Monday, February 12, 2018

Coen Watch: Miller's Crossing (1990)

Watched:  02/03/2018
Format:  Google Play Streaming
Viewing:  Unknown, but somewhere over 25th
Decade:  1990's


For all the times I've referenced Miller's Crossing (1990) here at The Signal Watch, I've apparently never actually written up the movie.  I find this utterly shocking.

As stated here a few times before, this was one of those movies I saw at a formative age that grabbed me and has never quite let go.  From the first time ice hits a glass to the last dolly-in on Tom watching Leo walk away...  the movie presents the rare filmic world - almost Star Wars-like, that feels utterly immersive, that seems to expand beyond the edges of the frame, a world beyond what we see here as characters enter and exit, each seemingly carrying their own film somehow.

Of the times I've written on these formative, very-important-to-me films, most of the time the post turned out poorly.  It's a surprisingly difficult task.  So don't expect miracles here.

To be honest - I won't pretend that I entirely understood the movie the first time I saw it, or the twentieth (I was fifteen, in my defense.  Also in my defense, the movie's windy, criss-crossy plot is anything but a clear line).  But the elements of the film - the dialog, the design, the camera work, the pitch-perfect performances, and oh-my-lord that score. 

I won't call the movie flawless - people have their issues with it.  And some people are just lukewarm on the movie, so I assume there is and always has been something about the film that just particularly pushes the right buttons in my skull.  That's okay.

 buttons pushed

So it was that I came back to the movie to both bear witness to what we'd now call a "screen crush" in Marcia Gay Harden as Verna, sure, but to soak in the movie in a way I didn't even want to do with The Godfather, which I'd seen for the first time only a half-year or less prior.  I don't know how many times that first year it arrived on VHS I took it up to the counter to check out, but I'm sure the Mom & Pop running the small video store I liked back then wondered what was up with the kid who kept checking out the same movie every month or two.

Some creators just start strong, and aside from believing in innate talent or genius, it's hard to figure.  Miller's Crossing was only the third movie by Joel and Ethan Coen - the first, Blood Simple, planting the noir roots that would support some of my favorite of their movies, and the second, Raising Arizona, raising the flag for their comedy chops.  Both of these approaches dovetailed in The Big Lebowski as the perfect, absurdist comedy noir you never knew you wanted.

But in Miller's Crossing, the Coen Bros. borrowed from the best - Hammett, Bertolucci, et al., and brought a gangster picture to the screen that was unlike anything else in American cinema at the time, and which has been imitated since, but never duplicated.  Interesting as the content was roughly 65 years old by that point.

The plot of the film echoes Hammett's novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key, as two gangs go to war in an unnamed city (that feels a hell of a lot like Hammett's Poisonville), and a lieutenant of one of the gangs falls out with his mob boss and plays all sides - what he's after a bit unclear.  Of course, that's a gross oversimplification in a movie with what seems like two dozen characters with important plot-points, where keeping track of the crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses is not for the faint of heart.

The movie does make its case in the very first line of the film - that it's about ethics.  That without honesty and friendship, we're all back in the jungle. How the movie defines heart, friendship, honesty and ethics is hard to nail down as every character has their own definition, and sees these things as tools or something to be given a razor's edge and weaponized.  Or thrown aside.

That the script for Miller's Crossing still seems like something acknowledged only by a passionate few stands as proof that there's no justice in this old world (the screenplay is online).  Between brilliant characterization, insanely well-imagined, rat-a-tat dialog full of pulp-novel slang and keeping track and making clear everything that's going on in a script with a lot of moving parts, and somehow not making the movie feel like it's just about keeping up with the plot direction and misdirection is no small thing.  But seeing that the character's voices are there on the page - and it was mostly a matter of finding actors who could pull it off - that's part of what can make a Coen Bros. movie something so extraordinary.

Starring a young Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, the fallen mob lieutenant, Albert Finney as Leo- Tom's boss, Jon Polito as the rival gangland leader, John Turturro as Bernie - our problem child bookie, and... be still my fifteen year old heart - Marcia Gay Harden as Verna - an unreputable woman (possibly a hooker, it's unclear) - Bernie's sister, Leo's girl and maybe Tom's girl, too.  A personal favorite of mine in the film is JE Freeman as Eddie Dane, Tom's counterpart with a murderous streak.  But you'll also see a young Mike Starr, a massively important part but blink-and-you'll miss it Steve Buscemi as The Mink, and others.  Including a cameo by Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand, pitch perfect as always.

