Back to the Past : Miller’s Crossing

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Miller’s Crossing
Came Out : 1990
Directed by : Joel & Ethan Coen
Starred : Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Albert Finney

A shot of whiskey is poured and we’re off. Joel and Ethan Coen’s ”Miller’s Crossing” begins in what since Coppola seems a mafia must, one man discussing business to another across a wooden desk, the nice kind, probably the kind that kinks movers’ backs. Johnny Caspar (Joe Polito) is doing the talking. In the world of the gangster film, he’s the up and comer, the one who’s no longer content with asking permission (think Paul Muni’s Scarface…actually any Scarface). His beef? It seems that bookie Bernie Bernbaum (a perfectly weaselly John Turturro) has been selling inside information about Caspar’s fight fixes. Caspar naturally wants him dead. More, he wants Leo’s blessing in the matter. Leo (Albert Finney) is the city’s aging mob czar, an iron horse who doesn’t see Caspar as a threat worthy of his concern. He says no. Whether or not Bernie’s been crooking Caspar, he’s still the brother of Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), the sultry sulky brunette Leo happens to be sweet on, and her kinda sorta him. Then why is she tucked under the sheets of Leo’s right-hand man and advisor, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne)? And why then is Tom insisting that Leo let Caspar sick his muscle on Bernie? So many questions. If ”The Godfather” is a couch you can more or less ease back into, ”Miller’s Crossing” is a chuch pew; it forces you to pay attention.

The mob movie. We know this world, as sure as we know that a man under a bed means another man is about to get knee-capped. Corrupt coppers, prohibition-era speakeasies, pin-striped suits and thick-witted henchmen. Here is the America where success is taken by force, loyalty is king, and anything less than a guarantee makes people nervous. To paraphrase Caspar, anarchy is betting on chance. From what we know of the Coen’s filmography though, through films like ”Raising Arizona”, ”No Country for Old Men”, and ”Blood Simple”, we can expect this journey to have a few unguessable turns alongside the essentials. Llewelyn Moss’ death in ”No Country” still comes to mind. It’s part of the edgy pleasure of watching a Coen film and Crossing. But so is another Coen standard: the anti-hero with the mixed moral code. Tom is one. He has a kind of motto, see? Call it ethics for wiseguys. Killing, bootlegging, bribery and fraud are just part of the business, all in a day’s work…as long as there’s a good reason. And love isn’t one, his, Verna’s or Leo’s.

When a misunderstanding involving Verna ignites a gang war between Leo and Caspar, Tom is forced to confess his affair to Leo. He takes it badly. Leo gives Tom a thumping and sends him packing, to Caspar’s gang. Smells familiar, somewhat like ”Yojimbo” or at least Walter Hill’s ”Last Man Standing”, another 1990s Irish vs. Italian gangster film. Not exactly. Okay, partly. But the reason to watch Crossing is as much about the man as his plan.

Tom is a man with a unique vantage point. As one of this unidentified city’s (though shot in New Orleans) most respected lieutenants, he stands somewhere between the top and bottom rungs, between ”Goodfellas”’ Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and ”The Godfather” consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) say. But the view ain’t no field of buttercups. See, we meet Tom after his heyday. The spoils are gone, lost in a failed gambling streak (Leo offers to pay but is rejected) and god knows where else, his smile siphoned off by whiskey breakfasts and dinners. He’s tired and frustrated, but most of all by people who don’t follow any code of their own, people like Leo and Bernie.

In ”The Godfather” saga, Michael Corleone makes a go at legitimizing the family business. It’s squashed but good on him. Tom Reagan wouldn’t even have tried. But he does have his own way of setting things straight, including his relationship with Leo. There’s some dark pleasure in watching him manipulate Caspar and his gang, mostly because he can. Like ”The Town”’s Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), Tom knows the angles of his business and has the wit to dress down anyone who gets in his way. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for him to take any pleasure in it. If Tom was ever the fool-grinning The World is Yours type, it was long before this.

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