Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films for over three decades, and it appears that there is nothing they can’t do. They’ve created iconic original stories, subversive remakes of classic Hollywood fare, and adaptations of difficult literature. They’ve won Oscars for writing and directing, and their films have been nominated for just about every task a filmmaker could tackle. Their body of work defies genre, with entries spanning drama, comedy, Western, and noir, but a Coen brothers film is always distinctly a Coen brothers film. We’re going to look at each of their works one by one to see if we can determine just what that means. Here, we take a look at their 1990 neo-noir gangster film Miller’s Crossing.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Principal cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro

Plot: Tom Reagan is the trusted advisor to Leo, a mob boss who runs a town in Prohibition-era America. When opposing factions begin to flex their muscle, Tom finds himself in the middle of an ego-driven gang war in which trust and booze are hot commodities.

As pulpy as it is labyrinthine, with as much humor as extreme violence, Miller’s Crossing is the next step in the evolution of the Coen brothers. This film is not quite as hilarious as Raising Arizona nor as gruesome as Blood Simple. However, there’s a wealth of sly humor amid the whip-smart Bogart-esque dialogue punctuated by moments of violence befitting of the best mob pictures. It’s a tough line to walk, balancing cartoonish mobsters with real-world peril, but Miller’s Crossing hits that sweet spot. Every action carries appropriate weight, even though the bulk of the ensemble would be at home squaring off against Dick Tracy or Bugs Bunny (it’s coy-tains for ya, Rocky! Coy-tains!).

Miller’s Crossing is more reserved than their later work (the cow-killing mobster in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? comes to mind), but it’s wonderful watching the Coens developing their style. So much of their subsequent work follows the blueprint established by Miller’s Crossing: a large machine threatens to shut down as a few cogs come loose. These cogs shift around, clang into each other, making a lot of noise. Some fall from the machine while others fall back into place. There’s no audience surrogate to speak of here, nor is any one character fully in control of his or her fate. A formula like this would not work as well in a real-world setting, and placing it in a fantastical realm defies a lot of the thematic work.

What’s With the Hat?

The film opens with a shot of a hat dancing through the woods on a playful gust of wind. Later, we see that this is an image from a dream Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) had. Throughout Miller’s Crossing, Tom is constantly dropping his hat (or being knocked out of it). He’s not alone. Just about every character who wears a hat loses it at some point, usually right before they die. But Tom always manages to put his hat back on.

During shooting, Byrne was smart enough to see that the imagery was relevant, but couldn’t put his finger on why. The Coens were happy to leave it at that. Byrne asked the duo what the thematic function of the hat was. Joel Coen turned to his brother and said, “Ethan, Gabe wants to know what the significance of the hat is.” Ethan’s response: “Yeah, it is significant.”

Pshh, artists.

Buuuut I think I’ve cracked it, at least to my own satisfaction. In this heightened world of Tommy guns and gang wars, a hat represents a small amount of order – of class – amongst the chaos. It even appears in the dialogue. Characters often ask, “Are you trying to give me the high hat?” This is the same as asking “Are you big leaguing me?” While Tom is drunkenly playing both sides of this brewing unrest, he begins questioning the state of his own soul. Whether or not it’s worth sacrificing to come out on top; whether or not it was ever there in the first place. But if he can just keep his hat on his head, he’s got one foot in the door of order. He can also hide his red, bleary eyes from the cruel sun as he stubbornly chases the hair of the dog.

“If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”

This theme is spread throughout the whole movie. In a world of thieves, liars, and murderers, can anybody be trusted? The quote comes from Eddie Caspar (Jon Polito), who is lamenting that somebody has been revealing his fixed fights and screwing up his gambling income. He’s upset that honesty has been introduced into a patently dishonest business venture, and he sees this as a dishonest act. Meanwhile, he’s using this notion as a request to kill the culprit, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Unfortunately for him, the big boss is dating Bernbaum’s sister, and honor dictates that this is enough to merit protection. Caspar warns that this is less a request than a notification, and Tom advises Leo (Albert Finney) to just let the rub go down. But Leo refuses, citing the code of honor. If only he knew that Tom was also bedding Miss Bernbaum.

Jon Polito as Johnny Caspar has an idea

It’s a web of lies that grows more complicated as the plot thickens, and it seems only Tom and Leo stand to benefit from it. Tom from deceit and proper planning and Leo from in-the-moment savvy mixed with some perverted version of dutiful kindness. Both benefit greatly from sheer dumb luck.

When the dust clears and the shells hit the floor, Leo is back in charge. He’s got his girl, his city, and his life. Tom’s out of the business for good, but at least he’s got his hat.

The message here is clear: both good and evil can lead to success, but the metaphorical man upstairs can undercut it all if He sees fit. It seems deliberate that the Coens left explicit religious imagery out of this film, even though Irish-Catholic guilt could be wrung from every wrinkle in Albert Finney’s face, or siphoned from the boozy sweat of Gabriel Byrne’s brow. Is it because they feel unqualified, or is it simply unnecessary in communicating the themes?

Anyone with the slightest sense of how Hollywood works knows that to succeed, only the right combination of evil, good, and fate can bring an artist to the top. One hopes that the recognition of their luck is indicative of the Coen boys’ tendency toward kindness. But as long as they keep pumping out quality films I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Notes:

– Gabriel Byrne is Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now you’ll never unsee it.

– The role of Leo was initially given to Trey Wilson (Raising Arizona), but he died of a brain hemorrhage before shooting began. Albert Finney took over the role. Now, it’s hard to imagine the film without him.

– This is the Coen brothers’ first collaboration with Steve Buscemi and John Turturro.

– Midway through writing the Miller’s Crossing script, the Coens suffered from writer’s block. They took a small hiatus and penned Barton Fink. A couple things crossed over between the two stories including the Barton Arms building, and a newspaper headline reading “Seven Dead in Hotel Fire.”

– This is the Coens’ final collaboration with Barry Sonnenfeld as their cinematographer. I’m eager to see how the visuals change in future films.

– It took multiple viewings before I picked up on the homosexual relationships between Mink, The Dane, and Bernbaum. It’s not hidden by any means, but the language hints to the mobsters’ reluctance to speak of it explicitly.

– “They took his hair, Tommy.” Best line in the movie.

– It not often that you see a mobster in a forest setting. Even though it happens frequently in Miller’s Crossing (specifically AT Miller’s Crossing), it never feels right. Appropriate that Miller’s Crossing is where hitmen do their dirty work.

– Marcia Gay Harden steals every single scene she’s in. As Verna Bernbaum, she walks the line between real and cartoon better than anyone.

– The Coens were on the shortlist to direct Batman before deciding to make Miller’s Crossing. Can you imagine how different superhero films would be if had the brothers were the progenitors of the modern era? Maybe a little more Adam West-y, but who knows?.

Phew. I need a drink.