Sex, death and money: The Coens’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’ chronicles the lives and loves of Prohibition gangsters

December 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 8, 2015

Miller’s Crossing, the third movie written and directed by the prolific cinematic siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, is a love story in which the central romance is wholly sublimated.

The movie’s main character is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the No. 2 man in an urban crime syndicate in the Prohibition era. If a viewer weren’t paying close attention, she or he might think that Reagan’s love interest is Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), the calculating beauty whose brother, Bernie Bernbaum, becomes a bone of contention in gangland tumult.

Bernie (John Turturro) is a troublesome bookie who’s attracted the ire of a powerful Italian underboss named Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) because the former’s handling of betting on fixed fights has prevented Caspar from making major profits. Bernie pays protection money to Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney), Reagan’s boss and the big man in town. And Bernie’s sister is sleeping with both Tom and Leo.

But the true star-crossed lovers of Miller’s Crossing aren’t Tom and Verna, or even Verna and Leo, whom the Coens show together onscreen for only a few seconds near the end. Instead, the movie is really about the intense bond between Tom and Leo — the brainy, dark-haired, handsome younger man who prefers to avoid confrontation and the brawny, graying, distinguished-looking older crime boss and political ward-heeler who might be a little past his prime but isn’t afraid to flex his muscle when angered.

Miller’s Crossing, which was released in 1990, very much takes place in a man’s world. Other than Verna, only two women have speaking parts, neither of whom appears in more than a single scene. (One of them, Casper’s Italian wife, doesn’t even have a line in English.) There’s humor in Miller’s Crossing, but it’s pretty dry, and the viewer’s enjoyment of it is dampened by the awareness that the characters exchange quips about as readily as they do fisticuffs or bullets.

The movie is striking for the disparity between its exterior loveliness and its internal corruption. Most of the characters, especially the main ones, are pleasing to behold, but they’re venal people, devoted to making suckers out of the public at large. When Tom is asked if he knows the mayor, he quips that he certainly does, and that he voted for him six times in the last election. “That’s not even the record,” the mayor replies with a chuckle.

The crew, led by production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Leslie McDonald, set decorator Nancy Haigh and costume designer Richard Hornung, have lovingly recreated a Prohibition-era metropolis. (I took it to be Chicago, although the DVD jacket copy describes the setting rather generically as “an Eastern city.”)

I was particularly struck by the costumes; most of the characters, even the thugs, spend much of the picture decked out in suits accessorized by vests, handkerchiefs, hats and gloves. The outfits look great, and I imagine the fabrics would feel great, although they’d be quite stuffy in warmer weather. In fact, I found myself wondering how quickly the clothing might begin smelling — shall we say? — ripe without the modern amenities of washing machines and dry cleaners that we enjoy today.

Which kind of perfectly characterizes the people in Miller’s Crossing, as it happens: It looks pretty good, but there’s something rotten afoot.

Tom gets beaten fairly severely on three occasions, and there are a few on-screen shootings. Generally, the movie doesn’t glamorize its violence, although there is a pretty dynamic sequence in which Leo fights off some attackers. The plot is fairly convoluted; I often found myself wondering why Tom was in bed, both literally and figuratively, with various other characters in the movie.

The Coens wrap things up with a conclusion that leaves some questions unanswered — questions that I’ve found myself wondering about, questions that I imagine Tom himself might mull over. Like life, and like many other Coen pictures, Miller’s Crossing is ultimately somewhat enigmatic. It’s a movie that at once seems to be both more and less than what its surface shows us.

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