The film pits an Italian gang against the established Irish power-holders, and is rife with plenty of inter-White animosity*.  It's also full of immigrants, accents, and the Coen Bros.' willingness to acknowledge anti-semitism via attitudes and a liberal peppering of slurs (which, honestly, are hurled all directions and most dated enough you may have to look them up).  While plenty of accents are present, like a lot of the pulp and noir the film mines, the cast is extremely, if not entirely, white.

If The Godfather is a story of family, this is a story of friendship.  Maybe of love, depending on how you want to define it.  The characters are crooks and grifters, some party bosses, some are small time chiselers or sops trying to make a grift and lousy at it.  It plays in well worn tropes and stereotypes and manages to use those ideas so efficiently, it feels fresh, the characters unique to the film.

Unusual for the period and for a movie that I think had mainstream cinema aspirations, the film is matter-of-fact about the homosexuality of some of the tough-guy characters, and no one blinks twice about it - something that's remained a rarity.  Even as the late-80's and 90's ere just again acknowledging queerness again on screen, in this film it's never played for laughs or with a wink, but is acknowledged as more of one more underlying complication in sorting out who is loyal to whom in a movie that's a haze of complicated relationships.  Although no one will cheer any of the characters in the film as a role-model, it was some fascinating representation to me as a kid.  I don't know if I had seen hyper-masculine depictions of gay men before and it was a pivot from the stereotypes I was used to at the time.

Filmed in New Orleans, Miller's Crossing somehow still manages to never feel like that particular city -  but The Big Easy was old enough and American enough that they found locations and dressed sets enough to look positively of the late 20's/ dawn of the 30's time period in which the movie is set.  Add in the omnipresent steel gray sky of what must have been deep winter in the South, and a feeling of impending winter of the north (or what passes for deep winter in the South) is in every exterior scene.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to write, direct and produce some successful and often fun stuff for mainstream audiences (example: Men In Black) had cinematography duties on this film.  And while I'm glad he went on to bigger things, if this was what he was capable of as a young man, one wonders what he might have done had he stuck to lenses.  While the Coen Bros.' films are uniformly well shot, every image from the film understands the dynamics and energy of a scene - is meticulously selected in a way that elevates the script.  I'll argue that the Coens probably had some hand in this - their prior and subsequent work does the same.  And I'll also argue that this is where they borrowed from art and imagery of US art pre WWII (see: Edward Hopper) and from other movies, The Conformist in particular.   (Tarantino doesn't have a lock on the market from stealing from his forebears.)  But the end result is hard to argue.  With a palette of muted tones without depending on the sepia-tone or cyan dye of many period pieces (I'll argue their own O, Brother, Where Art Thou? did this better than most) and a canny, naturalistic use of light - and, I think - that excellent film stock of the 80's that didn't oversaturate color, anyway - casts the viewer into the era in a way that never feels like a set.**

We all like a good, iconic score, whether it's a John Williams or Ennio Morricone theme, Trevor Horn, or Michael Giacchino - and Carter Burwell can count this alongside any of those names with a lot of his work - not the least of which is the Celtic-soaked melody of the Miller's Crossing theme and score.  It may be a product of Miller's Crossing's relative Blockbuster-era obscurity that the score isn't more discussed - but you can't find a new copy of it, and it doesn't appear on Google Play or other services when I checked.  A crime as it's as much a part of the overall structure of the movie as any shot or line of dialog and deserves more recognition.

I can't talk about the film and not talk about Verna, played by Marcia Gay Harden - one of three women with a line of dialog (in English) in a movie about men.  And if, at fifteen, she rose up into that Princess Leia category as the pretty girl smarter and stronger than the guys, she also was doing with no royal heritage or much of anything but her looks and ability to play a grift.   A woman of clear motivations - she's battered by these damn, stupid men all around her, and letting herself have hope...  Anyway, the movie is noir.

