Miller's Crossing remains one of the most enigmatic films from The Brothers Coen. John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire take a radical new look at the film, and air some controversial opinions...
Miller's Crossing is either a self-indulgent look at the gangster genre, unsure whether it is an homage or a parody; or a highly stylised, pithy film, that plays with the conventions of the gangster film and comes out a winner.
The Brothers Coen have often referred to Miller's Crossing as their Dashiell Hammett film. Certainly there are two Hammett stories lurking in the text: Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Indeed, the similarities are so pronounced that critic John Harkness once remarked that he was surprised the Hammett estate didn't sue for plagiarism.
Red Harvest has had many cinematic re-workings: it was the basis of
Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Walter
Hill's Last Man Standing (1997). All of these concern a lone character who
enters town and plays its two gangs off against each other.
The Glass Key is virgin territory by comparison, having been filmed only
twice, with George Raft in 1935 and Alan Ladd in 1942. This is the story of
a politician's aide who appears to turn against his boss, but is actually
playing both sides in order to help his boss.
Although the Coens credit Hammett as their direct inspiration, the film and
characters also reflect the work of Raymond Chandler, whose definition of
the hard-boiled hero could have been written for Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne):
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is
neither tarnished nor afraid .... a man of honour, by instinct, by
inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."
Like Chandler's stories, Miller's Crossing is gloomy, downbeat and
inadequately plotted. What makes Chandler, Hammett and for that matter the
Coens a cut above the rest is their skill in weaving vivid, evocative prose,
heavy with user-friendly metaphors and similes. Clever dialogue which has
come to epitomise the time and place in which it was written.
In keeping with its inspirations, Miller's Crossing opens with a
monologue, a familiar device to Coen viewers but, unusually, this is an
on-screen monologue given by Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). He is this film's
street-level philosopher (another Coen staple), and the subject on which he
is holding forth is the importance of 'Ethics' in professional gangsterism.
In this respect he is a gangster of the old school, despite being a
Johnny-cum-lately to this particular crime scene. This opening duplicates
that of The Godfather (1971), with a close-up of a gangster asking his
boss for a favour. Even the lighting and the wooden venetian blind in the
background serve to remind one of that 'I love America' moment.
Like Blood Simple, the passion in Miller's Crossing is for the violence, not
the romance. The love scenes we do see between Tom and Verna (Marcia Gay
Harden) are cold and emotionless business arrangements. Genuine tenderness
and understanding exists only between Tom and Leo.
In common with Blood Simple (1983) and Raising Arizona (1985), the plot here
pivots on a fulcrum of confusion and non-communication. What is different
from those earlier films is that due to the absence of internal monologue
the viewer is kept in the dark. Meanwhile, whereas in Blood Simple and
Raising Arizona the camera is constantly on the move, in Miller's Crossing
it often remains motionless. When it does move, it slowly circles seated
characters. This calm, deliberate use of the camera corresponds with Tom's
dour acceptance of his fate; his inability to panic no matter how much of a
threat he is facing.
Miller's Crossing is Tom's film. People say that Tom is a thinker not a
talker. He certainly doesn't talk to the audience, and therefore remains an
enigma. Several times people make him offers to which he replies, 'I'll
think about it'. We have to judge what is going on, and why, from what
little we see and hear; we never get to find out what he is thinking. 'You
always know why you do things?' He asks Leo at one point. This is a key
question in a Coen movie. Leo answers 'Yeah' and, given that he is at heart
a simple man, he's probably telling the truth. Nothing is that clear-cut for
Tom is a solitary and tough man who, through his travels, meets dark and
eccentric characters. He is judged by the language he uses or, more
properly, by his silences; very little is given away about the man himself.
He hides behind irony, the wise cracks and the violence, but inside he is a
lonely and bitter hero known for his heavy drinking, his hopeless gambling
and a passion for fashion.
Miller's Crossing is very much a sitting-down film. Its innumerable
conversations are carried out in large, opulent offices, warehouses,
apartments or speakeasies - all huge, empty locations which emphasise the
space between the characters. Pretty much the only time these men stand up,
it is to knock somebody else down. Usually Tom.
When Tom is first beaten 'by Verna in the women's room' his wounded male
pride insists that he is capable of 'raising hell'! Although that only
slowly and incrementally happens in the pejorative sense, this wouldn't be a
Coen film without a little literal Hell.
