Wednesday, February 18, 2009
#124: Miller's Crossing
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (inspired by Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key")
Released October 1990
"If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"
I have a long standing tradition of watching a favorite movie for my birthday (the 33rd of which came and went a couple of weeks ago). Almost all of my birthdays were based around movies when I was growing up. When you live in Nebraska and it's the dead of winter, you really don't have many other options for a birthday. The arcades in town were either totally seedy or owned by the PTL (Omaha's Family Fun Center, pretty much the only game in town these days, had "Praise the Lord" engraved on each of their tokens).
Thanks to Netflix finally streaming into my home, I had about 500 movies at my fingertips. Instead, I went to my DVD rack and grabbed one of my absolute favorite movies: the Coen Brothers' flawless Miller's Crossing.
To anyone who may have known me in college, I can already sense the eye-rolling coming from your direction.
For the rest of you, that would be because I watched this movie dozens of times in my 4 years slugging away at my first degree. If you ever imbibed with me at my apartment or in my dorm room, I made you watch this movie.
I wish I could make the whole world watch this movie. I almost want to stop writing this review to wait for all of you to watch it, then come back and discuss things without having to worry about spoiling anything for you.
Miller's Crossing is, in a way, a mob noir movie. Since we're talking about the Coen brothers here, this is a mob story in the same way that The Big Lebowski is a detective story: there's a genre at the root, but everything around it is kind of crazy and kind of special.
Gabriel Byrne gets an actor's dream role in Tom Reagan, the trusted adviser to a powerful mob boss (Albert Finney... just fucking killing it here) around the time of Prohibition. The movie opens with Finney's Leo O'Bannon hearing a proposal from rival mobster Johnny Caspar (another fantastic role, owned by sweaty, scenery chewing Jon Polito), in which Caspar spells out the most basic plot of the entire movie in three words.
"Friendship. Character. Ethics."
After offending Caspar (and disregarding Tom's advice) and sending him on his way, Leo and his newly spurned adviser set up their whole relationship and the battleground for the small war that follows. You'll have to watch the movie a second time, with the story under your belt, to really see how subtly telling Gabriel Byrne's acting is here. Five minutes go by and you're so hypnotized that you never notice there was no opening title or credits.
Enter the gorgeous score from the Coen's go-to composer Carter Burwell. It's impossible to believe that this is the same guy who created the insanity of the Raising Arizona score ("Wheeeeeeeeeee-eeeee-eeee-eeeeee...."). Making a movie score that doesn't overstep its bounds and force the viewer to understand the emotion behind a scene can't be an easy task, but that is achieved here. There's a sort of downer, defeated yet proud vibe to the music, and the movie would feel wrong without it there.
Damn it. Look. Just rent the thing.
You like John Turturro, right? He has never been better than here as the disloyal, distrustful Bernie Bernbaum. Remember how Marcia Gay Harden won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollack? Well, they gave her that award 11 years late, because she deserved it for her fiery Verna. Seriously, she's an anti-heroine for the ages. Then there's J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, perhaps the most macho, menacing homosexual character in the history of filmdom.
I feel like I'm telling you about a sunset that is going down right over your shoulder. I could keep going on, or you could just turn around.
There's so much good dialogue (Byrne doesn't have a single wasted word), you'll want to live in an era where people said things like, "What's the rumpus?" or "He's giving me the high hat!" or "You's fancy pants, all 'a yas."
The way the thug says, "Jesus, Tom" after getting hit with the chair.
The part where the fat kid gets slapped.
"Well that's a penny you owe him!"
All three scenes at Miller's Crossing.
"If I'd have known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'd have memorized the song of Solomon."
The scene where Leo smokes and listens to "Danny Boy."
Is Miller's Crossing the most criminally overlooked movie of our time? Perhaps.
Do it before the Oscars on Sunday, so you can remind yourself how often they get it wrong.
For more on Miller's Crossing:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.
I'm only giving you the Main Title theme (with some movie stills) tonight. The trailer gives away too much: