1990 - 20th Century Fox
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen
Gabriel Byrne Tom Reagan
Albert Finney Leo O'Bannion
Marcia Gay Harden Verna Bernbaum
John Turturro Bernie Bernbaum
Jon Polito Johnny Casper
J. E. Freeman Eddie Dane
Steve Buscemi Mink Larouie
Mike Starr Frankie
Al Mancini Tic-Tac
Richard Woods Mayor Dale Levander
Mario Todisco Clarence 'Drop' Johnson
Thomas Toner O'Doole
Olek Krupa Tad
Michael Jeter Adolph
Jeanette Kontomitra Mrs Casper
Lanny Flaherty Terry
Louis Charles Mounicou III Johnny Caspar, Jr.
" It's gonna cost you some dough.
I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable, so I want two "
- Tom Reagan
“Think about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Caspar loses us.” Tom asks as he attempts to make Leo see the sensible play. “Oh, come on, Tommy. You know I don't like to think.” Leo responds, “Yeah. Well, think about whether you should start”
Headstrong Irish mobster Leo O’Bannion is the political boss in a non-descript prohibition-era city and Italian Giovanni ‘Johnny Casper’ Casparro represents his nearest rival. Sat inside Leo’s plush oak wood office, dimly lit by desk and wall lamps it could very well be Amerigo Bonasera asking Don Vito Corleone for justice; instead it’s Johnny Casper and he’s asking Leo for his blessing to kill Bernie Bernbaum.
Bernie Bernbaum is an avaricious Jewish bookie who lays off bets for Casper on his fixed fights. Like everyone else in this town when Bernie sees an angle, he plays it – and so he sells out the fixes to ‘out of town money’ diminishing Casper’s returns and enhancing his own “it's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight.”
“Sorry, Caspar” Leo tells him, despite the obvious threat of a turf war for giving him the high-hat. “Bernie pays me for protection.” Caspar also pays for protection and pays a lot more than the bookie. Now Leo didn’t become boss of this town by making bad plays or not listening to Tom, his trusted lieutenant; so why is he risking going to war with Casper over a two-bit motzah sheeny like Bernie Bernbaum? It’s got to be a dame… right?
What follows this opening scene is a densely textured plot; difficult to unravel in one sitting, but the film certainly rewards you with each repeated viewing. Miller’s Crossing refuses to spoon feed you and to a certain extent leaves you to dig through the sub-text to reach your own conclusion… and there’s nothing better than that, is there? The keys to unlocking the genius of this movie are two love triangles, deep-rooted friendship and a hat. Understand all three and you can take a step back from the rich tapestry woven by the brothers Coen and appreciate its beauty.
Tom Reagan is Leo’s number two. He’s a fixer, the man who sees all the angles and plays them to the benefit of Leo and his rackets. He is by no means the muscle; in fact he gets his clock cleaned no less than eight times without landing a single punch of his own (despite never suffering more than a fat lip). He doesn’t even carry a piece, but he’s always armed with his sharp mind and sharper tongue. Even with his back to the wall his mind never stops calculating the angles; he’s so cool he clinks like the ice in the heavy-based crystal-cut tumbler of whiskey that’s never too far from his grasp.
At four in the morning Leo comes knocking on Tom’s door, he can’t find Verna. Leo is worried because Verna is the bookie’s sister and could be at risk from Casper’s reprisals. Leo, blinded by his love for her fails to see the play Verna is making, but Tom sees the angle “It's a grift, Leo. If she didn't need you to protect her brother from Johnny Caspar, d'you think she'd still go with you on slow carriage rides through the park?” Not only that, but Tom knows exactly where Verna is. She’s lying post-coital in his bed in the next room. Dum-dum-duuum… love triangle number one.
“’Lo Tom. What’s the rumpus?” Mink says as he greets Tom in Leo’s Shenandoah Club - what’s the rumpus being the standard greeting in this town. Mink is another bookie played by Steve Buscemi. Mink has but a single scene of barely 60 seconds, belying the importance of the character to the plot. The rest of his actions all occur off screen and have to be pieced together from snippets of other character’s conversations.
Mink pleads on Bernie’s behalf for Tom to help him. “What's going on between you and Bernie?” Tom asks, trying to work out Mink’s angle. “Nothin, Tom! We're just friends, you know - amigos”. “You're a fickle boy, Mink.” Tom says wising up to the play “If The Dane found out you had another ‘amigo’ well, I don't peg him for the understanding type.” And so we have love triangle number two; a homosexual love triangle, no less, between Bernie Bernbaum, fellow bookie Mink Larouie and The Dane; Eddie 'The Dane' Dane is Johnny Casper’s enforcer. Mink is Eddie Danes’s boy and The Dane is very protective of him. However, Bernie is a wily fox and he’s using Mink for information on the fixed boxing matches.
When the war between Leo O’Bannion and Johnny Casper escalates and in retaliation to having his casino turned over by the Chief of Police, who happens to be on Leo’s payroll, Casper makes an attempt on the Irish mob boss. The assassination attempt is an outstanding set piece and the single most beautiful thing in this movie.
O’Bannion proves he’s “still an artist with a Thompson” when dressed in only an elegant red robe over his pyjamas and a pair of slippers he takes the Thompson submachine gun from one dead hitman and with a feral burst of violence takes out the second would-be assassin with it. When the second wave of gunmen arrive in the getaway car, Leo calmly walks down his quiet residential street raining down a thundercloud of bullets from his sub-machine gun until the occupants are dead and the car weaves into a tree in the leafy suburban street and is engulfed in flames. Leo then pops a cigar between his teeth and smugly surveys the carnage he’s brought down. This thrilling scene is all played out to the strains of Danny Boy (just in case you weren’t sure he was Irish) on Leo’s phonogram performed by Frank Pattern - just for this scene - with the highs of the song perfectly matching the action.
Despite Leo winning this battle, the tide has turned in the turf war. The Major and Chief of Police have both changed allegiance to Casper leaving the Irish mobster exposed. Still refusing to heed Tom’s advice on how to end the war i.e. give up Bernie, Tom’s left with little choice, but to come clean about his dalliances with Verna; exposing her true nature. He fully expects Leo to dump Verna and thus remove his protection for her brother. Verna however has her hooks firmly into Leo and he chooses her over his long-time friend and wingman Tom.
Verna is the only female character in this film full of men in hats and she’s no shrinking violet; she’s devious, smart and feisty – a dangerous combination. When Tom tries to lean on her and tells her “Intimidating helpless women is part of what I do” she retorts “Then find one and intimidate her”. In the same scene when Tom declares his love for her – somewhat sarcastically – her response is to hit him. Not a slap across the face, as befitting a gangster mol genre character, but a right hook to the chin knocking him off his feet. Tangle with Verna at your peril. Marcia Gay Harden in what was her first serious motion picture balanced the calculating but vulnerable Verna perfectly.
When Leo gives Tom the kiss off and several haymakers and uppercuts Tom goes to Casper for work instead. The Italian, desperately wanting to believe Tom really has changed sides in the war needs convincing; so Tom gives him what he wants... Bernie Bernbaum on a silver platter. Tom along with Casper’s henchman Frankie and Tic Tac go and get the bookie and drive him out to Miller’s Crossing, the town’s go-to-place to leave dead bodies. Tom however is surprised when Frankie tells him Casper wants him to be the one to kill the sheeny – put one in his brain.
As Casper stands over the Dane ranting about always putting one in the brain drooling with the blood of his former closest aide splashed across his face, the lighting is dingy and the music is harsh and the big open fire conjures up a sense of the raging infernos of Hades. Contrast this to an earlier scene of O’Bannion looking dashing, brandishing the Tommy Gun, cast in soft lighting with the Irish folk balled Danny Boy playing into the night – he’s almost angelic.
With the Dane out of the equation Tom’s plan is nearing completion. Casper agrees to meet him at his apartment at 4am, because he believes Mink (who’s dead) will be there ready to go public about the fixed fights. Meanwhile Bernie has also agreed to meet Tom there at 4am. Tom figures that whoever arrives first will get the drop on the other and as it turns out it is Bernie who catches Casper off guard and shoots him in the head.
When Tom finds Bernie outside his apartment having just killed Johnny Casper they both agree that they’re square now. Casper’s out of the equation and they’ll pin the Italian’s murder on the Dane. Satisfied, Bernie hands Tom the murder weapon, only for Tom to point the gun at Bernie. Bernie again begging for his life, knowing Tom’s not a killer and pleads again “Tommy, look in your heart” with echoes of the earlier scene in the woods. However, this time Tom only answers back with a very cold “What heart?” and puts a bullet very neatly into his brain.
Johnny Casper for his bluster is perhaps the only straight shooter in Miller’s Crossing. He believes there’s a right and wrong way to do business, ethics is important and Bernie crossed the line. For this reason he has legitimate beef with Leo when the Irishman refuses to give up the bookie. Trusting too deeply in the business ethics of others he takes Tom on his word and he also trusts his own right-hand man Eddie Dane implicitly. So when Tom sows seeds of doubt about the Dane operating behind his back – claiming the Dane is responsible for selling out the fix and wangling for the big man’s chair, Casper does not like it. Just at the crucial time when he has to choose between whom he believes Tom or Eddie Dane, the Dane is busy squeezing the life out of Tom with his meaty bear paws wrapped around his neck, Casper chooses Tom. And with that decision he lifts the nearby fireplace shovel above his head and brings it crashing down on the Dane, spattering blood everywhere.
Bernie is no fool. He knows he was playing with fire when he was selling out the fix on the Italian mob boss’s fights. He jungled up with Mink who was the lover of Casper’s no.2 Eddie Dane to get information and when it blew up in his face he used Mink and his sister to protect himself. When Tom doesn’t have the stomach to put one in his brain he even sees the unlikely angle Tom’s unwittingly given him.
With everyone believing Bernie’s dead and Tom confident Bernie’s fled town, the devious motzah bookmaker pays Tom a visit. Knowing Tom will be exposed if word gets out he’s alive, he’s got Tom exactly where he wants him “if Caspar ain't stiff in a couple of days I start eating in restaurants” he threatens, using Tom as leverage to get rid of his biggest problem, Johnny Casper.
Tom has already revealed Bernie’s relationship with Mink to Casper, but more for the benefit of the listening Eddie Dane. Eddie is incensed and doesn’t believe it – but it gives him another excuse to hate Tom. The Dane is the only one smart enough to catch Tom out amid the web of lies and deceit he’s spinning and he takes Tom out to Miller’s Crossing knowing Bernie’s corpse will not be there. “If we don't find a stiff out here, we leave a fresh one” making his threat very real. However much to his surprise (and Tom’s even greater surprise) it is there. It’s been shot in the face and animals have had a nibble too – disguising the fact that it’s really Mink. Bernie has plugged his own bed companion and although the Dane is a step behind right now, he catches up. Later when he realises it’s Mink who's dead– his Mink - he’s determined to have his vengeance on Tom.
In this epic scene Tom walks Bernie out deeper into the woods and John Turturro turns the scene of Bernie pleading for his life into the ultimate portrayal of a snivelling dog begging for mercy. “Tommy, you can’t do this, you’re not like those animals. We're not muscle, Tom. I never killed anybody” Bernie pleads, answered only by Tom’s silence. “I'm praying to you. I can't die out here in the woods, like a dumb animal.” Tom walks him deeper into the woods, wearing a mask of utter control. Down on his knees with his hands clasped Bernie is a wreck of a man “Look in your heart!” he implores, over and over. Tom has no problems with Bernie being dead; it’s what he’s wanted all along, but pulling the trigger himself – this he has a real problem with and ultimately he lets Bernie live. He fires two shots in the air for the benefit of the listening Frankie and Tic Tac and he tells Bernie to leave and never come back.
Tom: No. It stayed a hat. And no I didn't chase it. I watched it blow away. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat
Verna: …and you chased it, right? You ran and ran and finally you caught up to it and picked it up but it wasn't a hat anymore. It had changed into something else; something wonderful.
In the same vein as the pulp novels, the movie is shot mainly in the first person from Tom’s perspective. For this reason some of the key elements to the plot are played out off screen, which gives rise to a movie that can be hard to follow if you’re not giving it your full attention. We know only what we see and hear as it’s played out and more specifically, with the exception of two scenes, we know only what Tom sees and hears. Being the man of mystery that he is, Tom wears an impenetrable poker-face and never lets on more than he has to, which leaves us, even at the movie’s end to interpret his motivations. As Tom is fond of saying “Nobody knows anybody - not that well”.
With stellar performances from all the cast, an intensely devious story, glorious cinematography and a razor sharp script, it’s hard to hold back the superlative for this Coen Brothers Gangster Flick. On initial release Miller’s Crossing found box office fame difficult – it was released in the same year as Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, King of New York, State of Grace and The Krays, but it is now widely regarded as a firm favourite among Gangster movie fans, myself included.
It’s a very complex tale woven by Ethan and Joel Coen. They’ve crafted a very stylish noir gangster flick, without being drawn into the clichés that usually accompany such movies. I enjoyed it the first time I saw it, but was not entirely sure why. I missed a lot of the subtleties of the plot, but the dialogue pops and fizzes and is filled with humour, sarcasm and glib metaphors that make you enjoy what you’re watching even if you’ve missed some of the multifarious elements.
Miller’s Crossing is a place where there's nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing his compassion in a town that values shrewdness more than kindness. This is exemplified by everyone, but epitomised by Tom, much like his dream where there’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Gabriel Byrne fits so seamlessly in to the role of Tom Reagan (producing the standout performance of his career), the hard boiled brooding hero straight from the pages of the pulpiest detective novels. Miller’s Crossing was unsurprisingly inspired by some of the works of ‘the dean of the hard boiled school of detective fiction’ Dashiell Hammett and in particular ‘The Glass Slipper’ and ‘Red Harvest’ both of which were initially serialised it Black Mask the same pulp fiction magazine that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s second movie.
