Miller’s Crossing (1990)

I’m praying to ya! Look in your haaaaaaaht!

It’s amazing how fast the Coen brothers shot out of the gate, when you think about it. From Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, a noir black comedy to, well, whatever you’d call Arizona—a zany crime caper, maybe?—their third film is one of the great gangster films. Some say it’s their best film, but I think it’s fair to say you can find someone (and probably a lot of someones) who would say that about each of their films.

Me? I say “Hats”.

Nothin' up mah sleeve! Presto!

Especially when Gabriel Byrne pulls a rabbit outta his.

This movie has a lot of hats. They’re constantly being put on, taken off, blown away, misplaced, left behind as evidence, and (if we stretch the definition of “hats” to include “toupees”) capriciously stolen. At one point, there’s this exchange:

Verna: What’re you chewin’ over?
Tom Reagan: Dream I had once. I was walkin’ in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.
Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn’t a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.
Tom Reagan: Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.

To say nothing of a mob boss’s favorite expression of pique: “Don’t give me the high hat.”

The Coens are basically daring us to make something out of the hats. Sort of like they’re daring us to believe we understand what’s really going on (cf. A Serious Man). Crossing is kind of a classic noir in that while the shape of the story itself is very clear, the catalyst is a mystery. And, as we discover in the third act, the motivations of the characters are perhaps not what we thought they were either.

Those Crazy Coens!

Leo thinks he’s figured it out. But Tom, who did everything, looks confused.

In fact, it is not possible to know what Tom Reagan really intended at any point during the proceedings after his split with Leo. My feeling is that even Tom didn’t know what was going on. Was it all a mastermind scheme? Well, nothing’s more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat, right? We could speculate based on a reading of Dashiell Hammet’s The Glass Key, which this is strongly influenced by, but it would be only hat chasin’: “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”

The other thing this movie is about? Ethics. The opening speech where Italian capo Johnny Caspar complains to Leo about not being able to make an honest life out of fixing fights anymore is, of course, funny to an audience, but it’s the whole woop and warf of the movie. Leo wants to start a gang war over his no-good girlfriend’s no-good brother, and Tom balks, because “you do things for a reason”.

The reasons for doing things, and for believing that doing those things will have the desired effect is big here. Everyone’s talking about reasons, or not caring what other people’s reasons are, or misunderstanding reasons. The whole shebang is kicked into high gear because Leo things Caspar killed one of his men as a prelude to defying Leo’s power. Meanwhile, Caspar’s sanity is based on being able to know and trust his men, knowing that they have “character” and “ethics”. And this tragic weakness turns out to be very easy to disrupt.

It's quite the ethical conundrum.

You start double-crossing, and where does it end?

The most straightforward gang in the movie is run by a guy named Lazarre. He’s a bookmaker, and Tom’s got a bit of a gambling problem. Tom repeatedly rejects any attempts by Leo (or anyone else) to pay off the debt he owes Lazarre, to the point of getting the crap beaten out of him by a couple of toughs. But Tom respects this: He knows the rules of the game, and it’s only fair he should pay the cost. In one of the great exchanges, after being beaten:

Tom: Tell Lazarre: No hard feelings.

Thug: Jesus, Tom. He knows.

The best performances throughout. Your first thought is “They’re all so young”, but they’re not really. They were all in their 30s by this point. It’s just that they’ve gotten older in the past quarter-century, as have we all. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, and his lazy-eyed, low-key performances makes him the perfect straight man to a bunch of classic Coen characters. Albert Finney is Leo, the lovable murderous Irish gangsters, for whom one scene with a Thompson would’ve been reason enough to take the role. Steve Buscemi has a small role as the weaselly gay lover of the toughest guy in the movie, the Dane (played by the late J.E. Freeman). Marcia Gay Harden (her first major feature role) is lovely as the moll, the only female in the movie (with the exception of a brief, fun cameo from Frances McDormand) and the source of all the trouble.

Nor did Scrooge, or he would've handled those damnable ghosts!

Tom Jones never got to fire a Thompson.

Probably the two standout performances are by John Turturro and Jon Polito. Turturro is the brother of Verna (Harden), and he is, really, the Evil Guy. It’s his machinations that lead to the confrontation between Leo and Caspar, and only his sister—about whom he viciously gossips—keeps him alive. Yet, he’s so craven and pathetic, you can see why Tom has trouble killing him. Even though, scorpion-like, he immediately repays the kindness with a vicious stinging.

Jon Polito is Johnny Caspar who, despite being only in his late 30s, looks like he could possibly be a peer and threat to Leo. The role was originally meant to go to someone closer to Finney’s age, but Caspar looks a bit older than his years, and has the chops to be both a comic figure and a brutal murderer. It’s really a tour-de-force performance, and Polito’s roles with the Coens have been so great and memorable, I was surprised he didn’t turn up in Hail, Caesar! (Robert Trebor—who does a fine job in the role—plays the producer of the Jesus picture, and when he walked in I thought “Hey, that should be Jon Polito!”)

But I don’t claim to understand the Coens or their relationships with actors. Buscemi hasn’t been in a Coen movie since Lebowski, and Turturro since O Brother. Even Mrs. Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, has had just one major role since O Brother (in Burn After Reading), as well as a minor bit in Hail Caesar! So, yeah, I dunno. Maybe it’s a concern about getting stale.

Well, at least they’re still working with Carter Burwell, whose work here is fabulous. This is pre-Roger Deakins, however, so we get Barry Sonnenfeld as the cinematographer. Which reminds us that Sonnenfeld might have made a much bigger mark on movies if he’d stayed shooting rather than going into directing and producing. (But, hey, maybe Men In Black 3 will really hit it out of the park. Wait, it came out four years ago?)

This is one of those movies, because it’s a gangster movie, recommendation engines will say “If you like this, you’ll also enjoy Goodfellas and Scarface.” Don’t be fooled. This is a Coen Brothers movie, and your feeling toward them will determine your feeling toward this. I believe the Boy nominated this as his favorite gangster movie, supplanting The Untouchables, which he said had somewhat diminished on repeated viewings.


Marcia Gay Harden at her hardeningist.

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