Miller’s Crossing

Miller's CrossingMany 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.

The Look

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.

0 thoughts on “Miller’s Crossing

  1. You’re right that it’s a love story, but it’s about Tom’s love for Leo. That’s the point of so many secondary characters’ being gay: They hint at Tom’s true motivation, which is to protect Leo. He makes that clear early in the film, but it gets obscured after he and Leo split. Verna certainly misunderstands his motives, thinking that he’s in love with her. The end makes it all clear, but there are hints throughout, including the score that plays off a four-note theme from "Danny Boy" (which itself plays a key role), a song about a father’s love for his son. Ultimately, Tom gets what he wants in that Leo is safe, though Verna still comes between them. Byrne’s restrained performance is extremely under-appreciated.

  2. Vernam: you make some excellent points, although I disagree about a little. In particular, I think that Tom loves Leo like a father and Verna in a sexual way. What he ultimately wants is to have Leo for a father and Verna for a lover. When Leo and Verna get together, he loses the second part of his desire. He gets Leo’s love, but shuns it, because he loses Verna.

    I hadn’t thought of the relationship of Tom and Leo as sexual in any way, but that’s an interesting thought. Increasingly (and this is one reason I think that film critics are pretenders, because such thinking takes a lot of time), I have been focusing on the two love triangles in the movie. I think there is great potential in looking at the film this way.

    This article is very popular, but you are the first to give me any indication that there are people out in the world who think about this film (any film) seriously. It is an exceptional film that is way under appreciated.

  3. I had never actually thought about it that way. I’ve seen the movie but I never thought too deeply into Leo and Tom. I don’t know it was an interesting thought

  4. I hate to say it, because you’ve clearly thought a great deal about it, but this is a trite and ill-researched review. First, if Tom asks Verna to leave, how would it not have poisoned his relationship with Leo, since a one-night stand with her did exactly that? More to the point, if that scenario played out, we’d be talking about this as a third-rate harlequin, not a first-rate gangster flick. Second, your character treatments are not well conducted. The Finney character was originally written for Trey Wilson, who died days before shooting started, and who would’ve been outstanding in the role; as it’s written, Finney does just fine. Also, you overlook the limited role of Steve Buscemi (Mink), who does more than enough to make the homosexual love triangle convincing; and you undersell J.T. Freeman, whose character, though complicated given the concomitance of intellectual savvy and brutality, is outstandingly portrayed. Finally, the dialogue is absolutely brilliant; unlike other brainy films, it doesn’t stretch credulity when these guys interact the way they do and make the decisions they do.

    Maybe I’m just sensitive because I love the film so much, but I think you do it a disservice. My only advice: watch it a few more times. Oh, yeah (unrelated): and find a way, like I have, to use "what’s the rumpus","katzenjammers", and "for the nonce" much more frequently in your everyday conversation :).

  5. @Denny – I think you are sensitive. I am very fond of the film and I think what I’ve written is very positive. All I’m arguing is that the film isn’t great as is, say, [i]Barton Fink[/i].

    I think that I said very nice things about all of the actors and I specifically mentioned Trey Wilson’s death. Calling a Finney performance "workmanlike" is [i]not[/i] a criticism.

    I completely stand by my criticism of the script’s treatment of the homosexual love triangle. That is my biggest problem with the film. Mink has exactly one short scene. It isn’t enough. Overall, the film could be a half hour long.

    Also, I think you are wrong about Tom’s options. Leo is an honorable man and could have dealt with being dumped. But over time I’ve come to think that the bigger issue is that Tom really doesn’t want to be with Verna. He is drawn to her (the same way he is drawn to gambling) but he knows she is bad for him.

    Again: I like the film quite a lot. You may disagree with my discussion but I don’t see how it is trite. My technical discussion at the very least is more thorough than any other discussion of the film I’ve seen. Also, I believe I’m the only person to have written seriously about the homosexual love triangle. And it is that focus that probably makes this discussion come off as more negative than it should.

  6. Good grief! Watch (or read) Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY and then tell me that ". . . while the film may look like something Dashiell Hammett wrote, it isn’t at all." Ridiculous!

  7. R. Stout – Good grief, indeed. It isn’t about the plot. The film, like so much else by the Coens plays with the genre, it is not genre itself. That’s all I was getting at there.

  8. Interesting thread. Impressive it started in March 2010, and is still going.

    IMHO, I don’t buy the love story theory. Todd Alcott wrote: "Bernie says "Look into your heart" and Tom replies "What heart?" as he puts a bullet through Bernie’s head. Verna doubts the existence of Tom’s heart as well — and maybe that’s what the movie is about, the gradual death of Tom’s soul."

    That’s probably over-simplified as this is a complex movie, but sometimes viewers see things (based on their own life experiences) that filmmakers never intended.

    For example, I don’t see one shred of homosexuality between Tom and Leo. You conveyed some sad and unfortunate circumstances related to casting (Trey Wilson and Peter Stormare). If Tom was supposed to be even the slightest bit bisexual, then why cast the ultra-hetero Gabriel Byrne?

    I also disagree with "strangling" Leo’s Danny Boy/Tommy Gun scene to allow more time for Verna. This movie doesn’t need more Verna or more love story. She never smiles and her lines are brief. I think she is an intentional throwback to the gritty dames of film noir and it works.

    The greatest display of love in the entire movie is when Tom takes mercy on Bernie. This is the only time it is ever revealed that Tom has a heart and it has nothing to do with feelings for Verna. Don’t forget that Tom was perfectly willing to let Tic-Tac and Frankie ice Bernie. Obviously, Tom desires Verna for sex and they click, but nothing indicates love. Not to me anyway. In fact, if Tom and Verna ended up together it would have been saccharin.

    You wanna a love story? Watch "Far and Away."

  9. @Kat McCabe – Ah, you remind me of one of my favorite movies, [i]McCabe & Mrs. Miller[/i]!

    You misunderstand, but the fault is probably my own. Last time I read this article, I found it wanting. Tom loves Leo as a father, so you’ve got that whole Oedipus thing going on in that triangle. I compare that lovers’ triangle to the gay triangle between Mink, Dane, and Bernie. The honest one in each are Leo and Dane. As much of a psychopath as Dane may be, he really does love Mink. When Verna says that she and Tom deserve each other, I think she’s right. Leo deserves better.

    I don’t think that Tom’s mercy for Bernie at Miller’s Crossing is love. He just isn’t up to the task of killing a man.

    My only real problem with the movie is that we don’t ever see Mink and Dane together. That’s important. Dane really is a complex character. He’s a psychopath, but extremely loyal. It’s horrible at the end that Tom gets Caspar to turn against him. (BTW: it is Jon Polito 63rd birthday today!)

    The only truly evil person in the film is Bernie. And that is a real problem for Tom because it means he cannot end up with Verna, who he truly does love.

    In the end, it isn’t much of a gangster film. It is about love and how that world screws it up.

    So I guess we disagree on the film’s meaning. I don’t care what the filmmakers think. But it is a testament to the greatness of the film that two people can love the film and disagree about almost every aspect of it!

  10. Just finished Miller’s Crossing and cannot wait to watch it again! Fantastic film!

  11. Thoughtful review…though I think the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing is spectacular and that the film is shot wonderfully well. The epic nature of The Godfather and the shooting style of Goodfellas may put those films ahead of Millers Crossing, I think the three films are equal in quality and are the three best films of the crime genre.

  12. @alan – I don’t even remember what I wrote. The last time I read this, it occurred to me that I ought to update it with a number of new thoughts. I totally agree with you on the look of the film. It is gorgeous–much better looking than the other two films. The only problem I have with the screenplay is that the Mink-Dane relationship should get a bit more attention. In my experience, first time viewers have virtually no idea what is going on there.

  13. Wrong.
    You seem to struggle bringing your own sets of beliefs rather than letting the film dictate what it is. Example The Dane is a self hating gay, and for you to ask for something different is just your projection. It’s easy to see why mink would pursue Bernie soley based on The Dane’s personality.
    Great film. But it is a film with filmmakers that still have not progressed in film language. The first scene’s camera work where tom is talking to bartender is a mess. Camera work pretty rough.

