Miller's Crossing (1990)
January 21, 2015 8:23 PM - Subscribe

The Coen Bros. do Dashiell Hammett. With links to Yojimbo. Miller's Crossing is a 1990 American gangster film by the Coen brothers starring Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J. E. Freeman, and Albert Finney. The plot concerns a power struggle between two rival gangs and how the protagonist, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), plays both sides off each other. (wikipedia)

"Miller's Crossing" comes from two traditions that sometimes overlap, the gangster movie of the 1930s and the film noir of the 1940s. It finds its characters in the first and its visual style in the second, but the visuals lack a certain stylish tackiness that film noir sometimes had. They're in good taste. The plot is as simple as an old gangster movie, but it takes us a long time to figure that out, because the first half hour of the film involves the characters in complicated dialogue where they talk about a lot of people we haven't met, and refer to a lot of possibilities we don't understand. It's the kind of movie you have to figure out in hindsight." (Roger Ebert)

In 2005, Time chose Miller's Crossing as one of the 100 greatest films made since the inception of the periodical. Time critic Richard Corliss called it a "noir with a touch so light, the film seems to float on the breeze like the Frisbee of a fedora sailing through the forest." (wikipedia)

"Miller’s Crossing may not be the Coens’ best film—that would probably have to wait almost two more decades—but it has been my favorite ever since its release. I saw it in the theater at least four times, and on at least one occasion remember weeping quietly during the title sequence (the skyward gaze into the forest canopy, the plaintive oboe of Carter Burwell’s score…). It is without question the movie on whose behalf I have proselytized most obsessively in my lifetime. To know me in the early 1990s was to be harangued with the necessity that you see the movie right now." (Christopher Orr at The Atlantic)

Original Trailer (Youtube)

What's the rumpus? This movie has some great dialogue.
posted by valkane (17 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yojimbo was based on Red Harvest, whereas Miller's Crossing owes a lot more to The Glass Key. But any way you slice it it's pure Hammett.

I didn't really understand it the first time I saw it, but after the second or third it became my favorite Coen Bros movie, and that's saying a lot.

And I love saying "what's the rumpus?" to people. No one gets it, but I don't even care.
posted by Aznable at 8:32 PM on January 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I put both of those books in the tags. But this movie......It's like the pure antidote to The Godfather, Goodfellas, even Moonstruck. I agree, it's my favorite Coen Bros. movie. Which is to say, one of my all-time fave movies. And I love The Godfather, Goodfellas and Moonstruck!
posted by valkane at 8:40 PM on January 21, 2015

Great film.
posted by homunculus at 9:16 PM on January 21, 2015

Oops! I didn't look at the tags to see The Glass Key there, valkane! Sorry about that. I didn't mean to give you the high hat!

The guys over at Noircast had an interesting series about the Coens and the influence they took from the classic noir authors. They had three double-feature episodes pairing a Coen movie with another film adaptation of the noir author the Coens were emulating:

The Glass Key and Miller's Crossing for the take on Hammett
The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski for Raymond Chandler and
The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Man Who Wasn't There for James M Cain

They're worth a listen if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by Aznable at 3:32 AM on January 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is a near-perfect film, in my opinion--one of the best of the Coens' films, and the cinematography is just beautiful. At the reveal of Bernie--they've put him in this huge square chair that takes up so much of the frame, and then everything else around it looks like it's pointing at him, and somehow he looks small. And who can forget that shot of the killers's feet as they're coming up Leo's stairs, their gun barrels pointing down? Gorgeous movie.

In a film full of good lines, Jon Polito got some of the funniest, with his bits about "running things," "the high hat," and the "shiny new penny" scene. And then there's "always put one in the brain," which is so great because it's so far from his amusing persona in the rest of the picture.

It would be fun to see a list of all the references that have been made to the "in the woods like a dumb animal" sequence. I feel like there have been a lot. The Sopranos episode "Pine Barrens," directed by Steve Buscemi, certainly stands out.

This film was very unappreciated for a long time not just because the Coens weren't popular yet, but also because this film was totally overshadowed by Goodfellas, which was theatrically released just two weeks earlier. So it didn't even get one Oscar nomination. A lot of people seemed to find this movie uncool in the 90's too, at least in my circles, because it seemed old-fashioned compared to the things that were popular then.

One more thing--Sam Raimi's cameo as the "snickering gunman" is one of my favorite cameos of all time. Back when he was only involved with dark, bloody little pictures, it was cool as hell that he got to do this.
posted by heatvision at 5:14 AM on January 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Wrote about this as part of my series of reviews of Irish gangster movies, so I shall quote myself:

The film is obsessed with Byrne's heart -- the dialogue obsessively loops around to whether his is motivated by intelligence or emotion, and even he seems unsure. Ultimately, he has a sort of reflexive dedication to Albert Finney's character, and that's as close as he gets to a code of honor -- it's the magnetic north of the film. When it's uncertain why Byrne is doing something, and it often is, the answer is always "to protect his boss."

