Saturday, May 24, 2008

Film Review #160: Miller’s Crossing
1990/ DVD 2003
Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gaye Harden, John Turturro

This year’s Oscar-winner, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, is a film some see as a parable of how little we know who we are as a nation since the rogue violence of some of our soldiers in the war in Iraq. Actually No Country is set earlier, in 1980, and Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a Vietnam vet, the little distance of that conflict allowing enough breathing room so that echoes of My Lai stand in for Abu Ghraib and Haditha. When the decent old-school Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones speaks of a “new” kind of criminal loose in the land, it’s dialogue lifted almost verbatim from Ed Tom Bell’s ruminations in Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

But it’s the filmmakers – Joel and Ethan Coen – who supply the repeated, haunting cinematic image of these male characters staring at blank TV screens, seeing not some foreign terrorist act there but only their own dark, reflected silhouettes. The criss-crossing, tantalizing, dissolving shadows of Sheriff Bell (Jones) and assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the hotel room after Moss’ murder elaborate and extend this image, making of the murder scene a cave fraught with shadows in which we know not what’s true and what’s illusion.

The Coens have mined this shaft before. Their third feature, Miller’s Crossing (1990), also adapts the work of a novelist, Dashiell Hammett – two novels this time – plus echoes of the 1920s Prohibition-era turf war between Chicago’s Irish O’Banion gang and the Italians of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio. The film never specifies the city whose control see-saws between old boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and usurper Johnny Casper (Jon Polito), though the Coens filmed in New Orleans for its working street-car system and whole neighborhoods of still-intact period architecture. The film’s title comes from a cold, bleak woods outside town where both gangs take men for execution. This might locate the story in New York or New Jersey (for example, think of the Pine Barrens episode from The Sopranos), but the Coens make the location cagily all-American.

Miller’s Crossing is really the story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a recent immigrant who’s first O’Bannon’s right-hand man and then – perhaps – Casper’s, see-sawing himself, working out just which hat he’ll wear. (In No Country, the Coens play similarly with images of boots and bare feet.) Reagan wants neither O’Bannon’s gifts of cash to cover his gambling debts nor, later, his forgiveness. Tom Reagan’s black fedora threads its way through the film, an arresting image for the selves we try on, that accumulates nuance along the way: thrown on the forest floor and gusted away by wind even before the opening titles, dreamed about, lost in a poker game, stolen by the two-timing Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden) so that Reagan will come after it, tossed contemptuously in his face after O’Bannon publicly thrashes him for sleeping with Verna, pulled low over his eyes when his job as henchman demands tasks like executing Verna’s brother Bernie (John Turturro).

Contemptuously dubbed “the Schmata” by crooks on both sides, Bernie – along with the loan shark Lazar, whom we never see, though his thugs’ beatings are the worst of many that Reagan suffers – injects a third ethnic issue into this entrepreneurial mix. Casper, O’Bannon and Reagan wrestle with their versions of “friendship, character and ethics.” The film begins with Casper asking O’Bannon’s permission to kill Bernie, who’s been cashing in on fixed boxing matches, because, Casper says, “If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”

Bernie is so thoroughly and comfortably corrupt that only Turturro’s bravura performance – set against the preternatural watchfulness and calculation of Byrne’s Reagan – distinguishes Bernie from the anti-Semitic stereotypes held by the other characters. Bernie’s “Look into your heart!” scene in the forest with Reagan is worth the rental price by itself.

“In the American melting pot,” wrote Richard Corliss for Time magazine in 1990, “gangsters were the indigestible pieces of ethnic gristle; country of origin was as crucial as turf.”

As Corliss observed, that decade began with a resurgent slew of gangster movies. Besides Miller’s Crossing, audiences that year were watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Herb Ross’ My Blue Heaven, two takes on mobster Henry Hill; Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, based on a Hell’s Kitchen Irish gang called the Westies and their friction with encroaching Italians; and Francis Ford Coppola’s final Corleone installment, Godfather III. Explaining these movies as one part nostalgia from directors who “love the form because its speed and anarchy spoke to them as young movie-goers,” Corliss added there was something more important: the gangster movie “allows them to confront, in code, the awful ethnic schisms of American life; Italian versus Wasp stands in for black versus white.”

That schism still runs deep.

This review appeared in the 5/22/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Miller’s Crossing is still available on VHS & has had five DVD releases since 2003, most recently in February. See Nancy’s interview with filmmaker Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, reviewed in last week’s column) at