With Tom neatly taking care of all the antagonists, the film’s closing scene is at Bernie’s graveside with Tom, Leo and Verna the only mourners. Leo thanks Tom for the smart play that restored his power in the city and asks him to come back and work for him. “I didn't ask for that and I don't want it” Tom tells him. With that, he pulls his hat down and says goodbye to Leo, as the mob boss walks away, down the same stretch of Miller’s Crossing that his hat blew down in his dream and like the hat he once again refusing to chase it.
Tom does two things that really hurt Leo: putting the moves on his main squeeze; and then telling him about it. However, both things were done with the best intentions; to end the protection of Bernie and thus squaring things with Casper and avoiding / ending the war. The fact that neither worked is beside the point. Tom was prepared to sacrifice his friendship with Leo just to ensure Leo’s safety. Even after Leo gave Tom the kiss off his scheming and working the angles was all a ploy to protect his former friend. “You said you didn't care about Leo” Verna says to Tom questioning his motivations “I said we were through. It's not the same thing” he replies.
Tom even has respect for Leo kicking him out. “If Leo did want me back he's an even bigger sap than I thought”. Tom doesn’t for one minute think Leo should take him back after he’s slept with his gal. In the final scene when Leo actually does ask him to come back Tom just can’t accept his offer. He’s happy that Leo is happy, but he knows ultimately that they can’t share the same relationship they enjoyed previously, not when they both know what Tom and Verna did together behind Leo’s back, especially amid the revelation that they’re now to be married.
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
"The old man's still an artist with a Thompson" - Leo killing the two hitmen armed with Tommy Guns who broke into his house should have been enough, but when he calmly peppered the getaway car with the Thompson submachine gun, dressed in his silk nightgown and slippers, this notable gangster moment was escalated to legendary status..
Body Count: Fifteen
1. Rug Daniels was found dead in an alley by a young boy
2. The assassins who broke into Leo's house slit the throat of Leo's guard
3. Leo killed the first assassin when he shot him in the ankle and when he fell to the floor he finished him off with a bullet in his head
4. Leo killed the second assassin with a Tommy Gun. He fired up from the front yard through the window
5-6. Leo then killed 2 guys in the getaway car with a Tommy Gun
7-8. Eddie Dane killed 2 of Leo’s men.when he went to interrogate Verna. The first he shot through the door and the second he killed after he gave up the location of Leo O'Bannion
9. When the police hurled a pipe bomb into the Sons of Erin Social Club one dead body is seen as a result of the explosion.
10. A police gunman shot a man surrending leaving the Social Club.
11. The police gunman was then himself shot and killed
12. Bernie killed Mink and left his corpse in the woods
13. Casper beat Eddie Dane with a fireplace shovel and then shot him in the head
14. Bernie got the drop on Johnny Casper and shot him
15. Tom shot Bernie Bernbaum after he just killed Casper.
Leo O'Bannion's wannabe assassins used M1928 Thompson Submachine guns. Leo also took one from the first dead assassin and used it himself
To kill the first assassin Leo used his Colt New Service pistol
Tom was handed an Astra 400 by Tic-Tac to shoot Bernie Bermbaun
Eddie Dane used a Webley Mk VI to shoot two of Leo's men
Bernie Bernbaum had an Army Issue Colt M1911 which he used to shoot Casper
The police detective shot a man surrendering during the Sons of Erin Social Club shoot out while duel-wielding two Smith & Wesson Model 10s
During the same shoot out the police reduced the Social Club to rubble using a Browning M1917 Machine Gun
Casper had a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless which he referred to as ‘Rosco’ – he used it to kill Eddie Dane and Tom used it to kill Bernie.
0 (zero) - Not a single F-bomb was dropped in the making of Miller's Crossing
Frankie and Tic Tac drove Tom out to Miller’s Crossing in a 1929 Nash Special Six Sedan to kill Bernie Bernbaum
The getaway car that Leo pumps full of holes is a 1930 Ford Model A Town Sedan
Verna left the funeral in Leo’s 1926 Oakland Six Sedan
Oh and one last thing, I mentioned the hat as being the final key to understanding the movie. A lot of people have become fixated on Tom’s hat and hats in general. Does it represents Tom control of the situations, is it a phallic symbol, maybe it represents death or desire or man’s eternal struggle to understand the nature of the universe and God’s plan. Well guess what. You’ll understand this Coen creation a lot better if you forget about the hat. Ethan Coen himself said "I mean, the whole hat thing, the fact that it's all hats, is good, because even if it doesn't mean anything, it adds a little thread running through the whole thing that's the same little thread." The point is: concentrate on the characters and the dialogue to unravel the plot. The people who look for meaning in the hat are the same people who fill message boards with theories about what’s inside Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. There’s plenty of web space already filled with theories and counter-theories on these subjects – let’s not waste more here.
Written by Bada Bing