This is first glimpsed in Leo's house during his attempted murder, which
culminates in his house being turned into a raging, blood-stained inferno,
but begins quietly with the sound of a brief off-screen struggle. Leo's
bodyguard lays prone across his newspaper, his cigarette burning a hole in
the page. Upstairs, a wind-up gramophone scratches out the emotive strains
of 'Danny Boy' as Leo, wrapped in silk pyjamas and a robe, relaxes alone in
bed and enjoys a cigar.
He smells something, then notices a wisp of smoke creep through between the
floorboards. Stepping out of bed he takes the trouble to slip on his velvet
slippers before diving under the bed and shooting the ankles out from under
his attackers. Appropriating a dead thug's machine-gun, Leo walks slowly
(there being no other way of doing anything in this movie) down the centre
of the road, away from the burning shell of his house, shooting the get-away
car, until he forces it off the road and into a tree. The burning car
reminds Leo of his half-smoked cigar, which he removes from his pocket and
continues to smoke.
This scene of fire and brimstone and extreme physical violence shows that,
although he may be outwardly misguided and weak now, Leo is as tough as
nails underneath. Far tougher, in fact, than Tom. Leo is later described as
still 'an artist with a Thompson', and for the first time you get an inkling
of how he came to be boss. Later, by contrast, when Tom tries to be
physically heroic, by running to head-off Bernie, it backfires and he gets
another of his regular kickings. He is not good at action, he's a plotter
and a planner, not a doer. Indeed, he is so passive he learns to accept the
inevitability of his constant beatings.
The film's turning point is when Tom tells Leo that he and Verna had 'been
together'. Tom then turns his back on his friend and leaves. Leo appears
behind him rolling up his sleeves and all heads turn as Leo passes, eagerly
waiting to see Tom get another drubbing. As he skids to a halt at the bottom
of the stairs, we can hear the strains of the 'Goodnight Sweetheart',
significant if you are following the film's homosexual sub-text. Homosexual
subtext? Don't panic, all will become clear shortly.
From the moment he throws Tom out to the epilogue, Leo disappears from the
narrative. Tom has to spend a time in exile, away from home, in order to
bring about a lasting peace. It is safe to say, by this point, that Tom and
Leo have fallen out, but Tom and Verna soon get it together again. During a
post-coital discussion of his break-up with Leo, Verna sarcastically remarks
that Tom is 'all heart'. Little does she know.
The next reference to hearts comes from her brother Bernie, in the film's
other great moment: the first visit to the woods at Miller's Crossing.
Although this is the first time any of the characters have visited this
site, Tom and we, the viewer, have seen it before as the background for
Tom's floating hat dream.
Having now left the 'potato eaters', Tom is working for the 'eye-ties' and
has been tasked to take Bernie out into the wilderness and 'put one in the
brain'. Out amongst the trees, these soldiers are on unfamiliar turf. It
must seem, to Tom that the carpet of dead leaves are emblematic of Leo's
fading grip on the town. He has come to the end of his season.
Bernie, talking fast and furious, begs Tom, 'Look in your heart ...' and
falls to his knees. Finally, reminded of Verna's love for her brother and
his own unwillingness to cross a moral line, he makes the decision to let
Bernie go. This is the first decision he makes motivated by compassion for
Verna - all the others are motivated by compassion for Leo. This shift in
loyalty will prove to be a mistake, as Bernie is too arrogant to accept the
gift Tom has offered him.
In contrast to all other characters in the film, where the consequences of
violence are played out through the blood and bullet wounds, when Tom gets
beaten up, he gets nothing worse than a split lip. Eight times he is beaten
up and each time his wounds are gone by the next morning, ready for some
Nevertheless, his powers of persuasion soon return, after his weakness at
Miller's Crossing, and he begins to plant seeds of doubt in Johnny Caspar's
simple mind that Dane is double-crossing him. As Caspar makes his decision
about whether he believes Dane or Tom the Coen key-note rumblings begin in
the background: the fire behind Caspar roars its encouragement. The
photography becomes stylised for the first time in the whole film and, to
the accompaniment of a howling fatman (sitting in for the various John
Goodman roles), Caspar decides. As he brings the fire iron down on Dane's
head, again and again, he is sprayed with blood and thunder rolls overhead,
as if Heaven itself were being torn apart. This has been Tom really raising
This scene of Biblical horror, and the confession scene between Tom and
Verna played out in the rain-soaked Chinatown district immediately after it,
are both lifted in tone from the early violence-soaked moments of Once Upon
A Time In America (1983).
That night at the Barton Arms (Tom's apartment block) the strands of Tom's
web finally converge as Bernie and Caspar are drawn fatally together. As
Caspar's corpse lies cooling on the landing, his face splattered once more
with blood (this time his own) and his hat upturned on the stairs below, Tom
convinces Bernie to hand over his gun and pin Caspar's murder on Dane.
