Director Deep Dive: Miller’s Crossing

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

The Coen brothers are rarely shy about their influences. Most of their works include direct nods to movies and literature, with the directing duo finding ingenious ways of incorporating them into the story. While there are plenty of these tributes in their previous films, Miller’s Crossing is their most referential work yet. An homage to classic gangster films of the 30s and 40s with a twisty plot and enigmatic lead. It is also the Coens’ most complex and dense narrative to date.

The story, set in the Prohibition era, follows Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the advisor to Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney). Leo sets off a war with rival Italian gangster Johnny Casper (Jon Polito) after he refuses to kill Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Bernie is a bookie who has been skimming money from Casper’s match fixing scheme and he’s also the brother of Leo’s girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom attempts to convince Leo to give up Bernie despite Tom’s own relationship with Verna and things get even more complicated from there.

Miller’s Crossing exists right at the intersection between noir and gangster films, referring to both genres throughout. The Coens use two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest, as the primary inspiration. Like those novels, this is a tale where no one’s motives are completely clear and everyone has a score to settle. It is the brother’s most ambitious work yet, both in scope and size.

With their biggest budget to date, the Coens set about making their first period piece. Using New Orleans as the backdrop for their unnamed city, Miller’s Crossing features a lavish world where the characters all feel slightly out of place. These are criminals who have made it big. They have such power that they can march into the mayor’s office and demand to sit at his desk. No one can say they don’t belong, even when the very architecture around them screams it.

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld returns for his final collaboration with the Coens and this is his best work. He adds a sense of warmth to the film that acts as a counterpoint to the violence that follows. The scenes in the woods especially shine as the hardened city gangsters clash against the beautiful backdrop of nature. The film makes direct visual reference to other gangster and noir movies as well. Most notably in the opening and ending scenes, which refer to The Godfather and The Third Man, respectively.

The plot of Miller’s Crossing is dense and character driven, relying on its cast of terrific performers to make the material sing. Gabriel Byrne plays the closest thing to a leading man you’ll see in a Coen brothers film. His Tom is equal parts icy and stoic. A man whose luck continually seems to run out only for him to reveal another trick under his hat. Byrne’s chemistry with Albert Finney and Marcia Gay Harden fuel the central love triangle that inspires a lot of the early action, even when we’re not sure who is playing who. Finney also gets to shine in one of the film’s standout scenes, an attempted assassination attempt that serves as a showcase for his tough guy charm.

The film also marks the first appearance of several Coens alums, most notably, John Turturro and Jon Polito. While they never share a scene together, the animosity between the two sets the entire story into motion. Turturro’s Bernie is a delight as he shifts between hapless and malicious, depending on if he has the upper hand. A true antagonist in a picture full of them. Polito’s Casper is a little broader, a fiery force who isn’t above listening to reason, even when it means turning on one of his own.

Steve Buscemi also makes his first of many appearances in a Coens picture. His character appears in only a single scene, but plays a crucial role as the plot unfolds. Frances McDormand and Sam Raimi also make cameo appearances. Miller’s Crossing really feels like the beginning of the Coen’s penchant for hiring reliable character actors to fill out the casts of their movies at the expense of bigger stars. It’s hard to argue with the results.

Miller’s Crossing also provides the first major example of the Coen’s fascination with inanimate objects that come to represent the protagonist and the film itself. Here, it’s a hat, specifically a fedora worn by Tom Reagan. We see it throughout the film on his head, laying on a dresser and flying through the forest on a breezy day. It is in the scenes where the hat isn’t present or discarded that we should worry. For Tom, the hat is protection. It keeps his mind, his greatest strength, safe. Despite the safety it provides, he never chases after it. That would be foolish. Instead, the hat has a habit of finding its way back to him just in time for him to get his senses and plan his next move. It’s a potent bit of symbolism and something we’ll see more of in their future works.

Opening the same week as Goodfellas, the movie bombed at the box office. The Coens were still mostly unknowns and nothing was going to compete with one of Scorsese’s finest works and the star power attached. While it received mostly positive reviews from critics, the film fell into a general obscurity. Even now, the movie remains an under seen gem in the brother’s filmography.

While it’s lesser known than some of their other works, Miller’s Crossing feels like the first time the Coens are operating at the height of their abilities. A love letter to the mob films that the duo grew up with that keeps you guessing throughout. A picture that rewards repeat viewings with something new to discover each time. It may not be the easiest to digest, but the meal it serves up is certainly worth your time.

Next Time: The Coens get writer’s block and turn into their most inscrutable film yet with Barton Fink.

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