  14. @Toneloc – Wrong?! Why? Because you are the arbiter of film truth? I think you are the one projecting. There is no indication that the Dane is self-hating. I don’t recall asking that the Dane be anything at all. I asked that the key relationship be better rendered.

    You mean that flash pan?! What a pedant! I’ll admit, it’s an odd choice. But it [i]is[/i] a choice. And it is a hard camera move that certainly isn’t perfect. But that’s [i]one[/i] shot, not a scene. It is also not close to the first scene.

  15. Cannot be convinced that Barton Fink is better than Miller’s Crossing, although I am a lover of both. As for your thesis that there are two love stories here, I think there’s no argument for it. The story is at best about Tom and Verna and Tom and Leo. While the former is clearly a sexual and romantic relationship (perhaps onesided) the latter is a friendship. The Coens have no reason to develop the Mink-Dane relationship, as it’s not really material to the narrative.

    It may interest you to read something I wrote on Miller’s Crossing years ago:

  16. You say that the film was almost wholly shot in POV. You must have a different concept of POV, because that is just false. Whose POV is this film supposed to be shot from?

    Yes, the discovery of Rug Daniels is in POV. Otherwise, not really.

  17. @Chet – I’ll check out what you wrote tomorrow. I’m too tired now. I wrote this over four years ago and my thinking on it has changed somewhat.

    I think you are missing the critical point that there are two lovers’ triangles. As for POV, you do not know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about literary point of view. The film is almost, but not quite done in first person POV from Tom’s perspective. The Rug Daniels scene shouldn’t be there, not just because it conflicts with the mostly rigid POV, but because it doesn’t matter and shows the Coen brothers at their most narcissistic. The scene when the Dane comes to talk to Verna also breaks that. And the [i]Danny Boy[/i] scene breaks it. Otherwise, we only see what Tom sees, which is good because it is Tom’s story. It is about how he is forced to sacrifice the wishes of one person he loves for the needs the other person he loves, but it ultimately costs him both relationships. He’s a man who is used to being able to finesse situations, so he’s a tragic figure.

    It is fine to have POV switch from scene to scene. But in this case, it is too ridge without being perfect. The script is much weaker than we are used to. And they have even talked about how much trouble they had finishing it. That’s why they wrote [i]Barton Fink[/i]. But the truth is, they never really finished this script. They just got it to a point where it worked well enough.

  18. @Chet – I went ahead and read your article. It was short. There were a lot of three dollar words, though. I don’t understand the point of the piece because you say it has fallen out of favor but you don’t quote or link to anyone. It hasn’t fallen out of favor with me. [i]Barton Fink[/i] is a surreal film that is consistent with itself. I don’t think the title character is unsympathetic–although he certainly is through most of the film. He ends up a better man through tragedy and adversary. At the end, he has become the "common man" who is happy to enjoy the simple painting that seemed beneath him before. In this way, it is a surreal version of [i]Sullivan’s Travels[/i].

    I think both [i]No Country for Old Men[/i] and [i]Fargo[/i] are both way overrated. I like them both, but [i]Barton Fink[/i] and [i]O Brother, Where Art Thou?[/i] are much better. But I’m not going to get into that here, but I probably should write something in depth about [i]Barton Fink[/i].

    Also, you say that [i]Barton Fink[/i] has fallen out of favor, but I remember when it came out and people weren’t gushing that much about it–in America anyway. It was well reviewed, but that was about it. As I recall, I was in the minority of those saying that it was the first unquestionably great Coen brothers film.

    But if people really have turned against the film, it just shows that most people aren’t worth listening to. When it comes to the Coen brothers, it seems that people will always like films along the line of [i]Blood Simple[/i] more than their other films. I disagree.

  19. I’m going to shut off comments on this article. I read through all of them, and although some people make valid points, most just scan the article and complain about trivialities. I don’t know what it is about the film that brings out the "me so serious about film" crowd, but they are obnoxious. Plus, it’s like being on Netflix where people vote down your review because you didn’t like it quite as much as they did.

    But mostly, this article was written four and a half years ago. I’m tired of talking about it. Maybe it’s time to write another one. If I do it, I will place a link at the top of the article. Then you all can comment there.

    If you want to have a serious conversation now, contact information is on the side bar above. But that means someone has to do at least a little more work than write, "Wrong!"