What’s the rumpus?

 ImageMiller’s Crossing is Ethan and Joel Coens’s third film—and like all of their other work, the film takes on a Hollywood genre, in this case the gangster film.  Set in the 1920s, it features a convoluted plot full of twists and turns, cross and double-cross that examines loyalty, love, and power.  However, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, genre is always convoluted and disrupted.  Miller’s Crossing presents a classic gangster motif, but one that turns around two conflicting love triangles: one heterosexual, one homosexual.  Borrowing from both film noir and the detective novel, the film’s production notes acknowledge Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and it has been compared his The Glass Key (1931), whose protagonist is the aide de camp of a crime boss. Like noir, the dialogue here is literate and the banter is comic. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom is sly and subdued, evoking Bogart’s Sam Spade, while Marsha Gay Harden’s femme fatale, Verna, like all Coen Brothers female leads is strong, savvy, and punches back.

Atmosphere in Miller’s Crossing is created by its darkly lit interiors and Carter Burwell’s original score, which references traditional Irish folk ballads.  The establishing shot reflects the film’s mood and color palate; we hear the crisp clink of ice dropped into a glass framed by backlit bottles of amber, browns, and green.  To the right of screen, Byrne’s shadowy figure slowly advances into the foreground as a dark blur, while a conversation between mob bosses takes place.  Albert Finney’s Leo enters the film as one of the Coen’s favorite tropes, the patriarch behind the big desk—while Jon Polito’s red-faced, Johnny Casper bemoans the lack of friendship, character, and ethics in their world, the bond between thieves.

The film’s main action spills back and forth between urban and wooded spaces, and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfield recreates the interior color palate of the film’s mise en scene by finding outside locations with corresponding colors—and by switching from Kodak to Fuji film for scenes in the mysterious woods, in order to capture them in a muted brown and green tone.  Filmed in New Orleans, Miller’s Crossing also takes on the strange ambiance of that city, which in 1989 looked much like it had in the 1920s. Additionally, the Coens wanted the ominous light of winter without risking snowfall.

The ensuing action is rife with violence that is by turn, comedic, grotesque, and sublime.  Tom is beaten, buildings are exploded, riots erupt, gangsters are assassinated, and bullets rain.  And in one of the most beautifully timed, shot, and executed moments in any Coen Brother’s film, Albert Finney’s aging gangster defends himself with a Thompson gun in a scene of remarkably choreographed violence and beauty—which builds to its climax during a diegetic playing of “Danny Boy.”  This version was recorded by the Irish tenor Frank Patterson while watching the film, in order to match his timing and emotion to its pacing.  And, a scene of John Turturro begging for his life in the forest is a gruesome evocation of Snow White and the woodsman.  It is one of his best ever performances.

Yet for all its drama, the film is still often hilarious, and reflects the Coens gleeful, dark humor.  A ladies room scene features Albert Finney in drag, the Coen’s mentor, director Sam Raimi, is killed in a hail of bullets which resembles a macabre tap dance, and Tom is often beaten merely for the comedic gesture of being handed back his hat.

Tom’s hat is also the central symbol for the film.  The opening and closing credits feature it, a hat blowing into the woods, the re-creation of a dream Tom shares with Verna. Halfway through completing the screenplay, Ethan and Joel developed writers’ block.  Frustrated, they took three weeks off to write Barton Fink and then returned to the more complex narrative… therefore Tom Reagan lives in the Barton Arms.  If the point of Barton Fink, however, is to examine the life of the mind, Miller’s Crossing leaves us with only a vague symbol of its convoluted reasoning: a dream, something lost, recovered, and then lost again.  And yet at its heart, Miller’s Crossing ultimately is, a film about friendship, character, and ethics.         

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