Sunday, July 19, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Miller's Crossing

Verna: What are you chewing over?
Tom: Dream I had once. I was walking in the woods, dunno why. Wind came up, blew my hat off.
Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran. Finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn't a hat anymore. It changed into something else. Something wonderful.
Tom: No, it stayed a hat. And no, I didn't chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

'Miller's Crossing' opens in a manner deliberately evocative of 'The Godfather'. There's a man sitting behind a desk in an office dominated by dark wood. He's nonchalant, lugubrious, in control. There's a short, sweaty, agitated guy standing in front of the desk. He's come to beg a favour. But where 'The Godfather' gives us Don Corleone and Bonasera, the latter wanting justice for an assault on his daughter, the former prepared to help so long as Bonsera might one day discharge a duty to him, the set up is very different in 'Miller's Crossing'.

Behind the desk: Irish-American mob boss Leo O'Bannion (Albert Finney) and behind him his trusted lieutenant Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne). In front of the desk - and, by the end of the scene, leaning over it, every blood vessel in his face threatening to burst, up-and-coming gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) and his second-in-command Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman). And the favour? Well, that concerns bent bookie Bennie Bernbaum (John Turturro) and the various reasons Johnny Caspar wants him dead. Leo ixnays the killing, reminding Johnny that "you're only as big as I let you be". Johnny storms out. Tom counsels Leo that a conflagration with Johnny and Eddie Dane would be unwise, particularly over schnook like Bennie Bernbaum. Leo laughs it off. Then the opening credits roll and what follows is just under two hours of the tricksiest, most convoluted plotting the gangster genre has ever seen.

In brief - and this is without factoring in Tom's gambling debts and the importance to the plot of fast-talking secondary character Mink (Steve Buscemi) - the rivalry between Leo and Johnny Caspar that comes to a head over Bennie Bernbaum is complicated by Leo's doting romance with Bennie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Garden), a vampish good-time girl who's working out more angles than a geometrist, and Tom's clandestine affair with same. The murder of a tail Leo puts on Verna exacerbates an already tense atmosphere.

Johnny Caspar pressures Tom to leave Leo's organisation and work with him instead. His powerplay is demonstrated by an attempt on Leo's life. However, it's unsuccessful. Leo fends off his attackers with a tommy gun (earning an approving "the old man's still an artist with a Thompson" from a minion) while "Danny Boy" plays on a wind-up gramophone.

The relationship deteriorates between Tom and Leo, culminating in the revelation that Tom and Verna have been doing the wild thing. Leo makes Tom redundant (that's the mob version of redundant, where you take a beating first then get bodily thrown off the premises) and Tom approaches Johnny Caspar to see if the job opportunity is still available. Johnny wants an act of good faith from Tom. He wants Tom to give up Bennie Bernbaum. Tom obliges, but isn't prepared for his next test of loyalty: take Bennie into the woods down near Miller's Crossing and put a bullet in his brain. Tom's not cut out for this kind of thing and when Bennie pleads for his life, Tom lets him go. Bad move. Bennie's working out a few angles of his own and it's not long before he reappears on the scene and starts making life difficult for Tom. Meanwhile, Eddie Dane - suspicious of Tom's proximity to Johnny Caspar - figures that Tom would "rather join a ladies' group" than whack a guy and takes him on a little trip back to Miller's Crossing to look for the body ...

'Miller's Crossing' has more twists than a sack of snakes - and just as much venom. More turns than a wrongly-programmed satnav - and takes you on just as confusing a journey. It's dark and cynical. It's brutally amoral and violent. In addition to the shoot-outs and molotov cocktails through windows, Tom seems to take a blow to the face every five minutes - from Leo, from Verna, from Eddie Dane, from Bennie, from any of the guys he owes money to. Everyone wants something from him, and everyone's got an angle. Amazingly, having said all that, 'Miller's Crossing' is also funny as hell. Johnny Caspar's losing-the-point monologues and Mink's mile-a-minute colloquy are hilarious verbal pyrotechnics. Elsewhere, wise-ass dialogue abounds. "If I'd known we were going to cast feelings into words, I'd've memorised the Song of Solomon," Tom muses at one point. Later, as lost for words as he is for Bennie's corpse, Tom walks fearfully through the woods. "You ever notice," Eddie Dane observes, "how the smart dialogue dries up the moment a guy starts soiling his union suit."

But it's Verna - and Marcia Gay Harden has never been better - who has the last word. When Tom, looking for her at Leo's behest, angrily bursts into a powder room and confronts her, she asks, "Shouldn't you be doing your job ?" He replies, "Intimidating helpless women is my job." Her comeback: "Then go find one and intimidate her." Amen, sister!


Samuel Wilson said...

It's a personal fave here, too, with a career best performance from Gabriel Byrne as "the head bolshevik from yegg central." I wonder sometimes whether he's intended as a kind of Christ figure from all the times people say "Jesus, Tom," or "Christ, Tom" to him, but we needn't take that too far. In any event, I recommend Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key to all fans of this film. It's an eye-opener.

Neil Fulwood said...

I must confess I've read very little Hammett, but I'll certainly keep 'The Glass Key' in mind next time I'm browsing in Waterstones.

Religious allegory is something that's always been bubbling away in the Coens' work, particularly metaphors for hell (the smoke rising up between the floorboards of Leo's house in 'Miller's Crossing'; the conflagrant hotel corridors stalked by a demonic John Goodman in 'Barton Fink'), and something I might well get to grips with in a future post.

I've enjoyed the "beat the clock" aspect of these double bills the last few weekends, but the immediacy of marshalling my thoughts into words and posting to the blog in the hour and a half deadline I set myself between films means I've had little opportunity to consider, at length, all the aspects of the film in question that I want to write about.

Also, watching two movies and churning out 2,000 - 2,500 words in one day has (a) knackered me out, and (b) left little time for anything else.

J.D. said...

"What's the rumpus?" Ah, the wonderful dialogue in this film! For the longest time this used to be, hands down, my fave Coen brothers film of all time but then THE BIG LEBOWSKI came along.

I just love the period dialogue and the insane plot twists that drive this film. And, of course, Barry Sonnenfeld's superb cinematography (ah, why'd he have to go off and direct?) is another reason that this film was my fave for so long. Not to mention the rich, atmospheric production design.

This is a great film and, after GOODFELLAS, quite possibly my fave gangster film.

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, 'Lebowski' is a defining moment in the Coens' career. I remember it coming on the back of 'Fargo', which got all the plaudits - yet I eminently preferred 'Lebowski'.

Man, I don't know about a double bill - I think I need to do an entire Coens season,!

J.D. said...

I agree. I could talk about the Coens forever. They have made so many films I love. I'm hoping at some point to do something on THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which took a beating when it came out but I think it's quite an amazing film in a lot of respects.

Neil Fulwood said...

Ah, 'The Hudsucker Proxy'. Fine bit of scenery chewing from Paul Newman, Tim Robbins in one of his most likeable turns, and the magnificent Jennifer Jason Leigh doing fast-talking '40s dame in fine style. Look forward to reading your thoughts on it!