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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.

 

10 best (original) Coen characters

Go ahead and cut off Loren's head -- see if he can't crawl around your nightmares without it.

Someone — I’m not going to stoop to naming names, you understand — once told me it was impossible to create a list of the best Coen brothers films. That was the day, I believe, that some vandal ripped the “I” section from my Merriam-Webster because I didn’t know the meaning of the word impossible.*

And yet here I am four months and a Merriam-Webster Online bookmark later whipping up another “best of” Coens list. Is this ambitious, hornery, maddeningly persistent or simply a clear sign that I am squirrelbait? Take a gander at this list and you be the judges…

1. Loren Visser — Villainy, thy name is Loren. There’s no arguing that the Coens are dark, but they plumbed new psyche depths to dream up with a bad guy as slithery and skin-crawlingly creepy as Loren Visser, the “Blood Simple” gumshoe/gunman-for-hire. The never-better M. Emmet Walsh hits us with a scary truth: Spend all your time worrying about the immoral villains and the amoral ones will get you every time. 

2. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski — Does it get more original than a stoner bowler (Jeff Bridges) who sucks down White Russians like oxygen, knows a guy who can get you a toe (don’t ask how), indulges his acid flashbacks for fun and waxes poetic about the harmonizing powers of his living room rug? Actually, maybe it does. See No. 4.

You betcha I'll catch the funny-lookin' one...

3. Marge Gunderson — Just call her the Columbo of Brainerd, Minnesota. Sure, those “dern tootin'” remarks or that friendly, warm-as-pie Minnesota accent might lead you to believe Marge Gunderson’s a bricks short of a load, but don’t be fooled; the way the divine Frances McDormand plays her, she’s smart as a whip, persistent to a fault and keenly observant. She gets her man, alright, and she’ll do it without getting a drop of sweat on her Arby’s roast beef-n-cheese.

4. Jesus the Bowler — The key to a bang-on cameo is picking an actor who can create an entire character out of little more than thin air. This, I’m convinced, is why John Turturro was put on this Earth: to play The Dude’s arch nemesis Jesus the Bowler, a legend in his own hairnet whose signature line — hell, his only line — boldly and creatively pairs the words “fuck” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. Mark it, dudes, as one of the best cameos. Ever.

Be nice to Chad. He has seen your secret CIA sh*t.

5. Chad Feldheimer — For all its faults, “Burn After Reading” did one thing very, very right: It introduced to the world to Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a frosted tips-sporting, gum-popping buffoon with a passion for physical fitness and not one thought — deep or otherwise — in his puny little pea brain. Pitt dives head-long into Chad’s cheerful idiocy, and the end result is a character as unforgettable as he is funny.   

6. Ed Crane — It’s an unspoken rule of film (and of life, really): The quiet ones are far more interesting than the ones who never stop flapping their gums. Nowhere is this more crystal clear than the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” narrated by unwitting barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Ed’s taciturn as hell, a self-described ghost in his own life, but Thornton lends him enough laconic humor to make him a sympathetic Everyman.

7. H.I. McDunnough — Joel and Ethan, they have a way of writing characters who look and seem simple-minded, maybe even dumb. Then they open their mouths, and out flow rivers of shocking wisdom and insights. And sprung criminal H.I. McDunnough, trying to make a new life with his wife (Holly Hunter), is nothing if not insightful. It’s observations like “sometimes it’s a hard world for small things” make “Raising Arizona” as much a character study as it is a riotously funny screwball comedy.

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

8. Freddy Reidenschneider — If there’s one thing Joel and Ethan know, it’s that names make or break a character. Why else would they have decided to take a boastful, self-important lawyer (the superb Tony Shaloub) and give him a name like “Freddy Reidenschneider”? Hardly rolls of the tongue very sweetly, does it? Instead it suggests an air of blustering confidence, the kind only a character who’s decided to cultivate a personality more outrageous than his last name can have. And in Shaloub’s capable hands, Mr. Reidenschneider is quite a character, indeed. 

9. Jerry Lundergaard — For every foolproof plan there’s a fool behind it believing he’s 17 times smarter and cooler than he actually is. In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a schemer so comically and tragically inept at scheming that he can’t call the perps to end his swirling-down-the-john plan because he doesn’t have their phone number. Yikes. Then he thinks he can finesse his way out of an interrogation by the untrickable Marge Gunderson. What theheckya thinkin’ there, Jer?

10. Tom Reagan — In every Coen brothers film there’s a character who’s hard as nails, who has cold, steely eyes sharp enough to cut you right in two and not enough humanity to stitch you back together. In “Miller’s Crossing,” a Prohibition-era mob thriller, that man is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). He has made being “a son of a bitch a point of pride,” someone notes, and that makes him one tough guy. Then there’s the fact that Gabriel Byrne plays him. And everyone knows that Gabriel Byrne? Yeah, he’s just plain cool.

 
(Suddenly it occurs to me there’s one thing the Coens don’t do all that well: Write really cool/insane/outrageous female characters. Let’s get a jump on that, fellows.)
*Shameless “Zoolander” reference