Miller’s Crossing


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.Β 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.IMG_0960Mark 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.

25 Responses to “Miller’s Crossing”

  1. Good review of a good film!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. This movie is a true gem. It evokes powerful imagery: fall, men in black, etc., but it is also the dialogue that does it for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Couldn’t agree more. It is a genuine gem of a film and still one of the Coen’s best. The dialogue is razor sharp too; I love that they speak their own jargon and never attempt to explain it. You just have to pick it up as you go. Wonderful movie. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I fully agree with this review. Great job!


  4. I loved Albert Finney in this role. Never seems to stack up in popularity to Scorsese, but I liked the nuances and the story line better. I haven’t seen it in ages–I ought to revisit it. Thanks, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love Finney in this too. He apparently took over from Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr) after he had a brain haemorrhage. They also consider Richard Jenkins in the role which I think would have worked very well. That said, Finney is superb.
      Glad to hear you think highly of it too, Cindy.
      Btw, I notice your Ang Lee post is up? I’ll swing by when I get a moment. πŸ™‚


  5. I don’t think you’re alone in not much liking Gabriel Byrne. I really like him though, especially in the series In Treatment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m always surprised how widely under-appreciated Miller’s Crossing is. This too is one of my favorite Coen brothers’ films and it still holds up today. Nice review Mark.


    • Thanks Charles! Yeah, what’s the deal with Miller’s Crossing? I don’t know why a lot of people don’t give it the respect it deserves. It’s a marvellous piece of work; the acting, the direction, the look, the dialogue and the convoluted story. It’s gold, man. Pure gold!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Your love for this movie really shines through Mark, excellent stuff dude.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This movie and Barton Fink saw the Coens take the next step to great status and they’ve barely put a foot wrong since. Awesome stuff mate. A could do with revisiting this!


  9. I love this film so so much. Great read Mark. I need to see this again, it has been quite a while!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. jackdeth72 Says:

    Great review, Mark!

    “I wanna talk about ettics.”: Jon Polito IJohnny Caspar).

    A great start for one of the great local crime lords gang war films in a long time.

    Well detailed and worthy of the cast working from Dashiell Hammet’s original. ‘The Glass Key’.

    Still one of my favorite Coen brothers films!


    • Thank you sir!
      Jon Polito’s “ettics” intro is quite something isn’t it? It’s one of the best intro’s the Coens have ever done and this is still one of my favourite films from them too. It sometimes irk’s me how little appreciation this gets. From those haters, they can “take their flunky and dangle” πŸ˜‰


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