Marcia Gay Harden, as it turned out, went to the University of Texas and studied drama.  And, when my high school drama teacher found out I'd seen and enjoyed the movie, alerted me that she'd been college roommates with Harden (I saw pictures that verified this claim).  A phone call was promised, but never materialized, which - in retrospect - was probably all for the best.  I suspect my teacher knew I'd go to my usual conversational strategy of stammering my way through the call and then blurting something awkward. 

If you take the Bechdel test literally (but: don't - it's a metric, not the final word on a film), the movie is going to fail.  Verna speaks to no other women - something that seems nigh intentional on the character's part (there's a lot going on there) and seeks out no other women.  That's a product of the source material, time periods depicted and in which the movie is created.  In fact, by today's standards - the movie is probably a horror show to the kids of racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, for the movie-watchers who freak out at the knowledge that those things exist and can be shown.  That's the world (and not an unreal one, kids) where our characters live, and while I'm keenly aware of how this plays by today's standards, I'm not in much of a mood to self-flagellate or decry the movie.

It was years before I came to grips with the unspoken final acknowledgement of the movie: that Tom's love for Leo may not be just that of a Lieutenant for his General.  The movie can certainly be read both ways - but makes more sense if I read it that way.  And, certainly, that's the not so subtle hint at the end of The Glass Key - the book that Miller's Crossing lifts from quite liberally.

So - yeah, I liked the music, the cinematography, crushed on Verna- but what was it that stuck with me?  All of it, certainly.  Tracking the winding plot was not always something I sought out in movies, and is something I think I've appreciated and enjoyed more in films the past decade than in years prior.  But I also appreciated what the movie doesn't do - that Tom said so little, was not the invulnerable he-man of the era's action films, and, frankly, spends most of the movie getting hit and kicked in the face, but only rarely makes a move toward physical violence (and if a movie is about an event that changes a character - Tom's final move toward violence is not an embrace of murder, it's the apotheosis of ethics, character and friendship).

There's also something stunning in Miller's Crossing as a story of ellipses and silences in a medium that usually asks that characters state, restate and then summarize every important beat.  Sure, there's the crosses and double-crosses to keep track of, and I imagine very little of the film could find its way to the cutting room floor as every scene pushes the plot forward.  But there's what's said and what's unsaid - conveyed in acting cues, in visuals, in musical notes, drawing an interwoven parallel version of events that it took me a long, long time to sort out.  Tom has a smart mouth, sure - and plenty of dialog, but not much of it tips his hand as to what he's actually up to.  Something about that, then and now, resonated.  Whether it's Tom's silent appraisal of situations, that even when he talks (and only Eddie Dane seems to know this) it's a lot of patter meant to cover up the inner monologue, buy time as he works the angles - until he can't, as Eddie

If you're looking for an exercise if frustration, try to figure out the symbolism of "the hat" in the film.  Clearly the Coen Bros. had an idea of what it means, but a quick Google search will turn up a dozen interpretations, all of which the writer clearly stands behind - some work better than others.  I'm not sure my interpretation of Tom and Leo's relationship is the bible on this.  All make some sense.  All of the ideas work in the ellipses.  So, yes, I like that when I watch the movie over and over, it changes.  But the hat remains a hat, and I'm not foolish enough to go chasing a hat.

All I know is that if there's a hat I'm chasing, it's trying to recapture the experience of the movie.  And that's something I've never minded pursuing.

It's impacted what I read, what I write, what I watch, what I think a room ought to look like.  It's a movie of broken, busted up characters - all of whom think they're going to make this work, of casual violence, impeccable style, and beautifully rendered tableaus.  For all their follow up movies - some technically better films, this is still my first love.

There's 10,000 more words to write, but, instead, I'll let you all just watch the film.  Give it another chance if you've seen it before and didn't find it quite to your tastes.

and always leave them wanting more

*My mother grew up in a nearly all-White area of Michigan, and if you want to learn about how racism is both very real and that it's also very much about finding reasons to separate and stratify on any measure - apparently the pecking order in her small town was English, Italians, Swedes, Finns, in that order.

**Very different from a look-and-feel perspective, but check out the way Once Upon a Time in America used old New York and Italy to set the period and tone of early 20th Century New York.  It's unbelievably gorgeous at times

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