When Miller’s Crossing was released 30 years ago, there emerged two competing camps on the Coen brothers, who had previously written and directed the stylish 1984 neo-noir Blood Simple and the deliriously farcical 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. They were either genre craftsmen of boundless range and impeccable wit and craft, or glib, soulless pastiche artists who condescended to their characters, and to the audience at large. Though consensus has swung hard in the Coens’ direction over the years – albeit not on ranked lists, which is still the surest route to an argument on social media – their work is still so fussily calibrated that it can hard to tell where the heart lies.
In that respect alone, Miller’s Crossing is the quintessential Coen brothers film, because they constructed it around a hero who’s very much like themselves: a behind-the-scenes operator who’s smarter than everyone, but whose heart is in question right to the very last shot. Perhaps that’s the reason the film mostly tanked in 1990, though premiering in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, instantly understood as one of the great gangster dramas, probably didn’t help. Apart from all the other estranging qualities of a knottily plotted homage to Dashiell Hammett and other rarefied sources, building a film around Tom Reagan, a character unknown even to those closest to him, is close to perverse. In fact, Roger Ebert wrote a whole review of Miller’s Crossing without even bringing him up!
As played by Gabriel Byrne, Tom is the biggest question mark in a film that’s full of them. He’s a shrewd thinker, understood by friends and adversaries as a man who can see several steps ahead on the board and manipulate various parties to a cleverly orchestrated outcome. At the same time, he’s riddled with flaws and contradictions, given to hard drinking and reckless gambling, casual betrayal, and an unwieldiness to pull the trigger on a hit he’s responsible for arranging. Among the many references at play here, the Coens have made a version of The Godfather where Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the Corleone family’s lawyer and fixer, is the main character. (The names are even similar.) It’s like entering the gangster-movie genre through the side door.
The Coens took a long time crafting the script for Miller’s Crossing – so long, in fact, that they paused for three weeks to spin their writer’s block into their next film, Barton Fink – and the effort shows in the stylized language and byzantine plotting, which can a few viewers to sort out entirely. In the opening scene, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), the Irish mob boss who controls a Prohibition-era city, fields a complaint from Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an Italian gangster who’s starting to accumulate power. Caspar is concerned about “ethics” (or “et-ticks”): he’s been fixing fights like a reasonable illicit businessman and he believes Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) has been snuffing them out, which changes the odds and limits his take. But Leo doesn’t give Caspar permission to put a hit on Bernie, despite Tom, his chief counsel, insisting that killing Bernie would prevent Caspar from challenging him. We soon learn that Leo’s current squeeze is Verna Bernbaum, Bernie’s sister, which accounts for why he wants to protect him. We soon learn that Tom is sleeping with Verna, too.
That’s the most basic accounting of Miller’s Crossing possible. The power struggle between Leo and Caspar has many other ins and outs, including the separate machinations of The Dane (JE Freeman), Caspar’s surly henchman, and fringe character like Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi), who’s variously connected to Bernie and The Dane. But for as difficult as the “what” of the film is to sort out, the “why” of a player like Tom is more puzzling still, because his motives are seemingly so obscure. Men like Leo, Caspar, and Bernie are relatively straightforward: as Bernie tells Tom when he’s begging for his life, “Somebody gives me an angle, I play it. I don’t deserve to die for that.” Tom’s loyalties are up in the air. He betrays his boss, but protects him, too. He’s cold to Verna, but loves her, too. In the end, he seems to have carefully planned his own isolation.
In the meantime, the Coens have a wonderful time playing in this particular toy box. Starting with Caspar’s opening monologue about “ethics,” the Coens make a running joke out the honor-among-thieves theme: to Casper, fixing fights is sound business, but double crossing is absolutely unseemly. Double-crossing is Bernie’s lifeblood (“I used a little information for a chisel. It’s my nature, Tom”), but bumping guys off? That’s what animals do. In this world, ethics runs a distant second to the accumulation of power, and allegiances are temporary and transactional – the mayor and the police chief will serve at the disposal of whoever sits on the throne.
As an exercise in style, Miller’s Crossing puts a fine polish on the hardwood interiors of the offices and social clubs where gangsters do business, and luxuriates in period wardrobe and hair, which are like an outward reflection of inward calculation. (Just the way Verna swings open a door in chestnut lingerie tells a story in itself.) The Coens also uncork a few of their finest sequences, like Leo defending his burning home from Casper’s Tommy gun-bearing goons as Danny Boy blares on the soundtrack or Bernie pleading for his life in a forest clearing, sensing Tom’s reluctance to get his hands dirty. There’s no question they’re showing off a little – a sequence where Leo peppers an assailant with machine-gun fire sparked its own mini-controversy – but the dialogue alone has such a pleasing musicality that it hardly matters.
Do the Coens mean any of this? Is there any authentic feeling in Miller’s Crossing, or is it just a couple of wiseacres trying on period garb for size? That question has persistently dogged the film for 30 years, but the Coens have never been ones for easy sentiment. Tom is the man who wasn’t there before The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the fact that he’s hard to read doesn’t make him unreadable or not worth reading. He cares, as do the Coens. You just have to squint a little to see it.