a very different fashion.The Coen’s have been known to reference a few hard-boiled crime writers throughout their films: James M. Cain had a heavy presence in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Blood Simple while Raymond Chandler coursed through The Big Lebowski. In this case, it’s Dashiell Hammett and, most notably, his novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest that Miller’s Crossing references and intertwines.Set in 1929, Barry Sonnenfeld’s rich cinematography is a thing of sumptuous beauty. He captures the time and feel of the 20’s to absolute perfection by utilising a very particular gradation of colour in deep red, green and brown hues. This is arguably the Coen’s most visually stunning film to date and that’s saying something considering the meticulous attention to detail throughout most of their work.The characters are just as rich. I’m not normally a fan of Gabriel Byrne but at the centre of the labyrinthine plot he delivers a solidly reserved performance as consigliere Tom Reagan, while those around him have the more colourful, offbeat roles – the kind of which we have now become accustomed to with the Coen’s. From Albert Finney’s hopelessly romantic kingpin Leo O’Bannion, to (Coen regulars) Jon Polito as his hotheaded nemesis Johnny Caspar, John Turturro’s shady bookie Bernie Bernbaum, and his cohort Mink, a small but important Steve Buscemi. All of them deliver memorable work and play like caricatures from the gangster sub-genre. Their dialogue is just as colourful as their characters and the Coen’s ability to write snappy, witty lines has never been more present than it is here.From some corners, the film received criticism for being too self-conscious in its approach. There are metaphoric images of Fedora’s tumbling through autumnal forests and hilarious discussions on the “ethics” of corrupt business but these moments only add to the film’s originality and it’s ability to carve it’s own niche. Admittedly, there isn’t the sense of realism that you’d expect from a gangster film but when the characterisation and pallet are as striking as they are, then it’s an approach that’s very welcome indeed.Those who have a particular appreciation for the film-noir’s of yesteryear will, no doubt, be the kind of audience that Miller’s Crossing will appeal to most. However, those that appreciate smart storytelling while basking in gloriously visual filmmaking will be in safe company too. Miller’s Crossing was one of the Coen brothers’ earlier works and, to this day, remains one of their best.Mark Walker
Trivia: Joel and Ethan Coen suffered writer’s block while writing Miller’s Crossing (1990). They took a three week break and wrote Barton Fink (1991) a film about a writer with writer’s block. The name of Tom Reagan’s residence is “The Barton Arms”. In one of the newspapers an article reads ‘Seven Dead in Hotel Fire,’ another reference to Barton Fink.