The Screening Room: Miller’s Crossing

In All, Movies by Kyu

Here’s the rumpus: Miller’s Crossing endures where other noir/gangster pastiches fall by the wayside because, although the protagonist acts as a detective, solving the mystery of a series of murders and determining the motivations and loyalties of the other characters in order to manipulate events, the real mystery of the film is never truly solved. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.

Spoilers ahead


This is the second shot of the movie; over the course of the shot (as Caspar (Jon Polito) delivers an ironic monologue about the shameful lack of integrity and honesty that characterizes whoever is chiseling in on his attempt to fix a boxing match), the camera pushes in on Polito and the out of focus figure at the back right of the shot walks forward. Just as it seems the combined movements will bring this figure into focus… he steps out of frame. We don’t know it yet, but this is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne, never better), the film’s lead character, and this is how his story will go. Just when we think we have him all figured out, the truth of him slips out of view.

“So it’s clear, what I’m saying?”
“As mud.”

Miller’s Crossing was released in 1990, written by Joel and Ethan Coen (Joel gets the directing credit, probably because they hadn’t yet earned dispensation from the guild to be credited as a pair). What’s astonishing about this is that it’s very early in their career, and easily the most assured film they had made to date or would make before Fargo in 1996. (If you discount Fargo as a comedy, Miller’s Crossing is arguably their second-best dramatic film, only surpassed by No Country for Old Men and, for me anyway, squeaking ahead of A Serious Man, which is perhaps more thematically interesting but far less entertaining to watch.) The brothers got their start just 6 years earlier with Blood Simple, a cheap little neonoir set in Texas that has the feel of a “one and done”, one of those movies where you go “This was neat, why didn’t this filmmaker ever do anything else?” It would have a better reputation as a cult film, I think, if they hadn’t gone on to craft one of the best filmographies in the history of cinema and overshadowed the freshman effort completely.

After Blood Simple was Raising Arizona, a very quirky, raucous comedy about a kidnapping plot and a baby and stuff. That their next movie would be a dyed-in-the-wool period Irish gangster pastiche must, at the time, have come as a bit of a shock. That it so completely leaves behind the Coens’ early “getting their sea legs” looseness is truly astonishing, and contributes to the way the film feels like it belongs to no time at all. It’s not a 90s movie, it’s not an 80s movie, it doesn’t even really feel like a Coen movie (in fact, it’s the only dramatic pastiche they’ve ever done). It just feels like this artifact, perfect and complete and as seamless as Tom Reagan himself.

I don’t even think Miller’s Crossing feels like it hails from the period it’s depicting–not just because it’s in color, or because it would have to hail from some alternate universe where most of the 30s mobster movies were about Irishmen and Jews, but because of the way it deals with theme. There are some real classic noirs that stand up today because scrutiny reveals them to be much deeper and more interesting, almost in an unconscious way, than their surface level appears–The Big Heat, for instance, is a fairly standard story until you realize the film is very subtly taking its protagonist to task for the way his campaign against crime inevitably results in collateral violence for the women around him. (The Big Heat is not to be confused with The Big Sleep, the Bogart movie where the story is much more about mood and an embodied cool than fancy things like “theme” and “subtext” and “figuring out who killed all the dead people”.) Miller’s Crossing feels like a noir whose unconscious themes keep bubbling up into the text of the movie.

That text, the movie’s actual plot, is pretty fiendishly complex, even once you know it all. The movie works because each individual scene makes sense on its own merits, even if you’re not able to follow the plot wholly. And once you’ve seen it, it’s rewatchable the same way Primer is rewatchable, to tease out all the hidden nuances you didn’t understand the first time. Here’s the beauty of the way the film turns this complex (but comprehensible) sequence of events into a mystery–it starts well, well into the narrative. Conventional screenwriting wisdom says to get into a scene as late as possible (and get out of a scene as early as possible, which makes one wonder if the ideal scene is three seconds long), and to start a script at or just before the inciting incident. But the inciting incident of this script has happened already (the chiseled boxing matches), and we open as tensions threaten to reach a boiling point. By immersing us immediately in a world and a situation (and a vernacular–“I’m sick of getting the high hat!” “Take your flunky and dangle”) that we don’t yet understand, the film has total control over the release of information regarding the one mystery (who is stealing from Caspar, how, and why) and the other (who are these people and what do they want?). Another, more conventional film might have established the characters and the situation while watching some version of Caspar’s boxing scheme imploding, a version that would have to tease and clue and elide a bunch of stuff in order to preserve our ignorance about the facts while still providing a “cold open” to hook us. Instead, Miller’s Crossing essentially elides the entire set-up, and only gives us exposition when absolutely necessary.

