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 a 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.

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Tom might really believe that love don’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.  

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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:

  • I realized after watching that John Polito (Johnny Caspar) would go on to play Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story.
  • 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.

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