Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Miller's Crossing (1990)


(director/writer: Joel Coen; screenwriter: Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Barry Sonnenfeld; editor: Michael Miller; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Albert Finney (Leo), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), JE Freeman (Eddie Dane), Al Mancini (Tic-Tac), John “Spud” McConnell (Brian, a Cop), Steve Buscemi (Mink), Richard Woods (Mayor Dale Levander); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ben Barenholtz/Ethan Coen/Graham Place; 20th Century Fox; 1990)
“Pays homage to the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Already revered for their Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers’ film noir gangster thriller Miller’s Crossing is set in an unnamed city in 1929. It charts the gang war during the 1930s Prohibition era between the middle-aged established Irishman gangster Leo (Finney) and the up and coming Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Polito). With the Mayor (Richard Woods) and Police Chief (Thomas Toner) accepting bribes from crime boss Leo, the profits from gambling and extortion have no official interference. When Caspar and his second in command Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) inform Leo and his second in command Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) that they are going to rub out bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) because he has been spreading the word about Caspar’s fixed fights to other gamblers, Leo refuses to acquiesce to the hit. Leo, whose mistress is Bernbaum’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), informs Caspar that even though Bernbaum is a worm (or as they say in the film a double-crossing Hebe gambler), he pays for protection and is not to be touched. This goes against the advice of the more rational Tom, who is also sleeping with good-time moll Verna. Caspar leaves in a snit, and soon flexes his muscles by wresting control of the city. The gang war starts in earnest after a failed hit on Leo. Tom is tossed out for sleeping with Leo’s moll. But Tom proves he knows how to play all the angles to survive, as he joins Caspar’s organization.

The far-fetched melodramatics work as both a standard crime story and as an ironic spoof on the genre. With snappy dialogue and labyrinthine plotting involving self-deception and betrayals, the main body of the film involves how these complications are untangled in the Coen brothers’ usual inventive way. But because the film is so heavy on plot, it loses focus on the characters and it becomes increasingly difficult to care about them. They seemed to be around for the Coen brothers to ply them with witty lines and have them act quirky.

Miller’s Crossing pays homage to the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and crime films of the 1930s. One of its subordinate themes has to do with matters of friendship, loyalty and ethics, as Tom fights with Caspar but remains loyal to Leo–creatively finding ways to keep Leo alive in the heat of battle. While Caspar at one point exclaims in anguish, on how gangsters should be honest.

Highlights include set pieces like the forest execution and a tommy-gun shoot-out to the strains of “Danny Boy.” In his DVD interview, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld sums it up as “a handsome movie about men in hats.” Which might be enough of a reason for enjoying such an elegant pic, but that’s not to say that the characters were believable even though the actors’ performances were all top-notch.