My introduction to Miller's Crossingwas during a course taught on the Coen brothers by Robert Ribera, a professor at Portland State University. I was his Teacher's Assistant when he was at Boston University, and he gave me the movie to watch to prep for the course.
It was the only Coen brothers movie I had never seen... and it is the one that's stuck with me as long as even the more famous ones, like Fargo. It was different than other mafia movies, but still had the balls to have an opening shot directly from The Godfather.
I consider this movie to be one of the finest gangster movies ever made, a classic of the gangster genre.
The story is an amoral tale... about morals within the criminal underworld of the 1930s. There are two rival gangs vying for control of a city. The police are pawns, and the busts of illicit drinking establishments are just ways for one gang to get back at the other.
It's also a dark comedy, where none of the characters play into their stereotypes, and everyone has something going on below the surface.
It stars Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro, and Marcia Gay Harden. And the cinematography was done by Barry Sonnenfeld.
Check out the trailer and let's chat more below.
The movie premiered in 1990, living in the shadow of Scorsese's Goodfellas. Though the Coens were coming off Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, it failed to get the notoriety it deserved at the time.
I'm not sure people knew what to make of the movie. Even Roger Ebert (who gave it 3 stars) said, "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."
The cast really carried this film, with Finney and Byrne using all their talents to suck you into the world.
While not laden with the set pieces of other gangster films, this movie made the most of the big moments you could never forget.
In his article about the movie for The Guardian, Scott Tobias called the film "a movie full of question marks."
The largest question mark at the center is the idea of love triangles.
It seems like every character is involved in some sort of illicit tryst, with the central one being the gay love triangle between The Dane, Mink, and Bernie. This is incredibly progressive for the time. The Dane is not your classical representation of a gay character, yet his relationship with Mink is openly discussed between characters.
The euphemisms might go over our heads. They definitely went over mine upon first viewing. But they are there to be appreciated in every subsequent viewing.
There's also the obvious love triangle between Leo, Verna, and Tom.
These dueling triangles allow for twists, turns, betrayals, and backstabbings.
There's also that enigmatic hat that blows in the wind.
It was this image that made the Coens write this movie. It's based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”
Steve Buscemi has appeared in six Coen movies, but this one was his first, and his role of the Mink gets the whole story started. They said they cast him because he was able to speak faster than anyone else who auditioned.
Another Coen brothers' first in this film was Turturro's casting.
Looking back, it's a miracle this movie got made. Not just because of its slow-burn treatment of the story, but also because the Coens were initially offered the job of directing Batman, and turned it down to focus on original ideas.
That kind of choice is admirable and almost unthinkable today.
At the end of the day, Miller's Crossing stands as a testament to believing in yourself, relying on your actors, and chasing your muse like a hat through the forest.
Have you seen this gem of a film? Let me know your favorite parts in the comments.