The Coen Project Part 3: Miller’s Crossing

For their third film, the Coens took yet another genre deep-dive, this time with a Prohibition-era gangster film based loosely on Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key. Although it doesn’t skimp on the violence, Miller’s Crossing has far less interest in guns than it does in interpersonal dynamics and emotional struggle as explored through the lens of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a conflicted mob consigliere. Despite a return to a more serious type of film, many of the comedic trademarks cultivated in Raising Arizona carry through, including the now time-honored tradition of characters repeating goofy phrases over and over. It may be set in a indeterminate east coast city in the 20’s, but it’s recognizably the Coen-verse.

Rival gang bosses Leo (Albert Finney) and Johnny Caspar (John Polito) come into conflict over the grifting bookie Bernie (a slimy and hilarious John Turturro in his first film with the Coens). Caspar wants Bernie dead for swindling him, but Leo hesitates because Bernie’s sister is his would-be girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Our protagonist and Leo’s advisor Tom attempts to keep the peace between the two sides, all the while sleeping with Verna. Adding to the tension is Mink (Steve Buscemi), a bartender at Leo’s establishment who is carrying on affairs with both Bernie and Eddie “The Dane” Dane (J.E. Freeman), Caspar’s right-hand man.

The most heavily plotted Coen film I’ve seen so far, it takes at least two viewings to fully absorb Miller’s Crossing in all its intricacies. The story is complex in and of itself, but is made even more challenging to understand by its telling: characters frequently refer to other characters who have not yet appeared on screen, and the 20’s-era Italian and Irish gangster slang adds another layer to parse through. I’m not leveling these observations as criticisms — it’s deeply rewarding to watch it a second time and fully understand what’s going on while absorbing more of the richly textured dialogue. Ultimately, Miller’s Crossing can be understood in terms of its two central love triangles: one involving Bernie, Mink, and The Dane that drives the plot forward, and one involving Tom, Leo, and Verna that comprises the core emotional conflict of the film.

Regarding the first love triangle, it’s pretty incredible that three of the key characters in a prohibition-era gangster flick are gay men, although none of them ever appear on screen at the same time. Steve Buscemi’s Mink only appears (alive) in one brief scene, but he’s the lynchpin of the plot, whose doomed connections with Bernie and Caspar’s acolyte The Dane set off the gang war’s violent conclusion.

In my last post I addressed the futility of analyzing the symbols in the Coens work, but It’s impossible to talk about Tom’s character and his relationships with Verna and Leo without talking about his hat. The opening title card features a hat on the ground in the forest, which blows away in the wind. This mirrors a scene later in the movie when Tom describes a dream in which he chases his hat through the woods. In short, the hat is Tom’s armor. It represents his ability to violently suppress his emotions in favor making the right business move.


Tom might really believe that love doesn’t drive him, but Verna is able to cut through his bullshit, forcing him to come to terms with his real motivations. Byrne and Harden play this tension masterfully in their scenes together, especially one in which Tom invades a womens’ dressing room to confront Verna, who is utterly unfazed by his violent showboating. This gives us my favorite exchange of the film:

Tom: “Intimidating helpless women is part of what I do.”

Verna: “Then go find one and intimidate her.”

It’s pretty fist-pump worthy moment. The Coens were writing gutsy, interesting roles for women way before it was cool.  


In order to help make sense of some of the slang, I present a Miller’s Crossing glossary for first time viewers:

Schmatte: a hebrew word for a rag or tattered garment, used here as a derogatory word for a Jewish person
Dangle: Go, leave, get lost.
The high hat: Any form of condescension, impudence, or deception perpetrated against Johnny Caspar
What’s the rumpus: What’s going on, what’s up. Used by every character regardless of background
Twist: a female, especially one perceived as having loose morals

Stray Observations:

  • The Coens themselves had a hard time with the plot: they got such bad writers block that they took a three week vacation to New York to work on a script about a Hollywood writer who was having trouble with his screenplay. This ultimately became Barton Fink.
  • I’d have to think that Miller’s Crossing had a huge impact on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. I’ve only watched the first few episodes of the series, but it’s very similar both stylistically and thematically.

Christine VS 80’s: Round 3

1984 was a pretty big year for movies. Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Sixteen Candles, Temple of Doom, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Friday the 13th, and my beloved Beverly Hills Cop were all released that year. Since Stranger Things 2 is going to be set in the fall of ’84, I figured I had better brush up. Let’s get into two flicks that I’ve never seen before, Dune and Gremlins. 


I recently completed a master’s degree, which was difficult, but not as difficult as completing the audio book for Dune, Frank Herbert’s ~classic sci-fi novel~. Dune is the story of a young asshole named Paul aka Muad’dib who becomes even more of an asshole due to drug use and power. It’s basically Game of Thrones in space, which is not nearly as much fun as it even sounds.

David Lynch is a director whom I was aware of but had no real knowledge of. I figured I would try out his version of Dune, mostly because I was curious to see how anyone would approach adapting the book. I do not recommend Dune as an introduction to Lynch’s work, but if you’re up for it, it’s… something.