This approach to exposition is one of the film’s main techniques and one of its main strengths. Look at, say, a Nolan film (or worse, a Marvel one) and you’ll generally find exposition that’s just pure blocks of information for the audience to choke down like a big ol’ stack of saltines. In Miller’s Crossing, exposition is revealed gradually over time, rather than all at once; it’s given in a natural way with an emotional context; and it’s often disputed elsewhere in the film. Not only do we care about what’s being said, because it reveals something entirely different from the information being directly conveyed, but we’re forced to evaluate the info against things we learn earlier and later in order to come to conclusions. This is how the movie teaches us how to watch it. The chief genius of the film is that the structure of the narrative’s information requires us to make deductions about the mystery, which primes us to examine the second layer down, the motivations of the secondary characters, and from there the final layer of deducing Tom’s thoughts, motivations, and goals. It’s not a terribly emotional film (none of the Coen films are, really, although they’re not as reserved as, say, Kubrick’s), but it’s one of a handful of movies out there that make me use 100% of my brain when I’m watching it.(1)

Here’s an example of the way this exposition works, starting in the second half of the first scene. Caspar has basically had a tantrum upon being told that Leo (Albert Finney), the slightly bigger fish in town protecting the “shmatte” bookie (John Turturro) Caspar believes is selling out his scheme, will not give the bookie up to be killed. Caspar storms out. Tom, who has been observing this whole time (mostly silently–and when he does speak, it’s to his counterpart, Caspar’s right-hand-man, the Dane (J.E. Freeman)), moves over to the couch (which we’ll learn much, much later is part of the film’s mob hierarchy–the mob boss sits behind the desk, while the trusted adviser gets the couch) and passes judgment on Leo’s decision. I think Leo is kind of right to be annoyed at this–he looks to Tom during the discussion with Caspar for advice on which way to go, but Tom gives no indication either way. That said, when Leo announces his decision, Tom looks pretty surprised. Tom, who like us is always looking backwards to try and figure out why the hell somebody did that thing that they just did, won’t realize for a scene or two that Leo has a special reason to protect the bookie–that the shmatte is getting extra protection on behalf of his sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), whom Leo is dating. (Tom is great at figuring out “the angles”, but he sometimes has a problem incorporating emotions into his calculations.) Anyway, Tom and Leo are talking through this in a way that shows the kind of easy-going friendship and trust that they have without putting too fine a point on it–really it’s all in the smiles as they deliver lines to one another that ordinarily would give them no reason to smile–and in there we get this exchange:

Leo: “You got up the wrong side, huh?”
Tom: “Same side as always.”
Leo: “That’s what I mean, still owe money to–who was your bookie, Lazar? I could put it right for you.”
Tom: “Thanks, Leo. I don’t need it.”
Leo: “In a pig’s eye. You haven’t played a winner in six weeks. People’ll speak ill of me if I let him break your legs.”
Tom: “People’ll say I had it coming.”
Leo: “And they’ll be right, but that ain’t the point.”

Not only is this really choice, high-quality USDA dialogue (even better is Tom’s cheerful kiss-off line about how he plans on squaring his own debt, “That’s why God invented cards”), but here we have important exposition delivered with all the techniques I’m talking about. It flows naturally out of the discussion of the Caspar situation, with Leo trying to butter Tom up a bit by offering to pay his debt; it has an emotional context, their friendly back and forth delivery; it establishes the idea of Tom’s debt without getting too detailed about it (we only gradually realize over the course of the movie just how far in the hole Tom really is); and it has that added layer of adding a new mystery with the information. Now we know Tom’s got gambling debts, but we also see him turn down Leo’s offer to pay them off. What’s going on here? How concerned is Tom about his debt, really? And what kind of gangster turns down free money? Who is this guy?

And as Miller’s Crossing cuts to the opening credits and the wild rumpus starts in earnest, that question will drive our experience of the rest of the film. Who is Tom Reagan? What does he want? Why does he do the things that he does? I have an answer, although I’m not sure it’s the correct answer, and indeed the end of the film somewhat repudiates the idea that there is an answer at all (at least textually). I don’t necessarily want to tell you my answer; you should figure it out for yourself.

But I will tell you how the movie develops the question.

Miller’s Crossing is fundamentally an adaptation of a book by Dashiell Hammett, one of the inventors of hard-boiled detective stories. That book is Red Harvest, an oft-adapted story about a detective from out of town who stumbles into a conflict between two rival gangs and ends up playing both sides against the middle. Most notably, Red Harvest‘s influence can be seen in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and therefore in Leone’s Westernized remake of that film, A Fistful of Dollars. In those two movies, mysterious outsiders are eventually revealed to be good-hearted warriors whose schemes eliminate both rival gangs, making the town safe for the ordinary citizens. The Coens’ major innovation here is to make the protagonist, Reagan, a prominent figure in one of the two gangs from the start. His loyalties shift back and forth over the course of the story, and so does his moral standing. Rather than eliminating both gangs to the benefit of the innocent civilians (who aren’t really in the film at all), Reagan helps one gang eliminate the other in a suitably violent fashion. We can’t assume that Reagan is a good guy, because there are no good guys here; at best we have a choice between the psychopathic Caspar and the foolish and hot-headed Leo, with the various other characters caught somewhere in the middle.

