For the Love of Miller’s Crossing

This week we’ll be blessed with the Coen Brothers’ 17th feature film. There’s not a single miss among their filmography (okay maybe Ladykillers, but even that has its moments), so Dork Shelf’s film writers are taking this opportunity to talk about a couple of the dynamic duo’s films that are closest to our hearts. 

Ask any cinephile their favourite all time movie and they’ll probably give you pretty similar answer, it depends on the day. There are too many great films to pick just one, and different ones connect with us differently at various points in our lives. I also feel this way about most of the Coen brothers’ films. On any given day I have about five of their films that I could call my favourite. Titles with permanent homes on that list include Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. Yesterday Phil Brown wrote about why he loves Fargo, and The Big Lebowski has now firmly solidified itself as one of the most inventive comedies ever made, so I thought I’d expound on Miller’s Crossing (1990) for a few paragraphs.

In 1990, Hollywood gangster films were doing gangbusters at the box office. Recent hits included Goodfellas, The Godfather III, and The King of New York. This had little, if anything, to do with the Coen brothers tackling the genre for their third film. Having already proved that they can build suspense with Blood Simple and make you laugh with Raising Arizona, here is where we first see them incorporate these things into an established genre while also demonstrating their gift for composing elaborate action set pieces and brilliant dialogue. In this sense, Miller’s Crossing has much more in common with the gangster films of the 30s than it does with those made in the late 80s and early 90s.

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I watched this film quite a bit when I was young and admittedly found the plot utterly confusing. You’re thrown into this world with fully established relationships that are about to get even more complicated. In the first scene, dynamics are set up between Tom, Leo, Caspar, The Dane, Bernie Bernbaum, Mink… add to all these names the slang that the Coens invented much of and it’s a lot to keep up with. Characters such as Mink (Steve Buscemi), who play an important role in the plot, are referred to often but only seen once or twice. A major story element that helps everything fall into place once you pick up on it is the homosexual love triangle between The Dane, Mink and Bernie. As Caspar’s muscle, The Dane is not your classical representation of homosexuality, quite the opposite, yet his relationship with Mink is openly discussed in non specific terms, which is why it may go over the heads of many who aren’t paying attention. It’s Mink’s betrayal of The Dane with Bernie that really sets the story in motion. That love triangle is overshadowed by the much more obvious,  traditional one between Leo, Verna and Tom.

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Even when I didn’t really know what was going on, I was always drawn to the humour, style and tone of Miller’s Crossing. It comes at a bit of a crossroad in the Coen’s career, following two modest hits, they turned down making the blockbuster Batman so they could continue developing their own brand. It was the last time they’d work with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who went on to become a very successful director himself), and the first time they’d work with production designer Dennis Gassner, who they would collaborate with on five more films. It’s their first period film and establishes a look that we’d see again in films like Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There. They’re also beginning to find their ensemble of actors, such as Buscemi, John Turturro, and Jon Polito (more on him below). While the Coens haven’t worked with Gabriel Byrne or Albert Finney again, they fit their respective parts of Tom and Leo so well that I’m fine with always remembering them thusly.

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I could go on about why I love Miller’s Crossing, but one last thing I want to point out is the use of character actor Jon Polito in his biggest role to date. This is the first time he worked with the Coens, and apparently getting the part took some convincing. I’m glad he pursued the role because he absolutely kills it. Sick of getting the ‘high hat’, you almost feel bad for this sweaty, pencil mustached mob boss/ family man who always has a lot to say about any given situation. He wears his heart on his face with expressions that look like something Chuck Jones or Tex Avery would have come up with. His style of acting and handling of the Coen’s dialogue suited them so well that they went on to cast him in Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, but unfortunately he has yet to get anything to rival the meaty role of Johnny Caspar.

Quotable lines, classic scenes and brilliant performances aside, Miller’s Crossing is a masterful piece of filmmaking from a couple filmmakers still early in their careers yet demonstrating an intelligence and control of the craft that most could only ever dream of.

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