“I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character… I’m talkin’ about ethics.”
So says Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to Irish boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in the opening moments of Miller‘s Crossing. He’s pleading with Leo, the man who “runs things,” to allow him to kill off a crooked bookie who has been skimming money from fixed fights. What he doesn’t realize is that Leo has fallen for this crooked bookie’s sister, all the while continuing an affair with his right hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). If it sounds like a Dashiell Hammett novel with a gangster wardrobe that’s because, in part, it is. It is also a masterpiece that displays the best of Joel & Ethan Coen.
Gabriel Byrne, clearly channeling a droopier Humphrey Bogart, is fantastic. His face lets us in a bit more than many noir protagonists, but he still maintains that steely, indifferent, unflappable look that forces viewers to hang on every gesture. Under such fierce scrutiny a lesser performance would crumble, but Byrne is strongest in those close-ups. His Reagan finds himself caught between the two mafia bosses and Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), forced to play every angle in order to survive. The plotting is intricate, elaborate, and truly compelling in the ways it deals with friendship, character, ethics, and hats among these criminals.
The trademark Coen brothers wryness is on full display here, and the picture brilliantly embraces its artifice, but Miller’s Crossing hits emotional notes that only their best films manage, while still managing to include the full breadth of Coen intellect, symbolism, and sardonic touch. It often functions as a straight laced melodrama and a dark comedy simultaneously, and Byrne’s hat-wearing, fast-talking Reagan is representative of this. There’s a level to his performance, and Miller’s Crossing as a whole, that is knowingly artificial, and knowingly hearkening back to the noir pictures of old, but the execution is so superb that it feels genuine, and achieves emotional truth.
On a purely cinematic level Miller’s Crossing works like an airtight piece of machinery. Carter Burwell’s music taps into its emotional core before the opening titles fade, matching the visual artistry. The screenplay, from the fast talking quips in the dialogue to the dense plotting, is one of the best from two of the best writers around. Everything we need is here, but characters are spitting out information inside these organic conversations that it may take two viewings to get a hold on the plot (it took me two). This isn’t a detriment because, like every Coen brothers movie, Miller’s Crossing improves on repeat viewings. Beneath these sharply rendered characters are always things to chew on. Here it is, you guessed it, friendship, character, and ethics. I’ll add “performance” to the list – this is a picture aware of its artifice, following a protagonist who is constantly lying, manipulating emotions, playing both sides, keeping the audience at arm’s length with an unflappable look and witty one-liner. He’s performing. Reagan says it best himself, in a line from hard boiled heaven: “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”