The Coen Brothers make a lot of interesting movies. Some I like more than others. Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites. It’s a gangster story in an unidentified southern city during the 1930s. Albert Finney is Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster who runs the city. Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and best friend. Verna is Leo’s girl. But she’s also sleeping with Tom. Verna’s brother, Bernie (played by John Turturro) and Mink Larouie (played by Steve Buscemi) are small-time bookies who have crossed another gangster, Johnny Caspar. Caspar wants Bernie dead and Leo won’t let it happen because of Verna. Tom knows that Bernie and Verna spell disaster for Leo and advises him to give up Bernie. So, this is the complicated basis of the story.
But that’s not the reason to watch the movie. It’s a comic book version of a 30s gangster movie. A gangster can be bounced down three flights of marble stairs and walk away from it all in one piece. The cops and the city administration will switch back and forth between mob allegiances on an hour’s notice and bring to bear against their former allies all the force of military grade weaponry.
The movie has a fine soundtrack that includes popular music of the era, Irish folk music and even a little Italian opera. My favorite scene is an attempted mob rubout at Leo’s house. It’s a bullet riddled ballet to the accompaniment of Danny Boy. It’s in this scene that Albert Finney proves that a Thompson machine gun will never run out of ammunition. It’s a thing of nihilistic beauty.
Finney, Turturro and Buscemi are all extremely entertaining but Gabriel Byrne is the center of the movie. His character Tom is a hardened bitter man who nevertheless lives by a code that requires loyalty to a friend. In fact, his loyalty to Leo is the only admirable behavior displayed in the whole movie. And even this is wholly doomed by their relationships with Verna. Basically, everyone is corrupt. The good guys are mobsters. The bad guys are mobsters. There’s even a scene where a little kid sees a dead mobster on the street and steals his toupee.
And because this is a Coen Brothers movie it is suffused with black humor. Every mob rubout and brutal beating is chock full of jokes and wisecracks. The mobsters and cops in the movie are prone to witticisms and philosophical musings that probably rarely occur in real mobsters and cops. The best example is when Johnny Gaspar explains to Leo that Bernie’s selling of Johnny’s fixed fight information demonstrates Bernie’s lack of moral character.
Miller’s Crossing is a typical Coen Brothers movie. All the characters are morally compromised and happy endings are extremely scarce and never unmitigated. If you have enjoyed any of their other movies then I highly recommend Miller’s Crossing. Otherwise, read my description and decide for yourself if this type of film is for you.