Thursday, December 20, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #207 - Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)

            The Coen Brothers get a lot of love around here. Their films have been written about three times before. In fact, I myself wrote about my love of their films when I reviewed A Serious Man just this past May. So it’s only fitting that I write about another of their films for my last Spork entry of 2018. Today, I’m going to talk about another of their oft-overlooked films, the 1990 gangster-noir film Miller’s Crossing.
            Like many of the Coens’ films, Miller’s Crossing is steeped in snappy dialogue, sometimes making it hard to follow the relatively simple plot. But the gist is this - Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne) is second in command to a powerful Irish mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in Prohibition-era America. At the onset of the film, Tom acts as a kind of mediator between Leo and rival Italian kingpin Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) when the two men meet to discuss business. Caspar wants to have Bernie (John Turturro), a small-time bookie, killed for divulging secrets about Caspar’s organization. Bernie, however, pays for protection, and Leo refuses to give him up. This causes Caspar to become extremely angry, spewing a diatribe about ethics and threatening all-out war. After Caspar leaves, Tom tries to convince Leo that giving up Bernie to avoid a turf war is the smarter move. It is then revealed that Leo has another reason for not giving up Bernie - he is romantically involved with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay-Harden). Leo’s refusal to budge does end up starting a war, beginning with a failed attempt on Leo’s life. This prompts Tom to try again to reason with Leo about handing over Bernie to Caspar. This time, he reveals to Leo that Verna is not worth protecting Bernie for as she has been stepping out on him… with Tom. Leo reacts violently, kicking the shit out of Tom and throwing him out of his establishment. Tom then begins working for Caspar, acting as a catalyst for the ongoing war between the sides.
            Having already dipped their toes in the film noir genre with their debut Blood Simple, by the release of Miller’s Crossing the Coens had the genre perfected. With this film, however, they stumbled upon something different. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (pre-directing days) shot the film, making full use of darkness and shadow to create a somber and paranoid atmosphere where no one can be trusted. For all intents and purposes, Miller’s Crossing should have been the film that made the Coens a household name. They put a lot of grit and soul into getting the film made, even struggling with writer’s block during the screenwriting process for a three week stretch. On top of that, their original choice for the role of Leo O’Bannon, Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona from their previous film Raising Arizona) died of a brain hemorrhage just two days before shooting began, opening the door for last minute fill-in Finney. Unfortunately, the film was a total bomb in the box office, only grossing about $5 million. This pattern would continue to plague them until the release of Fargo in 1996.
On the bright side, Miller’s Crossing has since become something of a cult classic and has garnered a lot in home video and DVD/Blu-ray sales. It’s the Coens’ third film, early enough in their careers that I hadn’t yet become the fanatic for their films that I am now. Having been completely blown away by Raising Arizona, as far as I knew these filmmakers excelled at making screwball comedies. I immediately loved Miller’s Crossing though, and it’s been one of my favorite films of theirs and in general ever since. It perfectly combines their trademark subtle wit with a hint of The Godfather and a dash of Double Indemnity. Their casting is always spot-on, but I was particularly taken with J.E. Freeman’s portrayal of Caspar’s majordomo Eddie Dane (or simply “The Dane”). There is something so menacing about that character, yet somehow kind of calming or soothing about his demeanor. It’s a performance that still hasn’t been topped in any of their films. And Byrne’s acting, in my observations, can sometimes feel a little flat, but in this film, he absolutely shines as the scheming, manipulative and perpetually drunk Tom. It is bar-none his best role.
The brothers have made some of the most unforgettable and amazing films of the last two decades. I recently watched them all in order back to back, ending with their most recent Netflix vehicle The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each of their films truly has a unique voice of its own, but there is something about Miller’s Crossing that stands out even among an entire career’s worth of pure gems. I watched that one twice.
-         Jonathan Eagle

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