MILLER’S CROSSING (1990) – The Dungeon Review!
Ethan and Joel, the brothers Coen were busy boys during the 1990s. The duo contributed five solid films through the decade; Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). I enjoyed all five of these films in varying degrees but the two I’ve revisited the most often have been Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing. I won’t deny that a large part of the appeal for me of this particular pair is John Turturro who is one of my favourite actors of all time. No matter how small the role or the quality of the film Turturro always gives a memorable performance. While Turturro is the focus of Barton Fink as the film’s titular character and gives an absolutely brilliant performance for some reason Miller’s Crossing is always the first film that comes to mind when I think about the actor. Also, Barton Fink was rented out and Miller’s Crossing wasn’t. Okay, I just wanted an opportunity to chat up Mr. Turturro (more on Turturro momentarily). There are plenty of reasons to visit Miller’s Crossing outside of Turturro; Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman and Marcia Gay Harden to name a few. I love me a period piece gangster film and Miller’s Crossing is one of the most beautifully filmed, well acted and smartest entries of the bunch.
Johnny Caspar accompanied by his muscle Eddie Dane has arranged a meeting with Leo an aging Irish gangster who formerly was the singular power in the city. Johnny Casper as a courtesy has come to let Leo know that he intends to eliminate Bernie Bernbaum for messing with his fixes. After all, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? Leo lets Johnny know that if he does that there is going to be trouble. Tom Reagan, Leo’s right hand man advises Leo to give up Bernie and avoid a turf war. Tom’s advice has been gospel in the past but Leo has been swayed by a sassy dame by the name of Verna. Bernie is Verna’s brother and is basically a small time grifter that is stirring up shit beyond his scope of importance. Leo is blinded by his love for Verna and inevitably Johnny and Leo become embroiled in the full-fledged turf war Tom warned against.
Miller’s Crossing is more than a turf war between two gangsters; it is a character-driven film full of wit, wisdom and dark humour. But it is still a gangster film and has plenty of double crosses, brutal atonements and violent action. The titular Miller’s Crossing is a place where guys get whacked, and if you are unfortunate enough to make the trip it is probably your last. Miller’s Crossing is a visual stunner. Sets, set pieces and costumes are all superb and the lush yet spare film style is exceptionally beautiful, particularly the outdoor shots. Granted there are scenes where endless gunshots never seem to make contact but even these are wonderful eye candy. Miller’s Crossing’s best asset however really is its amazing characterizations.
Tom is the brains behind Leo’s power. Tom never carries a gun and gets the snot beaten out of him copious times throughout Miller’s Crossing. In fact, I think he may hold some sort of record! Tom is a smart ass with a quick wit that likes his drink and is constantly in arrears with his bookie. Tom rarely lifts a finger during the numerous beatings he takes; Tom’s most lethal weapon is his mouth. While he seems quite harmless among an array of bad-ass gangsters, his decisions can carry deadly consequences. Tom knows all the plays and everyone who knows Tom are aware of it. But Tom sees things others don’t and he uses it. This is one of Gabriel Byrnes best performances and he plays Tom with a spot on cocky confidence (he also looks great in a hat).
Miller’s Crossing features one of my all time favourite scenes in a gangster film. While Leo is laying in his bed smoking a cigar and listening to Danny Boy a couple hit men break into his house. He bolts under his bed and takes a guy down by shooting him in the leg and when he falls to the floor finishes him off with a shot to the head. The second shooter hides. Leo grabs the dead man’s tommy gun, darts out a window and slides down the roof. When he sees the second shooter with his back to the window he plugs an insane amount of bullets into him. Than a car drives by with yet another shooter but he misses Leo who chases the car down his fancy residential street unleashing a stream of bullets until the car hits a tree and blows up! Holy crap is this a scene! My words really can’t justify it. Albert Finney is one of the finest actors out there and he is brilliant as Leo. He is a likable and honourable gangster, and can even be a soft touch at times, but there is no mistaking the fact that he can be a ruthless son of a bitch when he needs to be.
I must admit I haven’t seen Jon Polito in much outside of three other Coen brother films but he is great in Miller’s Crossing as Johnny Caspar. He tries in earnest to be level headed but loses his shit on a regular basis. Every time the animated gangster had a fit over one thing or another I was sure he was going to drop dead of a heart attack. You really don’t want to fuck with Johnny Casper. And you definitely don’t want to fuck with Casper’s muscle Eddie Dane. Eddie Dane was the baddest of the bunch. The Dane as he is affectionately called is one stern, intense, humourless and intimidating bastard. J.E. Freeman is fantastic! Freeman was also in another one of my favourite films from 1990; David Lynch’s Wild At Heart and was equally as frightening as Marcelles Santos. Than we have the troublesome Bernie Bernbaum. Bernie plays innocent referring to himself as a nobody but Bernie is an opportunist of the worst kind and would crawl over his own dead mother’s corpse to steal a quarter. He is a trash-talking no good nick and a career grifter who even bad mouths his sister who has gone out of her way to see he is protected. Bernie Bernbaum begging for his life is one of the most pathetic displays of cowardliness I’ve seen in a gangster flick. Bernie Bernbaum is completely unlikable and it is no surprise people want him dead. John Turturro is without a doubt one of the most memorable sad sack pseudo-gangsters ever. Finally we have Marcia Gay Harden who plays Verna. Verna was Harden’s first feature length film credit (with the exception of The Imagemaker where she is listed as “stage manager”). This is one hell of a debut! Harden is perfectly cast as the tough, sassy Verna who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. She is a gangster’s moll with heart and plenty of moxie.
Miller’s Crossing is quite simply a beautiful, masterfully crafted film full of fascinating characters and epic performances that is a long time favourite I never ever tire of re-watching.
Dungeon Rating: 5/5
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Albert Finney, Mike Starr, Al Mancini, Richard Woods, Thomas Toner, Steve Buscemi, Mario Todisco, Olek Krupa, Michael Jeter, Lanny Flaherty, Jeanette Kontomitras, Louis Charles Mounicou III