The road that Dune took to production is a lot to unpack, but the short version is that it was originally optioned to be adapted by OG cult director and noted crazy person Alejandro Jodorowsky, who planned on casting Salvatore Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger in key roles, as well as his own twleve-year-old son as the lead. Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who would later contribute to Alien) was set to handle production design, and the soundtrack was to be composed by Pink Floyd and Magma. If this sounds kind of insane to you, you’re not alone. The studios balked at Jodorowsky’s overly ambitious adaptation (it would have been over twelve hours long) and instead hired David Lynch.

Because Dune is such a long and dense story, there’s an almost impossible amount of exposition that needs to be conveyed in order for the film to work. Lynch attempts to accomplish this in two ways. The film begins with a straight-up five minute explanatory monologue by the Princess Irulan, who in the book serves as type of narrator through excerpts of her written historical works that begin each chapter. She briefs us on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), the houses of Antreides and Harkonnen, and the Spice, the all important drug that makes space travel possible. In addition to the crash course, we hear the characters’ inner thoughts through voice-over to convey extra information. It’s not just the protagonists, it’s everyone, down to minor characters. This works in the novel because it’s a novel and that is how novels work. On screen, it kind of seems like everyone is just talking with their mouths closed for no reason.

Lynch adds his own weird touches of questionable narrative purpose, perhaps most notably the inclusion of a gigantic wrinkled worm thing floating in a tank. It’s supposed to be a Third Stage Guild navigator, which is something that isn’t in the first novel. Because this was not gross enough on its own, Lynch also includes many extended shots of the weird worm thing’s mouth flapping open and shut. Other fun touches include cat milking (not kidding) and the Baron Harkonnen drinking blood straight out of his servant’s chest.


The stoic director pictured with his weird worm thing. 

Some good points: Lynch smartly cast uber-likeable Kyle MacLachlan as Paul, who does a good job of making me not hate him. Patrick Stewart is a welcome familiar face as Paul’s right hand man. Beyond that I am mostly grossed out and confused by this movie.

There is one important element of this film that cannot escape my mention: the puppies. The opening sequence includes a horde of bulldogs, and characters tote around pugs in many key scenes. The image of Patrick Stewart charging into battle with a giant laser gun in one arm and a pug under the other is forever burned into my brain. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.


Watchability: 2/5

80’s Ness: 4/5

The Takeaway: PUGS NOT (Spice) DRUGS




When I was a child, someone foolishly gave me a Furby, 1998’s hottest and most horrifying toy trend. My overactive six-year-old imagination had me fully convinced that the thing was going to murder me in my sleep. My parents mercifully removed the object from our home, but my fear endured.

Because I am to this day repelled by anything remotely resembling a Furby, I have been putting off watching 1984’s Gremlins. But I have done it for the sake of this series, and I think my courage should be commended. Produced by Steven Spielberg and written by future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, it’s an 80’s touchstone that I would be amiss not to tackle.

Turns out the fluffy Furby-esque thing that I was afraid of is actually not a Gremlin, but a Mogwai. Small-town aspiring inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) steals one from an extremely sketchy Chinatown shop as a present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). No one questions the existence of this creature. No one is impressed or even surprised that it can speak primitive English and reproduce by a form of water-induced mitosis. The Mogwai itself (named Gizmo) is actually rather cute, but I’m not holding my breath because much like Titanic, I know from the title that this situation is going to go south very quickly. Sure enough, although Randall was given clear instructions on the safe care and feeding of the Mogwai, all of the rules are promptly broken, creating an army of scaly and mischievous Gremlins from a single Mogwai. They are still less scary than Furbys.

The Gremlins of course wreak havoc on the town, ultimately taking over a movie theater where they enjoy a screening of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. I was kind of jealous of the Gremlins in this scene. I would love to watch a classic Disney movie on the big screen with all my buddies and unlimited snacks.


The funnest party ever. 

Director Joe Dante added lots of classic movie references to Gremlins which are cleverly chosen and fun to spot. The setting in the small town of Kingston Falls is a nod to Bedford Falls from Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which Billy’s mom is watching in the kitchen. Billy watches Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another film featuring monsters who incubate in cocoons. You can see posters for Road Warrior and the classic giant ant horror flick Them! in Billy’s room, and the town’s theater marquee features “Watch the Skies”, the original title for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Due to an abundance of monster gore and some really dark discussions between the teenaged characters, Gremlins is one of the films along with Temple of Doom that prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating that year at Spielberg’s suggestion.

Columbus’ original script for Gremlins was apparently was even darker and grosser than the version that got made, since he was just creating a writing sample that he didn’t expect to go to production. Spielberg was so impressed with its originality that he bought it despite knowing that it would have to be toned down drastically to be family-friendly enough to sell as a kid’s movie. Even so, it’s pretty obvious that the spirit of the original spec script comes through in the final product. It’s a work of pure imagination, motivated by a deep love of cinema.

Stray Observations:

  • Quentin Tarantino straight-up lifted the ending of Inglorious Basterds from this movie, right?
  • Turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed the Furby/Mogwai resemblence: Instead of suing, Warner Bros. struck a deal with Hasbro to produce a Gizmo Furby. It’s a huge improvement over the standard Furby. I would probably be ok with being in the same room as it.

Watchability: 4/5

80’s Ness: 5/5

The Takeaway: Gremlins just wanna have fun.