Directed by Joel Coen.
Produced by Ethan Coen.
Joel & Ethan Coen.
by Barry Sonnenfeld.
Edited by Michael R. Miller.
by Dennis Gassner.
Music by Carter Burwell.
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert
Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Mike
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Here's Mink's one key scene, as taken from the
screenplay. (Click on the cover to buy it from amazon.com)
'Lo Tom. What's the rumpus?
Mink throws a glance back at the
direction of the coat check.
I see you got your hat back.
Yeah, what of it.
Not a thing, Tommy. If it ain't my business I got not a thing to say. Listen, Bernie wants
to see you. It's important.
Well I'm right here, and I'm not made of glass.
Yeah, but he's nervous walkin' around in public. He's a right guy, but he's nervous,
Tommy! He's very nervous! Who wouldn't be?
Tom looks at Mink for the first time.
The spot he's in, who wouldn't be! He asked me to ask you to ask Leo to take care of him.
You know, put in a good word with Leo. Leo listens to you. Not that Leo wouldn't help the
Shmatte anyway! A guy like Bernie! A square gee like the Shmatte? A straight shooter like
I dont get it, Mink.
What's to get? It's plain as the nose--
I thought you were Eddie Dane'sycophant.
Yeah, Tom, that's right. But a guy can have more than one friend, can't he? Not thatI'd
want the Dane to know about it, but a square gee like the Shmatte? He's a right guy, Tom!
He's a straight shooter! I know he's got a mixed reputation, but for a sheeny he's got a
lot of good qualities!
Tom has reached the foot of a large
staircase. He turns to look cautiously at Mink.
What's going on between you and Bernie?
Nothin', Tom! We're just friends -- you know, amigos?
He sips on his cigarette and looks
nervously around the floor.
You're a fickle boy, Mink. If the Dane found out you had another "amigo" --
well, I don't peg him for the understanding type.
Mink is startled. As Tom walks up the
stairs Mink calls after him in a piping voice:
Find out!? How would he find out? Damnit, Tom, me and you ain't even been talking! Jesus,
Tom, damnit, Jesus!
||Meet the Coens
Here's an interview I did with Joel and Ethan Coen in 1991, shortly before the release of Barton Fink -- which they wrote as a diversion while stuck in
the middle of plotting the complex Miller's Crossing.
By Jim Emerson
Introduction: When I wrote the review below in 1990 (which
I've reworked a bit here), I said that the Coen brothers' third feature, Miller's
Crossing, might be the first great film of the new decade. Eight years later, I
don't think it even has any competition as the greatest film of the 90s so far.
Movies this rich and complex (in theme, story, visuals, performances), that reveal their
insights into the human heart with such exquisite nuance and timing -- well, they just
don't come along all that often. First off, the picture is so gorgeous you want to
climb into it -- but it's not superfluous beauty; it sets a tone, a mood, that haunts you
long before you quite know why. The Coens always create a world with each new film,
but for this one they practically came up with a new language, too -- a kind of
deliciously snappy hardboiled gangster slang (worthy of Billy Wilder) that you instantly
understand and want to adopt, even though it's never existed outside of this movie.
One more thing: Every scene in Miller's
Crossing is essential so that all the pieces may fall into place in the last shot.
But although you might think that the film's crucial moment is the one in the ads
-- and the one you see here, the climactic execution at the crossing in the woods --
there's actually a very brief earlier scene (the only appearance of Steve Buscemi as a
weasley fellow named Mink, excerpted at right) that off-handedly sets up the entire
picture. It seems like a throwaway, a chance encounter as Tom is on his way to meet
someone else, but so much information is packed into this brief exchange that the mind
boggles in retrospect. In depth of feeling, plotting, character, and texture, Miller's
Crossing is the Coens' masterpiece, a movie people will still be watching and loving
and studying decades from now.
"Friendship's got nothing to do with it," says Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), "... You do things for a
reason." Tom, a cool-as-ice Irish gangster, prides himself on his stylish air
of emotional detachment and his ability to size up all the angles in any treacherous
And in Joel and Ethan Coen's chilly masterwork, the perversely funny, moving and
intelligent Miller's Crossing, everyone has his or her secret reasons for what
they do. But the wisdom of Miller's Crossing -- a uniquely exhilarating sort of
gangster melodrama/movie parody/character study/whodunnit -- is that it understands that
the human heart sometimes keeps those reasons a mystery -- not only from others, but
occasionally from itself as well.
Tom, around whose glacial features the events of Miller's Crossing
revolve, is so temperamentally tamped-down and emotionally frigid that he's virtually
unreadable -- especially when he conceals/encases himself in his black overcoat and pulls
down his dark fedora (the movie's resonant central image) over his eyes. He's a tough nut
to crack and he likes it that way; he's a survivor.