As it turns out, this too is a sort of recklessness that just isn't very good for Reagan, and we watch him battered on all sides in the film, recklessly working the angles in a way that nearly results in his own death several times. He's a gambler with his own life, and he's as bad at it as he is at the horses, but then, he only needs the right gamble to pay off -- and, at the film's climax, he orchestrates a gamble that he can't lose. But, again, it turns out it isn't really for his benefit, and the closing image of the film is Reagan alone, in his gangster duds, incongruously abandoned in the woods by everyone he knows, as "The Lament for Limerick" plays.

posted by maxsparber at 6:28 AM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love this movie, it's possibly my favorite. The music, the cinematography, the dialog, everything just came together. Apparently Brian Singer had Gabriel Byrne wear a hat in Usual Suspects because he was such a fan of this movie.

"Look into your heart..."
posted by beowulf573 at 7:38 AM on January 22, 2015

"What heart?"
posted by Aznable at 8:10 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite movie of all time, though No Country for Old Men threatened to usurp it for a bit there. It was probably the 20th time that I watched it that I realized one of the main reasons I like it is that there are so many funny lines but the movie takes itself so so seriously that it's practically daring you to smile so it can do something bad to you and your family.

Bernie: "She tried to teach me a thing or two about bed artistry. Can you believe that? My own sister. Some crackpot idea about saving me from my friends. She's a sick twist all right."
Tom: "She speaks highly of you."
Bernie: "Yeah well you stick by your family."

Eddie Dane: "How'd you get the fat lip?"
Tom: "Old war wound. Acts up around morons."

Tom: "Tell [Lazarre] there's no hard feelings."
Terry: "Christ, Tom ... he knows that."

Tom: "You can't kidnap me, Tic-Tac, we're on the same side - or didn't you get that far in school?"

Adolph: "Hey, horses got knees?"
Tom: "I don't know. Fetlocks."
Adolph: "Well, if I was a horse, I'd be down on my fetlocks praying you don't bet on me."

and it is specifically because of this movie that almost any time I hear someone talking about something their doctor said to them I want to blurt out, "Whaddaya mean you're eating too much? What's the goddamn doctor know?!" which is guaranteed to be recognized by no one in the room and lead to terrible awkward silence.
posted by komara at 9:19 AM on January 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also thought it was a testament to the filmmaking skills of the Coens that the first two (or even three) times I watched this movie I couldn't even see what a sad sack Tom is. By the end he's been beat up several times, been wrong when he's right and right when he's wrong, proven that he doesn't know what's in Verna's heart, sacrificed his position with Leo, and is still going to gamble all his money away. He knows nothing and learns nothing and yet my initial reaction to his character was, "This guy is incredible!" and it remained that way for the next several viewings.

Okay, so I was a teenager in the early 90s and maybe I wanted to look and dress like Gabriel Byrne but whatever, it took me a while to realize that Tom Reagan wasn't being presented as someone to idolize even though it sure did feel like it. I guess it's the same trick they're pulling with the humor, some sort of magician's misdirection. "Don't look at what we're telling you to listen to, listen to what you should be looking at instead."
posted by komara at 9:26 AM on January 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Jesus, Tommy!" is my favorite drinking game.
posted by whuppy at 9:36 AM on January 22, 2015

That's a penny you owe him.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:29 PM on January 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think this is one of the most underrated Coen brothers movies (along with Hudsucker Proxy and The Man Who Wasn't There).
posted by kalapierson at 11:51 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

This movie is so good it almost pains me to watch it. It is fucking hilarious, it's is gorgeous to look at and to listen, it's riveting. Whenever I'm unsure about something I've said, I'll add on that I'm just speculating about a hypothesis, which never means anything to anyone but me.
posted by skewed at 12:56 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whenever someone tells me they didn't like this movie, I always say, "Really? Were you paying attention?"

"Of course."

"So then you spotted the homosexual love triangle that is the engine of the conflict?"

"... ?! I should probably watch it again."
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:53 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I watched this yesterday for the first time since it was released. All I remembered was that it was a gangster movie, that Danny Boy was sung in it (but not the context), and that the trees were gorgeous. I really liked it the second time around, and was also still in love with the trees.
posted by Sukey Says at 4:46 AM on November 18, 2018

I watched this over the weekend for like the dozenth time, in honor of Albert Finney (RIP) and it is perfect. I think in my memory I'd ascribed the Coen's occasional third-act weakness to this film but the whole thing is perfect.

Also, on this viewing I realized that it has the same inciting incident as The Big Lebowski. Somebody took a rug.
posted by gauche at 7:23 AM on February 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

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