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.

Picks for Kevin


I was discussing HBO’s Westworld with my college buddy, Kevin, when he mentioned that he had never seen Blade Runner. In general, he felt that he was lacking in the classic sci-fi filmic knowledge appropriate to a card-carrying nerd. To remedy this situation and to help him to expand his overall cinematic palate, I offered to come up with a list of movies for him to watch.

Here you go, K-Money. My hope is that each movie listed here can be a jumping-off point into a different genre or era of film that I think you’ll enjoy. I’ll take it for granted that Blade Runner is already on your to-watch list, and I KNOW you have Blu-Rays of Alien and Aliens, because I saw you stand in line to get them at Comic-Con a year and a half ago. You should watch them.

Total Recall (1990)
Since 2015 brought us an ultra-realistic look at life on Mars in Ridley Scott’s adaptation The Martian, I thought you might like to check out an earlier sci-fi depiction of the Red Planet. Even though it was released in 1990, Total Recall is quintessential 80’s action. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct), it’s full of ridiculous body horror and brutal fight scenes along with dumb, awesome one-liners by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his best non-Terminator roles.

Set in 2048, Arnold plays construction worker Douglas Quaid, who’s plagued by nightmares about a mysterious woman on Mars. To remedy this situation (I guess), he decides to try Rekall, a service that will implant the memories of a trip to Mars in his consciousness. Of course craziness ensues, with Quaid finding out that his entire life might not be what he thought it was.

It isn’t just mindless fun, though. Total Recall is an early predecessor to movies like The Matrix and Inception, that deal with questions of the nature of reality. Like Inception, the movie itself is a puzzle that may take a handful of viewings to really crack, if there’s really an answer at all.

WarGames (1983)
As a software engineer, you need to see this film because it’s widely, and I think correctly, regarded as the greatest hacker movie of all time. Additionally, it’ll give you some much-needed context for the book Ready Player One and its forthcoming film adaptation, which is going to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Ready Player One is drenched in 80’s nostalgia, and WarGames is one of its major touchstones.

A pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick plays a young Seattle computer hobbyist who accidentally hacks into the military’s nuclear control system. He thinks that he’s accessed a nuclear-war themed computer game, but soon discovers that his tinkering has triggered real-world panic.

As much a Cold War movie as it is a hacker movie, WarGames tapped into the long-standing nuclear panic of the 80’s combined with the very new concepts of computers and hacking. At the time of its release, most people didn’t even have computers in their homes, let alone access to the internet. The idea that any person with a computer could influence events on a global scale must have been utterly mind-bending. WarGames even ended up helping to shape our national policy: the film evidently made such a huge impression on President Reagan that it prompted him to launch extensive investigations into the threat of cyber warfare.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
I know you’ve seen this at some point, but it’s worth revisiting. Although only a handful of Steven Spielberg’s films can be considered science fiction, he’s influenced the genre as much as any other director I can think of. His cinematic fingerprints are all over contemporary film and TV. If you re-watch Stranger Things, you’ll notice that multiple shots are directly lifted from his films.

Close Encounters features 70’s everyman Richard Dreyfuss as a father and husband whose relationships are threatened by his growing obsessions after an encounter with a UFO. While most films in the alien invasion subgenre rely on the aliens being a hostile threat to create tension and drive the plot forward, Close Encounters instead builds suspense as the protagonist gradually pieces together what’s happening to him. As a result, the pacing is slower than typical modern sci-fi, but it’s worth the patience that it requires.

If you haven’t seen the recent Arrival yet, I’d recommend watching this first if you have a chance. In many ways, Arrival is a spiritual descendent of Close Encounters, and in my opinion the first film in the genre to really approach the powerful sense of wonder that Spielberg brought to his film.

Chinatown (1974)
Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne’s 1974 neo-noir is essential for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of cinematic storytelling. Set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, Chinatown features Jack Nicholson in one of his most well-known roles as Jake Gittes, a tough private detective who’s hired to surveil the city’s chief water engineer by a woman claiming to be his wife. The gig turns out to be a set-up, launching Gittes into a web of deception and intrigue.

Every screenwriting book I’ve ever read uses Chinatown as an example of rock-solid story structure, pacing, and dialog. It can also serve as an entry point to New Hollywood, a renaissance era of filmmaking that stretched from the late sixties to the early eighties. Kicked off by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967, the movement was heavily inspired by French New Wave Directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and focused on the importance of the director as the film’s primary creative force, as opposed to the film studio.

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Let’s bring it back even further with a comedy that I think you’ll enjoy. Some Like it Hot was written and directed by Billy Wilder, one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers of the twentieth century. It follows a pair of jazz musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s day Massacre and escape by pretending to be women and joining an all-female band. This results in some surprisingly nuanced gender commentary that pushed cultural boundaries at the time of its release in the late fifties. It’s also a masterpiece of screwball comedy, ranked the Funniest Movie of All time by the American Film Institute. Some of its classic one-liners have become so embedded in the zeitgeist that you’ve probably heard them already, even if you’ve never seen it.

Rope (1948)
I thought that this would be an interesting entry point into the world of Alfred Hitchcock, which you’ve yet to delve into. Rope is unique within Hitchcock’s oeuvre of suspense movies in that it takes place in real time over the course of one evening in an apartment, and was edited to appear to be one long, continuous shot. This gives it a stagey quality that I think you’ll appreciate as a theater guy. It’s actually extremely reminiscent of The Hateful 8 (minus all the gore), to the point that I would bet money that Tarantino was strongly inspired by it.

If you want to explore more Hitchcock, I’d follow this up with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo.

Double Indemnity (1944)
Classic 40’s film noir is both a genre unto itself and a hugely influential cinematic style, so I thought I would recommend the noir-iest of all noirs, as determined by this super scientific infographic .

Double Indemnity also happens to be one of my favorite movies ever, a film that I find myself going back to over and over. Directed by the same guy who did Some Like it Hot (he had some serious range), it follows an insurance salesman who gets talked into plotting his own wife’s murder.

The noir style had a massive influence on comics as well as film. Batman (especially Frank Miller’s interpretation), Watchmen, Daredevil, Hellboy,  and many others can trace their stylistic DNA back to the dark, crime-focused movies of this era.