"You think you're so goddamn smart. You join up with Johnny Caspar, you bump Bernie Bernbaum. Up is down. Black is white. Well, I think you're half smart." - The Dane
Fargo and No Country For Old Men certainly get the critical praise, and rightly so, but as the years go by, I turn to Miller's Crossing again and again as my go-to Coen brothers' favorite drama. This is the ultimate flick for dialogue lovers, with quips and double-talk just exploding off the page.
This solid gangster yarn has an over-the-top (yet powerful) script, fantastic acting, and gorgeous cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld. The result is true neo-noir perfection. Miller's Crossing was reportedly inspired by the Coen brothers' love of Dashell Hammett novels, particularly the Glass Key and Red Harvest.
The richly drawn characters in Miller's Crossing are all at their crossroads - they must choose which path to take.
Tom knows he has to choose between his precious mob boss Leo or the up-and-coming gangster Johnny Caspar, more importantly, between Leo and his girlfriend, Verna. Tom is a loner that likes to be the man behind the man in power, pulling the strings. Gabriel Byrne was born for this role, as he plays one side against the other like a pro. At one point, his boss Leo even admits, "Okay, Tom. You know all the angles, Christ, better than anybody."
Verna, the object of Leo and Tom's affection, is also torn. It's your classic love triangle. With Leo, she gets protection but no excitement, but with Tom Reagan, she receives the action but no safety. In Tom Reagan, she is drawn to a man that is wrong for him but can't seem to resist. She tells him flat out: "Maybe that's why I like you, Tom. I never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride. Though one day you'll pay the price for it".
Marcia Gay Harden constructs Verna as a tough-as-nails character who uses everything at her disposal to get what she wants. She sleeps with Leo and then sleeps with Tom. She beats Tom at cards, wins his precious hat, and then punches him in the face when he tells her he loves her. And, of course, she looks fantastic while doing it. That's Verna.
Johnny Caspar wants to be the top gangster in town, yet he refuses to double-cross anyone. Even his desire to bump Bernie Bernnbaum (the driving force behind the movie) is because Bernbaum double-crossed him. The film begins with Johhny explaining to then-boss Leo: "I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics."
Everyone pushes Johnny to double-cross somebody, but he refuses. When Caspar becomes the boss, he is again implored to double-cross, this time Tom, but he can't, explaining, "You double-cross once - where's it all end? An interesting ethical question." That's right, a gangster with ethics.
Miller's Crossing is the most underrated Coen brothers' film and certainly one of the most underrated gangster movies of all time. Albert Finney is excellent (as usual) as the mob boss Leo O'Bannon. It is impressive to watch his performance and realize that he was a last-minute fill-in for the role. Trey Wilson was cast in the lead role yet tragically died two days before the principal photography.
Released the same week as GoodFellas, the similarly sensational Scorsese classic overshadowed Miller's Crossing commercially and critically. The public flocked to GoodFellas and gave Miller's Crossing a lukewarm reception, or the "high hat," as Johnny Caspar would say. That's a shame because they are both incredible films, worthy of a top spot in the pantheon of gangster movies. (A-)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Directed by Joel Coen
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J. E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi
Genres: Drama, Gangster, Noir
Photo: 20th Century Fox