Miller's Crossing should go down in history for two reasons. It's the best movie by the Coen Brothers -- Ethan and Joel -- and it's the best movie ever shot in New Orleans without supposedly being set in New Orleans. But, like the movie itself, not everything is as it seems.
What is certain is that despite being known for their detached irony while deconstructing genre archetypes, the Coen Brothers may have made their most emotionally honest effort in this 1990 work, which was recently released on DVD by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. The DVD version is a visual and aural feast, thanks to Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography and Coen Brothers/Spike Jonze composer Carter Burwell's melancholic, Irish-inspired musical score. (Those who whine about star Gabriel Byrne's mumbling Irish accent, further muddled on oft-played VHS rentals over the years, should have no complaints here.) The film also features brilliant performances by the entire cast, which includes Byrne, Jon Polito, John Turturro and Oscar winners Albert Finney and Marcia Gay Harden (for other performances). Local favorite John McConnell has a funny bit part as a cop.
But Miller's Crossing also shows the Coens at their most sincere, even if it's as cynical as its sources: the Dashiell Hammett novel, The Glass Key, and the subsequent film noir versions of the same name that followed in 1935 and '42. Miller's Crossing is indeed filled with loathsome characters. For as unlikable as Byrne's Tom is, we're dying to like him because, just like his lover, we're demanding that he express some kind of human feeling. How cheekily ironic is that?
Miller's Crossing is a movie about manhood, masculinity and, above all else, working the angles. The more men connive and scheme, the Coens suggest, the more trouble they get into. Hubris and the pursuit of power make fools of us all.
So much of the film is laced with iconic symbols of masculinity, from the whiskey poured over chopped ice and gangsters firing Thompson machine guns to the huge overcoats and, of course, the hat -- the latter of which is part of the very manly use of lexicon throughout the film. Phrases such as "what's the rumpus?" and "let it drift" dot the conversational landscape, with a Jew referred to as a "shmatte" and "sheeny" and an Italian-American as a "high-tide" -- but it is the fear of "getting the high hat" that is the gravest concern.
Now, that's just a Coen being a Coen -- they thrive on ambiguity, daring the viewer to challenge their film-school smarts. Well, maybe the hat is everything and nothing at once; maybe it's just a metaphorical MacGuffin, something to throw out there (literally) for people to chew on with their intellectual dentures and spit out when they realize there's no flavor. That would be the Coen way, after all. But really, the hat means power; the men are constantly trying to wear it. Power, they learn the hard way, can be as fleeting as a hat lost in a strong breeze.
Tom is trying to make everyone else's angles square with his own, though he himself is fraught with a nagging sense of guilt. The angles in Miller's Crossing add up to a Byzantine plot that at first is hard to follow but ultimately conveys the complexities of human emotions -- or maybe just man's. As the calculating right-hand man to city political boss Leo (Finney, never better), Tom wants to protect his and Leo's turf from an array of threats, most notably from mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Caspar wants Leo to rub out a small-time bookie named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who's messing with Caspar's fixed boxing fights but is also paying protection to Leo.
The opening scene is a little reminiscent of The Godfather, with one man pleading his case to a higher figure -- though in this case, a rival. The camera looms in closer on Caspar, and the more he speaks, the more he is revealed for the fool that he is. It's the same way with the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in the opening scene in The Godfather; the more he talks about his disillusionment as a U.S. citizen and the more he pleads for revenge of his wronged daughter, the more the camera reveals him as a fool.
"Now if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?" says Caspar, oblivious to his own irony. "That's why ethics is important." (Take the comparison one movie further, and Caspar is even reminiscent of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) pleading his case -- again, about a shady Jew -- to an unsympathetic Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather: Part II. In fact, Polito bears a resemblance to both Corsitto and Gazzo.)
Now, rubbing out Bernie Bernbaum isn't an easy task for Leo, who's sleeping with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who knows as long as she's in bed with Leo her brother is safe.
Tom is also sleeping with Verna, and with only a slightly clearer head than Leo. He knows two things: As long as Bernie's alive Tom won't have Velma all to himself, and that protecting Bernie from the vengeful, hot-headed Gaspar is bad business. How can he rub out Bernie without incurring Verna's wrath?
It's even trickier than that. Tom's got gambling debts and refuses help from Leo -- or from Gaspar, who knows Tom agrees that Bernie's bad news. Bernie is also orchestrating his own love triangle both with Gaspar's sneering henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) and Mink (Steve Buscemi), a waiter at Gaspar's speakeasy.
And so Tom, like most of the men, is fighting to keep his hat on. After sleeping with Verna, he's awakened by a nightmare about his hat being blown off in the wind. Verna, speaking for women everywhere, tries to provide the female extrapolation of the dream: "And you chased it, right? You ran and ran. Finally you caught up to it. And picked it up. And it wasn't a hat anymore. It had changed into somethin' else, somethin' wonderful ... ?"
"Nah," Tom grumbles. "It stayed a hat. And no, I didn't chase it. Nothin' more foolish than a man chasin' his hat."
Miller's Crossing was the last collaboration between the Coens and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who'd also shot their previous two films, Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Both films had their own distinct visual style, especially Raising Arizona, an example of Sonnenfeld's rather frenetic shooting style in which, as he says in an interview in the Miller's Crossing DVD release, "the camera was a character in the movie."
Miller's Crossing, though, was different, explains Sonnenfeld: After he read the script, he told the Coens, "There are two kinds of movies: there are wacky movies and handsome movies, and I think this has to be a handsome movie." Sonnenfeld recalls Ethan responding, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, it should look really handsome." So, Sonnenfeld told Ethan, "Well, that means we're going to have use long lenses, because long lenses are handsome, and wide lenses are funny. We wanted it to be handsome and muted and not wacky, and also beautiful and manly. We used the word 'manly' a lot in reference in Miller's Crossing." In pre-production, when Sonnenfeld asked the Coens what they wanted the movie to look like, they told him, "It should be a handsome movie about men in hats."
With all this attention to atmosphere, though, there wasn't one thought given to making Miller's Crossing look like New Orleans. The actual setting of the movie varies depending on what you read; some think it's supposed to be an Eastern city, others Chicago -- but definitely in the Prohibition era. So when the filmmakers were searching for a place to shoot, they wanted a city that looked older but not necessarily distinct.
"The best thing for us was that the film was not set in New Orleans," recalls Kim Carbo, who was the city's point person for the film industry in 1989, in a phone interview. "Even if you watch it today, you're not sure you're in New Orleans. We communicated to the producers that this city had more to offer than just the things tourists came here for. Miller's Crossing wasn't shot in those places. That was the key to our marketing."
The only real identifier of New Orleans was the occasional shot of a streetcar rolling by. The Coens filmed a key shootout scene on Church Street in the CBD. But a lot of the interior shots took place inside Gallier Hall or in sets designed in the Toy Brothers Warehouse. And only a true Northshore resident would recognize the tall, thin pine trees of the forest on the outskirts of Slidell used for the actual location called Miller's Crossing -- where Byrne's Tom faces his own moral crossroads.
Sonnenfeld, who by this third collaboration with the Coens had earned their complete trust, insisted on shooting those sequences only on cloudy days to further dampen the mood. Looking back, Sonnenfeld sounds particularly pleased with this, his final film with the Coens. "It was a dream come true," says Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct such eye candy as the Men in Black series. "It was the most fun I ever had shooting a movie. ... [E]verywhere you looked was a visually stunning, dark location.
"Miller's Crossing was a perfect experience for me. It was the first movie I really got to light."
Much has been said about Miller's Crossing not being a New Orleans movie because it's not necessarily set in New Orleans. One could argue that it's a New Orleans movie based on one early exchange. When Tom saunters into Leo's office, he's introduced to both the mayor and chief of police, which beings the exchange:
Leo: "Tommy. You know O'Dool and the Mayor."
Tom: "I oughta. I voted for him six times last time."
Mayor: "And that ain't the record, either."
In Miller's Crossing, as John Turturro points out in his brief interview in the DVD, a man battles for his soul. There's also sex, booze, violence, crime, corruption, moral ambiguity, two-timing, homosexuality, betrayal, ugliness and beauty.
How New Orleans is that?
- "It was the most fun I ever had shooting a movie," cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld says of 1990's Miller's Crossing. Of New Orleans, he says, "Everywhere you looked was a visually stunning, dark location."