This loner with the deep-sunken eyes (are they sad or just glassy?) is either the most armored, guarded,
isolated soul imaginable -- a man whose instincts for self-protection and
self-preservation have become almost superhumanly strong -- or else he's perversely
self-destructive, an emotional causualty who's grown so much scar tissue around his heart
that no one can touch it. Or maybe he's a bit of
Byrne imbues Tom with just enough black-Irish
charisma to keep him from coming across as a stiff, but the guy is all business. Tom will
not allow his personal feelings to have any effect on his cool, rational business
decisions. The more punches, beatings and falls he suffers during the course of the
picture -- while hardly sustaining a scratch or a bruise (Tom's apparent indestructability
becomes one of the movie's sly, genre-based running gags) -- the more he seems determined, by sheer force of will, not to let
anything, or any one, hurt him. Or even get close enough to where they would have the
The movie begins with a lecture about ethics --
delivered with sputtering rage by a
gangster named Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who is using this argument to convince his
rival mob boss Leo (Albert Finney), Tom's friend and employer, to let him kill Bernie
Bernbaum (John Turturro), because the guy is a crooked operator. Ironically (and the Coen
brothers are masters of wicked irony), the themes Caspar outlines in this stunner of an
opening speech (much of it delivered straight into the camera, like the opening of The
Godfather) lay the groundwork for the treacherous moral universe that Miller's
Crossing explores. For as obviously corrupt as Caspar is, he's absolutely right about
Bernie -- or, "the Shmatte," as everyone calls him. The guy is not exactly a
The intricate world of big-city organized crime is constructed upon rigid customs
(liked fixed fights) and codes of proper behavior. Bernie has blatantly (amorally?) chosen
to violate those rules. Therefore, according to the gangster's code, Bernie deserves to
die. Against his own better judgement -- and the counsel of his right-hand man, Tom -- Leo
refuses to grant Caspar permission to rub out Bernie. Not for business reasons, as it
turns out, but for personal ones. Tom fears that Leo is going "soft."
And that's when the mobsters' warped but precariously maintained moral/ethical structure -- the operating
construct that allows them to continue to "do business" -- begins to collapse.
(If you can't trust a fixed fight, what can you trust?" sputters Caspar, as if he
were a beacon of moral rectitude in a dark and degenerate universe..)
So, Tom has a falling out with Leo over Verna (whom Leo has also been seeing). Further
complicating matters is the fact that Bernie is Verna's brother, and she has vowed to do
whatever is necessary (including sleeping with Leo) to protect him. By the time Caspar
coerces Tom into shooting Bernie in an isolated, woodsy spot known as Miller's
Crossing, personal and professional alliances, loyalties, betrayals and deceptions
have become provocatively, enigmatically tangled and confused.
At heart, Miller's Crossing is a movie about honor (and loyalty, and even love) among thieves.
Two relatively minor events set things in motion: Leo's refusal to grant Caspar permission
to kill Bernie; and the puzzling killing of a balding henchman named Rug Daniels, who's
found lying in an alley without his toupee. One suspicion rebounds from another,
implicating Bernie and drawing Tom into the fray.
Eventually, like the exterminating angel of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest,
Tom becomes the architect of a convoluted web of killings and double-crosses that escalate
into a bloody war for control of the city (and the mayor and the police) between Leo and
Johnny Caspar. As Tom maneuvers between them, playing all sides against each other, we're
kept guessing about how thoroughly he has planned his moves and where his loyalties (if he
has any) really lie.
The movie's haunting, enigmatic final images echo a recurring dream of Tom's in which
he watches his hat blow through the woods but he doesn't chase after it because, as he
tells Verna: "There's nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat." By the
quietly shattering coda (again set in those eerily hushed woods of Tom's dream and the
fatal Crossing) Tom stubbornly, bitterly refuses to chase his hat -- to go after the
object of his desire, letting it slip away from him as if blown by the wind.
"Do you always know why you do things...?" Tom asks, contradicting his earlier statement. And suddenly
we're compelled to go over all the events of the movie and ask: How much did Tom know and
when did he know it? How much of Tom's behavior was premeditated and how much was simply
reactive? Just who was he protecting? And how clearly did he forsee the long-term
consequences of his actions? Gratifyingly, the Coens (as they would later with the Mystery
Box in Barton Fink) provide us with no easy answers. A
person's motives, intentions, emotions, actions -- they're not always so easily
understood, even by himself.
Like the Coen's previous pictures, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, Miller's
Crossing is an exuberantly stylized movie. On the surface, it's also a kind of
film-school parody of its genre -- a collection of long coats and wide-brimmed hats,
highballs and machine guns, all assembled with meticulous attention to crisp period
The gangsters speak in a delicious fantasy tough-guy patois ("What's the rumpus?") that
you'd just love to wrap your tongue around. But the clever gangster-movie trappings don't
trivialize or obscure the movie's deeper, melancholy (even tragic) resonances -- which are
reflected in the wintry/autumnal tones of its color scheme: forest green, overcast grey,
black-and-blue, burnished mahogany.
The movie's unexpectedly magnificent and revealing closing moments leave no doubt that Miller's
Crossing is the Coen's most mature, emotionally resonant, fully realized work. These
guys aren't just playing with kiddie toys any more. Miller's Crossing is
their Godfather -- an indelible film about betrayal and self-destruction -- and
perhaps the first great movie of the '90s.
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