ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Miller's Crossing

WEEK 12: "M" PART 2

Because the letter "M" is so populated with so many great titles, the powers that be of the "Alphabet Film Club" felt that this letter needed two weeks and two votes.

Nominees:  The Maltese Falcon, The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, Marty, Miller's Crossing

Winner:  Miller's Crossing  (after a four-way tie was broken by our moderator, Tim Day)

Background:  Three years after their sophomore film Raising Arizona grew to become a cult classic comedy, brotherly filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen entered another misunderstood and under-appreciated volume to their resume in the form of Miller's Crossing in 1990.  It was a box office flop earning just $5 million and change against a budget in the teens of millions.  When you're a softer-sensibility gangster film coming out in the same year as Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, it's easy to be looked as less and forgotten.  However, time has given Miller's Crossing a sturdy legacy, earning a spot on TIME magazine's list of the 100 greatest films in 2005 and a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score that stands to this day.

Miller's Crossing is a mob film about two factions, the Irish and the Italians, on the brink of competitive town war.  The existing big kahuna on the block is Irish-American Leo O'Bannon (multiple Academy Award nominee Albert Finney), who's got a tight hold of the city's Prohibition in one hand and Tommy gun in the other.  Against him is Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Leo's up-and-coming Italian rival who wants a bigger say and take in things.  In the middle are Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a Jewish bookie who's burned bridges with both sides and his sister Verna (Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden), who's Leo's girl and the only female character with dialogue longer than a paragraph.  Also in the middle are the many corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials who are on the take and favor the angle of prevailing wind and the "straight as a corkscrew" Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne).

Tom is a coolly honest straight shooter and our protagonist.  He is Leo's most trusted right hand man, but has a gambling debt over his head and Verna is his bed.  After Leo doesn't give up the crooked Bernie to appease a wrong on Johnny's side, war ensues.  Tom takes it up himself to spurn Leo and play both sides of the "rumpus."  Who ends up still breathing and who ends up dead on the streets or out in the woods at the titular "Miller's Crossing" is the fun of the film.

Reaction:  FOUR STARS-- I'm not a big fan of the Coen brothers, but I sure liked Miller's Crossing.  I agree with the sentiment of our moderator Tim Day and other members/watchers of the Alphabet Film Club when, for as obscure and weird as their films can get, their creativity and vigor to see a story through and create cinematic art can never be questioned.  

Miller's Crossing is a real testament to that and a much more approachable film than some of their other and more revered works.  Visually, the film is filled with outstanding period and character style and detail.  Years before he became a noted director himself, Barry Sonnenfeld's (Get Shorty, the Men in Black and Addams Family series) cinematography is outstanding here, as is the production design from Academy Award winner Dennis Gassner.  I can do without Carter Burwell's nice "flight of poetic whimsy" Celtic score that sounds misplaced from a heartwarming family film from Disney, but beggars can't be choosers.

What really raises the Miller's Crossing score for me is the acting.  That is another complement I can share to the Coen brothers.  They really do get the most out of all of the actors they collaborate with, from their usual role players (Turturro, Polito, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand) to their imports (Byrne, Finney, and Harden).  Want to know why Gabriel Bryne's legendary Keaton character is so cool from The Usual Suspects?  Come watch Miller's Crossing.  Want to know where Albert Finney gets so much of that underlying cajones inside his older Erin Brockovich and Big Fish characters?  Come watch Miller's Crossing.  

Gabriel Byrne is in the driver's seat and takes through the many layers that make up this film.  Through his crooked ethics (more on that later), we gain crooked ethics to a fun slice of American crime.  While Miller's Crossing can't compete with Goodfellas from the same year, the silver medal is not a bad prize to have.  The Godfather Part III is a distant third from that banner 1990 year. 

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF "RUMPUS"-- 1. NOUN:  meaning "a noisy, confused, or disruptive commotion" [origin unknown]. Ex: The Thompson sub-machine gun made such a rumpus that they woke up everyone else in the house.  Synonyms:  ballyhoo, blather, bluster, bustle, clatter, commotion, disturbance, fuss, furor, hullabaloo, hurly-burly, pandemonium, ruckus, stir, turmoil, uproar.  (link)

LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF "HIGH HAT"--  1. VERB (Informal):  meaning "to treat in a superciliously indulgent manner: condescend, patronize."  2. IDIOM: meaning "speak (or talk) down to." See also: attitude, over, respect, rise;  3. ADJECTIVE (Informal):  meaning "characteristic of or resembling a snob: elitist, snobbish, snobby."  Synonyms:  snooty, stuck-up, uppish, uppity.  Ex:  If you think you can just come in here and give me the high hat and take my business, you've got another thing coming.  (link)

LESSON #3: THE DEFINITION OF "SCHMATTE"-- 1. NOUN:  meaning "a rag."  2. NOUN:  An old or ragged garment.  3. NOUN (Informal): An incompetent, scheming, and/or worthless Jewish individual of poor quality, likely the token one in a racist Irish or Italian setting. [Origin: Yiddish shmate, from Polish szmata.].  Ex:  The sneaky lawyer, with his bumbling taunts and low worth, was nothing more than another schmatte from the mothballed closet.  (link)

LESSON #4: ALWAYS PUT ONE IN THE BRAIN-- If only horror movie characters could subscribe to this very simple rule of assassination, murder, and execution.  It seems that only Zombieland's "double-tap" rule has figured it out.  Please assign this Coen brothers movie to high school zombie defense classes.  What?  Your school doesn't have those?

LESSON #5: DON'T SLEEP WITH YOUR BOSS'S GIRL-- Can we call this a given?

LESSON #6: PLAYING BOTH SIDES-- While this isn't exactly Yojimbo  (or, worse, Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis), Tom Regan walks a pretty fine treacherous line between working for Leo and working for Johnny, all while dodging a gambling debt and bedding the wrong woman.  Playing both sides may show your smarts and keep you in multiple good graces, but it's a slippery slope.  Tom gets his far share of knuckle-sandwiches to show for it.

LESSON #7: ETHICS AMONG FRIENDS AND ENEMIES-- While most all of these characters in Miller's Crossing are quick to throw and punch and pull the trigger, their is both a spoken and unspoken set of ethics that governs this little Italian-Irish underworld, or so Johnny Caspar keep repeating, just like the "unwritten rules" of baseball.  His blathering holds true throughout the film.  Leading you out into the woods to kill you may seem inhumane, but you wouldn't be out there if it wasn't absolutely necessary and, dare I say, prudent.