Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

15 Responses

  1. This is one I’m slightly embarrassed to have never seen, but it’s always been on my mind. A superb cast and compelling plot there seems to be no reason for it not to be anything short of incredible, and with your mindful endorsement, I’d say it’s Golden.

    • See Kaiderman’s comments below – “Miller’s Crossing” has the best dialogue I’ve ever heard in a gangster movie. And it’s GABRIEL BYRNE. That man is stone-cold cool!

    • I’m there with you. I saw parts of it but never the whole thing :( Someday I will!

  2. This flick has some of the best dialogue ever written for cinema… in particular, the scene where Byrne talks about a dream where he’s chasing his hat and the scene where the boss is talking about how you can’t trust to bet on a thrown fight. Love those!
    I also think the scene when Turturro is begging Byrne not to shoot him is some of the best acting I’ve ever scene. The terror in Turturro’s voice is so genuine. I need to watch this again.
    Great write-up, M.!!!

    • The absolute best part is their final exhange:

      Bernie: “Look in your heart, Tom!”
      Tom: “What heart?”

  3. Watched this around February for the first time and was surprised at how well it has held up.

    BTW what happened to Byrne’s career?

    • Madigan’s Men.

      Nah, I’m kidding. I think he just reached a stage where he wanted a steady paycheck and a reasonable amount of security, so he transitioned to television.

  4. “Jesus Tom…”

  5. What a classic movie! Love the part where the thugs come into Leo’s house, and Leo drives em off, firing the tommy gun like a mad man. What a man! Ya, and there is some tangle of a plot in there. Had to watch it twice to totally get it. Great review! One of my favourite Coen’s movies

  6. The dialogue in the film is wonderful. It’s my second favourite Coen Brothers film. Only Lebowski stands in its way.
    The character relations are very well written and acted in the movie too. Just a great movie experience. The Coen Brothers at the top of their game.

    • Because it came out AFTER “Goodfellas,” I sometimes think people forget about it or it gets overshadowed. But it, like “Blood Simple” or “No Country,” is truly one of the Coen brothers’ perfect movies.

      • Yep, I think it also just came out in the early nineties with all these other iconic gangster films, so it just sorta got bunched in. Which is a damn shame.

  7. “The high hat!” Perfect. That is all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers

%d bloggers like this: