Many people miss the point of Miller's Crossing; what's more, they don't judge it on its own terms. It is widely known that the Coen brothers were inspired to make this movie by the works of Dashiell Hammett. But their inspiration does not matter in the least; it only tells us where they started, not where they ended. Thankfully, they did not end up with some modernized Hammett "tough guy" story, with characters who almost always lack depth and humanity. Miller's Crossing is certainly not a perfect film, but it is a fine film—far better than almost all the movies that have ever been made.
Miller's Crossing, like all movies that are more than simple entertainments (such as the much better film Gosford Park), really need to be seen more than once. This film is dense; for example, the subplot involving Mink was not clear to me on the first viewing; nor was the sexual relationship between Mink and the Dane. It all became clear on subsequent viewing.
Even with multiple viewings, Miller's Crossing has its problems. The homosexual relationship between Mink and the Dane is not very believable. J.E. Freeman is a fine actor, but he is not really cast well in this role. This is not surprising, however, since that part had been written for Peter Stormare—who I'm sure would have portrayed the character as implicitly gay along with the angry sadism that Freeman has in abundance; Freeman's Dane clearly cares about Mink, but it seems more like Mink is his son or brother—not his lover. We learn that Mink and Dane are lovers almost exclusively from other characters.
This is a fairly minor problem, however—and one that would probably be easily fixed with a single scene including both characters together; the biggest problem in Miller's Crossing is that the filmmakers maintain rigid first-person POV [caveat] throughout the movie except for one scene in which Leo survives an assassination attempt. It acts as a short film put in the middle of the feature. It is spectacular, but it doesn't belong. As the saying goes, in editing you usually have to kill your darlings and that was one they should have strangled. (There is one other very short POV problem toward the beginning where a young boy steals the hair piece of a dead Rug Daniels, which should have been cut—other than being a classic Coen Brothers moment, it serves no purpose. On the other hand, the fire-bombing of Leo's club seems like a POV error, but it is not; Tom witnesses it and even comments on it—albeit from a distance.)
Taking the assassination scene out would have allowed them to spend more time on the Mink-Dane relationship and to have further developed Tom's attraction (love?) for Verna. As it is, Verna disappears for far too long during the latter half of the second act. This missed opportunity is particularly sad because the love triangle involving Tom, Verna, and Leo is the heart of the story. Without getting too Oedipal about it, the film works as modern tragedy. Tom saves Leo (his father surrogate) resulting in the loss of Verna (his mother surrogate). Given his loss of Verna, the film ends with Leo and Verna about to be married; this causes Tom to lose Leo (again) because he cannot accept being around Leo married to Verna. And it is all Tom's fault; he controlled all the action in the film.
Consider this: Tom could have asked Verna to leave Leo, and she would have; this would have hurt Leo, but it would not have poisoned his relationship with Tom; Leo would then have given Caspar the okay to kill Bernie; and Tom and Verna could have relocated Bernie somewhere far away before he was killed. But the tragic course Tom followed was dictated by his own ethical sense (ironically, shared with Casper, who he has murdered as part of his plan). Tom's ethics result in the unhappiness of Verna and himself (and to a smaller degree Leo), and the deaths of many people (most innocent in the universe of the movie).
As has been pointed out ad nauseum, the film is beautifully "shot" and expertly acted. I actually have something to say about this other than the usual comments of the film ombudsmen, so you will forgive me if I add to the nausea. Let me start with the acting.
Gabriel Byrne does an excellent job in this film, but it is rarely mentioned because this is the kind of role that just seems to be standard and easy. But this film lives and dies on his performance. Without his subtle, emotionally deep performance, the film would have no center. In addition to the serious scenes he shares with Finney and Harden, he also has scenes where his character is playing a role. The contrast is stark and riveting.
Of course, everyone applauds Jon Polito in the role of Johnny Casper—and rightly so; but Polito is pretty much always great in whatever he is doing. Is he really particularly better in this film than he is in other films? Just to mention two (later) Coen brothers films, he was wonderful as the gay dry-cleaner in The Man Who Wasn't There and comically genius paired with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. He is a fine actor who unfortunately gets a lot of the same kinds of roles because of how he looks; but on the good side, he works a lot.
I'm not sure about John Turturro's performance; I have a hard time reconciling his pleading in the forest with his sociopathic behavior elsewhere. He does redeem himself during his second pleading scene where his character's acting job is far less convincing.
Marcia Gay Harden does a fine job, despite having to recite some of the most tired dialog that the Coen's have ever created. It is sad that her character was probably the least fleshed out. Albert Finney provides a workman-like performance. His character too is not well written. It is hard not to question how such a nice guy could have survived with the likes of Johnny Casper around. Okay: he's good with a machine gun and he is calm during stressful situations; but he seems more like the city's most popular tailor than a crime boss. In Finney's defense, he was last minute casting, after Trey Wilson (originally cast) died right before shotting; so it isn't like he had a great deal of time to prepare, and considering his body of work (Murder on the Orient Express and The Dresser come to mind), I would never doubt his talent. And let us never forget that casting, editing, and directing are usually just as important to the success or failure of a performance on film as is the acting itself.
Miller's Crossing is the Coen Brothers' third film. Their first film, Blood Simple, had a budget of one and a half million dollars; and it showed, even if the low-budget look of the film worked perfectly. Their second film, the highly over-rated Raising Arizona cost about six million dollars (and I can't help but compare it to Jon Jost's work which is generally made on a shoestring and yet produces remarkable—and arguably greater—results). So it isn't surprising that Miller's Crossing, with it's 14 million dollar budget would look good. Their first two films had good camera work and reasonably good lighting. Barry Sonnenfeld lit those films. I assume Joel Coen shot Blood Simple; no one is credited. David M. Dunlap shot Raising Arizona, along with Stephen St. John doing the steadicam work. Sonnenfeld lit and shot Miller's Crossing with Larry McConkey on the steadicam. I mention all of these people, because the cinematographer tends to get all the credit, while the camera operator is easily as important—and in the United States, it is rare for someone to do both in a budgeted movie. Before moving on, I should point out that these people are really just department heads; they all have large crews of assistants who are generally very talented. (Consider the lowly camera loader; do you have any idea just how hard and stressful it is to load a camera with film? By feel alone? It is a demanding job, especially when every minute you slow down the production costs about $50—or more—much more.)
Sonnenfeld's camera work is hardly inspiring. It reminds me a little bit of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise which was lit (and most likely shot) by Tom DiCillo. The camera hardly moves: there are no tilts, very minor pans, and a couple of dollies. The shooting for which Sonnenfeld is responsible is similarly motionless; I assume this is what the Coen's wanted. However, where Jarmusch's movie frames each shot in interesting ways; the Coen's movie frames each shot in a classic manner. This is neither good nor bad; it is a decision. But it is not an exciting decision. Helpfully, it does make the viewer focus on two things: the acting and the set design. I've already discussed the acting, which deserves the attention the filming provides. This is even more true of the sets.
The production design by Dennis Gassner is great. Ditto for Richard Hornung's costume design. Even the short scene outside in the rain taking cover in a doorway looks great and says as much as the filming and the acting. What's more, the sets and costumes do more than define the environment and mood—they provide insights into the characters. It is a lot more than pretty. Again, as with filming, there are a lot of people who work under these department heads. And in Miller's Crossing, there was a much bigger Art Department than there was on Raising Arizona (which itself had a much bigger Art Department than Blood Simple).
This is Not Film Criticism
To me, Miller's Crossing is a love story that just happens to take place in that fictional land of mobsters who are not, in general, homicidal psychopaths. So while the film may look like something Dashiell Hammett wrote, it isn't at all. It lives in his literary universe, if you will, but it is populated by characters who just don't exist in the classic genre. This fact confuses a lot of viewers and makes them think that this fine film is bad. Any good work of art needs to be experienced multiple times before it can be fully appreciated. Unfortunately, the newspaper columnists who call themselves "film critics" generally see a film only once before passing judgment on its artistic value. This is fine, because most people who read such "reviews" simply want to know if they will enjoy watching a movie once. So we should call these "film critics" something more appropriate: "film ombudsmen."
This discussion of Miller's Crossing is far longer than a typical "review" and yet, it is far too short to begin to seriously criticize the film. But it is long enough to make the argument that the film cannot be dismissed as bad art and that it deserves at least two viewings, whereas The Maltese Falcon is deserving of one reading, at most.
Update (20 April 2011)
I just got the DVD from the library and there is an extended interview with Barry Sonnenfeld where he says much of what I did about his work. I also found out that after he got out of film school, he bought a CP-16—the same camera that I used to own until I loaned it to Marc Burgio who never returned it.
Update (20 November 2011)
For some time now, I have been thinking about the two lover's triangles in the movie: Vera's and Mink's. Off hand, when the film is looked at in this way it isn't too hard to see it as homophobic. There seem to be two honest brokers in the heterosexual triangle, only one in the homosexual triangle, and he's a psychopath. But I would have to think a lot more about this before I was willing to stand behind what is now just a thought.
Update (19 May 2013)
There are more POV problems than I indicated. This isn't just a matter of formalism. The screenplay really needs to be reworked so that it isn't so exclusively Tom's story.