Miller’s Crossing (1990)

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*. We open with an homage to The Godfather: the same office, or at least one with the same colour and lighting, the same pleading request (denied) for a hit, the same appeal to honour. Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar even looks like the undertaker Bonasera.
*. It makes you wonder at what point such borrowing becomes a distraction, counterproductive. It’s not a big deal here, but listen to Gabriel Byrne talking about the film: “I think one of the problems for reviewers is because it was so different, it was so unique and so original, that they found it very difficult to place . . . on almost every aspect of this movie you cannot put a label or a tag.” Why do people keep having to say this? Especially for a movie so thickly rooted in genre conventions? A number of key plot elements here are taken from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (made into a movie in 1942), and other borrowings, like the nod to The Godfather at the beginning, are pretty thick on the ground.
*. Here’s another perspective on perhaps the same thing I’m getting at. Roger Ebert: “This doesn’t look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie. Everything is too designed. That goes for the plot and the dialogue, too. The dialogue is well-written, but it is indeed written. We admire the prose rather than the message. People make threats, and we think about how elegantly the threats are worded.”
*. What niggled at Ebert was Leo’s office, which he thought looked too lavish. I felt the same way. Before you even get to the matter of their design, what strikes you is that the sets here are huge. Look at the size of Leo’s office, Tommy’s apartment, the ladies’ powder room, or, most surreal of all, Caspar’s headquarters, which seems to be a desk and a couch set in the middle of an empty warehouse. Characters have to make long walks just to exit these sets, and indeed this is a shot that is repeated several times, as though drawing our attention to the vast distances being covered.
*. It may be these oversize sets that add to a comic-book impression I get from the film. The city stuff was mainly shot in New Orleans, but the location is left unspecified and it feels like it might be Batman’s Gotham, Dick Tracy’s metropolis, or Frank Miller’s Sin City. The scene where Caspar kicks the mayor out of his office and sits behind his desk is pure comic book, and the hit on Leo that ends with him firing an inexhaustible Tommy gun at a car before it absurdly bursts into a fireball is part of the same aesthetic.

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*. Apparently the impetus for the movie was a vision of the hat lying on the ground and then blowing away. I really distrust movies that are born out of such simple visions. It makes me think of Campion’s The Piano and the ridiculous (if pretty) shot of the girl dancing to the piano on the beach. Here the image has no real relevance to the rest of the movie and has to be connected by way of Byrne’s forced “I had a dream . . .”  speech. As for what the hat means, that’s anybody’s guess. I’ve never heard a compelling explanation.

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*. And how does that hat blow away without any of the leaves around it being disturbed? It can’t be the wind.
*. Just a sec. The job of shooting Bernie is given to Tom as a test … and then nobody checks to see if he actually does it? And he knew they wouldn’t?
*. Barry Sonnenfeld wanted a movie that looked “handsome and muted” and got it. Muted photography to match the muted performances. And therein lies a big problem.
*. Is Gabriel Byrne asleep throughout this movie, his eyes falling shut behind the lowered brim of his fedora? Even when he’s supposed to be angry, or is in a fight, he seems to be almost ready to nod off. No doubt he’s a cool customer, but we have to need that there’s something going on between him and Verna and they just never ignite. Indeed at the end of the movie it isn’t clear if he’s been more motivated by loyalty to Leo than any feelings toward her. Or even if he has any feeling toward her.
*. Marcia Gay Harden is almost a match for Byrne’s fire-retardant façade. David Thomson thought her so sexy that Byrne’s falling for her was a “testament to Harden’s ass” but I don’t see the falling or the ass. Unless we’re talking about another one of Thomson’s film crushes.
*. Albert Finney is fine, but how interesting a character is Leo? Not very. Just an older man trying to prove that he’s still got it by kicking ass and cutting grass. Entirely believable, but dull.
*. It is interesting that both Leo and Verna, at different points, invite Tommy to join them not so much in a ménage but more as a third wheel. Verna thinks she can leave town and live together with Tommy and her brother, while Leo thinks he can marry Verna and still have Tommy as a business partner. Alas, Tommy is the superfluous man in both reckonings.
*. The supporting cast is great, with John Turturro as the repellent Bernie being a real stand out. Who can forget his pleading for his life in the forest? The first time I saw the film I was genuinely unsure of whether or not Tommy was going to shoot him. What’s more, I wasn’t sure what if that’s what I wanted him to do.
*. Is Bernie something more than the sleazy creep he seems? In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman points out that he only appears in scenes where he’s alone with Tommy, suggesting that this makes him a secret Satan figure. I’m not sure that follows, but it is an interesting point and we may well wonder at some deeper psychological link between the two.
*. In The Godfather Coppola wanted Pacino made up with a puffy cheek so he looked like he’d taken a hit. Here, Byrne doesn’t get as much as a bruise after the consecutive beatings he takes. He only gets a bit of a cut on his lip, which later disappears, when Bernie kicks him in the head.
*. This is a movie that has grown in reputation. It was a disaster at the box office, and actually received quite mixed reviews when it came out. Now it’s seen as something of a classic. Did we just not “get it” in 1990?
*. I didn’t then, and I don’t really now. It’s a movie I really want to like more than I do. It’s nicely shot and has a tight little gangster-noir script, but it seems like a minor film that too much effort has been put into. In addition, the leads are underplayed and the plot takes several silly and unnecessary detours into comic-book action sequences. There are great parts, but they don’t add up.

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