Verna, for instance. As the girl Tom’s been sleeping with (while she’s been sleeping with his boss Leo), Marcia Gay Harden throws back every nasty thing Tom says to her and more. Her storyline parallels his–once again the movie teaches us how to watch it, as Tom demonstrates the right questions to ask about a character’s motivations. He suspects she’s sleeping with Leo so that Leo will protect her brother Bernie, but is that all that’s going on there? She’s obviously attracted to Tom, and plays at being as hard as she imagines him to be, while telling him they’re just alike; but late in the film, when she has every reason to kill Tom, she finds herself incapable. (The silent performance Harden gives her as her face shudders and crumples in rage and shame and sorrow is just phenomenal.) But by the end, she’s asked Leo to marry her. Like Tom, it’s hard to say whether she felt this way all along, or changed after Bernie’s death. Her subplot echoes Tom’s main story, reinforcing the idea that people are fundamentally inscrutable–that you can never truly know what’s in another man’s heart.

The dark side of the prospect that a person’s circumstances and words and even behavior don’t necessarily show you the truth of how they feel or what they’ll do is embodied in the film’s true antagonist, Bernie. Caspar rightly pegs the shmatte at the beginning of the film as troublingly unethical, even in the context of gangster morality. Bernie the bookie represents pure self-interest; he shows no affection or loyalty for anyone (even his sister, whom he mocks for her sexual behavior, even though that behavior is in part intended to buy his protection), and simply doesn’t see why he shouldn’t take any advantage he can find, including blackmailing the man who spares his life. Tom spares him in part because he feels pity for Bernie’s helpless pleading and sobbing at the Crossing, but it becomes apparent that Bernie’s sociopathic lack of altruistic sentiment has made him even better than Tom at lying and pretending; later he’ll even mock Tom for falling for it. It’s perhaps the film’s greatest irony that Tom first decides (selflessly) not to annihilate this self-interested man, and then ends up going back on that, murdering Bernie in a deliberate act of extreme self-interest. And then kind of hating himself for it. I think.

In reality, we can’t assume anything about Tom’s motivations, which appear to shift blatantly at certain times and are probably actually shifting at completely different points in the narrative. So like everyone else in the story, we find ourselves studying Tom’s behavior and statements, hoping to discover not just what he’s doing but why he’s doing it and how he feels about all of it.  I’m not sure Tom knows himself, not completely. No man can see what’s under his own hat.

Hats, of course, are one of the film’s two chief symbols–Tom’s hat in particular. It’s so blatantly, obviously a symbol that it’s almost a red herring or a joke, with the film pushing in on Tom’s hat from time to time with meaningful music underneath… except that exactly what it symbolizes is, itself, obscure.(2) Does it represent Tom’s changing roles and falsehoods, which he seems to put on and off as easily as his hat? Is it his honor, a thing he’s literally gambled away as the movie begins? We get the following pivotal-yet-mysterious exchange between Tom and Verna:

Verna: “What’re you chewin’ over?”
Tom Reagan: “Dream I had once. I was walkin’ in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.”
Verna: “And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn’t a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.”
Tom Reagan: “Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”

I think the best answer is that it’s Tom’s identity, his sense of self. As the story goes on and Tom gets embroiled into this gang war, gets more involved in both the potential for violence and the certainty of betrayal, I think what he really risks is changing, becoming somebody different. Or maybe just finding out who he really is.

Either way, this brings us to the film’s second and more easily understandable symbol, Miller’s Crossing itself. In literal terms, the Crossing is the wooded path where Caspar’s men and Tom take Bernie the bookie, where they intend Tom to kill him. In figurative terms, the Crossing is a place of literal and metaphorical death–literal, because both Bernie and Tom will at different points confront the prospect of their own mortality there–and metaphorical because it is here, in this moment, that Tom will discover who he really is, what he really has in him. He’s an adviser, a manipulator, not a killer. Does he really have it in him to murder Bernie in cold blood, to pull the trigger with his own hand? This is the key moment in the film–and then, fascinatingly, the conclusions here are later reversed. Tom’s decision is morally correct, even noble; but it turns out not to be the most pragmatic choice, and the ensuing consequences and complications force Tom to reconsider his approach to extricating himself from the situation he’s in. Although we’ve seen him lie, and bully, and betray his friends, and all other sorts of terrible things, by the end of the film it’s this second decision that seems to truly disgust him. Did he think he was above it all? Did he always have this in him, or did circumstances force him to become the person he was pretending to be?

Whether he wants to or not, Tom does change over the course of the film, at least in terms of his ability to understand himself. At the beginning of Miller’s Crossing, he tells Leo, “We do things for a reason.” At the end, Tom asks, “I don’t know. You always know why you do things?” Somewhere in between, his hat just blew away. No point in chasing it now.

1 – I’ve already mentioned Primer, but more on the mystery side of things, the Alfredson Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy also requires a beautifully fearsome level of intellectual engagement in order to comprehend it fully. On the other hand, this can go too far–I think I gave up utterly about 70 minutes into Inherent Vice and just let the plot, like, wash over me, dude.

2 – In this sense the hat presages the box in the Coens’ next film, Barton Fink. Sometimes this particular writerly affectation can be pretentious, but at best it works like the dream safes in Inception, acting like a blank space that invites the audience to fill it with their understanding of the movie’s themes.