As he speaks, Tom is preparing to cross a line he has never previously
crossed. To accompany this, an ominous rumble once again fills the
background. Then Tom turns the gun on Bernie, who promptly starts 'squirting
a few', as he once put it. But Tom has taken Bernie's betrayal personally.
This is the first time Tom has levelled his gun in anger during the film,
and possibly the first time ever. Bernie has changed him. When he once more
begs 'Look in your heart ...' Tom's response is simple, emphatic and honest:
He has become the living embodiment of his own pessimistic theory: 'Nobody
knows anybody, not that well.' Not well enough to know if they're capable of
killing. No one believes he is, which is why his plan ultimately works. But,
sufficiently motivated, anyone is capable of plumbing any depth.
Although things have outwardly turned full-circle, with the status-quo
re-asserted and Leo once more in pole position, the characters have changed.
As Leo walks away, alone through an avenue of trees (a la the graveside
finale of The Third Man (1949), Tom watches him go, his face betraying his
heartbreak. Finally, we realise that the object of his love is not Verna,
Keeping it in the Family
Tom is 'seeing' Verna, who is officially Leo's girl. Ordinarily, this would
be your bog-standard Oedipal-type incestuous relationship. Why? I'm glad you
asked: Because, the head of the organisation is usually the father-figure
(especially if the organisation calls itself 'The Family') - Leo does call
Tom 'kid' - therefore making Verna the symbolic mother. This would make Tom
and Verna's relationship tantamount to incest. (Please feel free to take the
time to draw yourself a flow-chart, you'll also need it for The Big
However, this film is seemingly anti-Oedipal, since Leo is far from the
masterful head of this particular family. Apart from when wielding a Chicago
Piano, he is actually weak and confused by his relationship with Verna. He
is a passive character, largely at the mercy of Tom's whim.
By protecting the woman he loves, Leo begins a war. He refuses to admit that
his time has passed and insists he can '... still swap body-blows with any
man in this city ... except you, Tom.' 'Or Verna!' Adds Tom. He has been
emasculated by his relationship. Tom, who doesn't love women, doesn't suffer
such weakness. He is steely-eyed clear at all times.
Bernie claims that his sister has taught him something about 'the bedroom
arts', which introduces incest into this family. Bernie is also in a
homosexual relationship with Mink (John Buscemi) - not for emotional needs,
but as a business decision. As fight-fixers for the respective gangs, they
represent a marriage of business interests.
So we already have a dysfunctional family riven by incest and overtones of
homosexuality. This seems as good a time as any to justify the claim that
Tom and Leo are actually in love with each other:
Look at the way Leo never considers that Verna might be staying with Tom,
and how he reacts when he finds out she was. When he throws Tom out he calls
it 'The Kiss Off'. Examine the film's last shot, the look of barely
restrained pain on Tom's face as Leo walks away into marriage. Although Leo
doesn't realise any of this consciously, Tom is too intelligent not to.
This undercurrent is an established ingredient in gangster movies.
In Little Caesar (1930), Rico (Edward G.) had a fatal homosexual love for
Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jnr).
In Scarface (1932 and 1983) Paul Muni and Al Pacino have a fatal incestuous
love for their sister.
Whilst in White Heat (1949), Cody Jarrett (Jimmy Cagney) had an incestuous
love for his mother.
Therefore, Miller's Crossing is about a war that is averted because of an
undeclared homosexual attraction. References to Tom's heart are littered
throughout the film - he is mostly accused of not having one. Yet,
throughout, he has been motivated purely by his heart. Tom has risked his
reputation, his position and his life, for the man he loves. Now, having
successfully re-built the world in Leo's image, he sacrifices that love in
order to give their marriage its greatest chance of survival. Tom steps
Finally, in the film's closing frames, the audience gets to look in Tom's
heart, to see the face of his unrequited love, and to understand the true
nature of his heroism. Like the hat in his dream, Tom is prepared to let Leo
just blow away.
© 2000 John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire
This is an edited extract from John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire's book The
Pocket Essential Joel and Ethan Coen, published in February. See www.pocketessentials.com for more details.
The Pocket Essential Joel and Ethan Coen by John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire, Pocket Essentials, Harpenden 2000, 96pp, £2.99 ISBN: 190304703X and is available from thebigbookshop.com
This extract from The Pocket Essential Joel and Ethan Coen by John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire is used by arrangement with the authors and their publishers and may not be reproduced without their permission - please see the license