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Look in Your Heart: Miller's Crossing Revisited

by John Ashbrook and Ellen Cheshire
The Brothers Coen

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Films directed by Joel Coen

The Pocket Essential Joel and Ethan Coen

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...
The Brothers Coen

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.

Miller's Crossing

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.

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 more.

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 hell.

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: 'What heart?'.

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, but Leo.

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 Lebowski (1998)!)

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 aside.

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

Top book! 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


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