not in our stars, but in ourselves
“You double-cross once – where’s it all end? An interesting ethical question.”
– Johnny Caspar, mob boss/noted idiot and philosopher
Years and years and many taxpayer dollars after I began, I’ve finally got a new installment in my Catching Up On the Coens series for you lovely people. Please, no need to clap. No, but seriously, there’s been a big lull in the self-edification projects I meant to take on this year – and while I realize it doesn’t matter to any of you, I hope for my own sake to start being a bit more disciplined. Anyway, to Miller’s Crossing we go.
Sometime during the later days of Prohibition, in an unspecified city somewhere in the northern half of the U.S., Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) runs the Irish mob, a profitable speakeasy, assorted gambling operations, and the city’s police force. Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the leader of the somewhat friendly rival Italian mob, is upset. One of the bookies in Leo’s organization, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), has supposedly been messing with the races in such a way that Caspar keeps losing money. This makes Caspar unhappy, and he asks Leo to get rid of – which is to say, kill – Bernie. Leo is unwilling to do this for two reasons: first, he’s quite secure in his own power and position, and won’t be bossed around by some other mob boss; and second, his girlfriend, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), is Bernie’s sister. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s closest adviser, tries to convince Leo that it’s best to bump off Bernie – but Leo doesn’t listen. Tom ends up beginning an affair of his own with Verna, who’s more or less a toxic person, while he tries to figure out a way to keep both Leo and Bernie safe without inciting an Irish-Italian mob war. He succeeds somewhat.
If you recall, I began this Coens project after watching Fargo the TV show, and realizing that many of its references were lost on me. Now that I’ve seen Miller’s Crossing, I think I can safely say that the second season’s very structure – as well as some of its core themes – comes from this movie. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it’s there: Tom is, in a way, the ancestor of Lou Solverson (trying to reason with warring sides) and Hanzee Dent (playing them against each other to try to get out alive); the gang warfare is as brutal as it is reluctantly begun (on one side, anyway); and each punch, each gunshot, each death, leads to consequences. There is a Tarantino-esque element to an assassination attempt on Leo, with his house going up in flames while he shoots at his would-be killer with a machine gun from outside, but most of the carnage is treated seriously rather than sensationally. Sometimes it’s still funny, in a gallows way, but it’s never meant as pure entertainment. As on the show, as in other Coen Brothers movies, no one just gets away with ending someone else’s life. They suffer – in their conscience, if nowhere else.
Lest I give the impression that Miller’s Crossing and Fargo and every other Coen Brothers film is essentially the same, please allow me to clarify: not at all. There are overarching themes to which they (and evidently Noah Hawley) return quite often – but each film is its own unique thing. Miller’s Crossing, for its part, engages with early-twentieth century immigrant culture in northern cities as few other films (that I’ve seen, anyway) have attempted. It’s not overbearing or overstated, but here we have three of the main groups of immigrants that flowed over to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the Irish, the Italians, and Jews from various parts of Central and Eastern Europe – and how distinctly different each is, even after they’ve had a few decades to assimilate. Leo is still a bullheaded, stubborn Irishman who figures he can endure anything. Tom is fresher off the boat – Irish from Ireland, rather than Irish-American – and he seems afflicted with a certain amount of Celtic homesickness and longing. Caspar is a thin-skinned mafioso who can’t let go of a grudge, with an operatically massive wife and a round son whom he loves and beats up in equal measure. Bernie and Verna are Jews, eternal outcasts who game the system as best as they can to get by. This isn’t the story of every Irish/Italian/Jewish immigrant to come to America, obviously, but I think it’s true to the period and the culture clashes that these screwheads do what they do, motivated as they are by their conflicting needs and upbringings and understandings of the world.
If I’m to believe Wikipedia, Miller’s Crossing was inspired not only by various and sundry film noir tropes, but by Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and other novels. Certainly, there are some deeply Hammett-y elements: smart-alecks, drinking at all hours of the day and night, double-crossing dames, men who aren’t really good or bad but who try to make things right after they fuck them up in the first place. The time period suits Hammett well, too: all that gleaming mahogany in Leo’s office, his thriving speakeasy that operates with the full cooperation and assistance of the cops, Verna’s slinky and slatternly dresses, the delicious clink of an ice cube as it’s thrown into a tumbler and spins around for a moment before it’s submerged in amber whiskey. The dialogue has a distinctly early-’30s feel to it, too, as Christopher Orr points out in his “love letter” to the film:
Befitting its Hammettian roots, the plot of Miller’s Crossing is fairly convoluted, a fact that is made all the more noticeable by the extraordinary informational density of the dialogue. Characters are discussed before they’re introduced, unfamiliar slang (e.g., “twist” for woman) peppers the chatter, and the plot rarely slows down long enough to be usefully untangled. One exchange, following the attempt on Leo’s life, is so abbreviated that it’s almost as if the characters are speaking in code:
Tom: Who’s winning?
Terry: We are, for the nonce.
Tom: What’s the disposition?
Terry: Four to one. Dana Cudahy went up with the house.
Tom: And theirs?
Terry: One burned…
Tom: The other three…?
Terry: Leo’s… the old man’s still an artist with a Thompson.
One could make the case that this willful complicatedness is a flaw. (It is certainly true that Miller’s Crossing benefits from a second—or probably 22nd—viewing.) But it is of a piece with the rest of the movie, which plays less like a classic gangster film than like a 99 percent pure, Heisenberg-quality, blue-crystal distillation of all the tropes and themes and moods of the classic gangster film. It is an intoxicating achievement in cinematic chemistry.
This is all true, near as I can tell. (I haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet. Please put down the pitchforks. I’ll get to it.) But here’s what I think: the Coen Brothers have somehow written a gangster film inspired by Hammett as if James Joyce had adapted it. The near-abstraction of the rat-a-tat dialogue, accompanied by Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score full of Irish melodies, and the deep emerald greens in almost every shot: this is the beauty and genius that suits Joyce and his lifetime of odes to Ireland. And it’s pulled off by a couple of Jews from Minnesota. Who’d have thought it.