When the Asheville Film Society started in May 2010, the first film run was the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple(1984), and there’s been a Coen Brothers movie every May since. This year it’s their 1990 classic Miller’s Crossing, which usually gets my vote as their best film. (OK, so depending on my mood, it sometimes has to go best two-out-of-three falls with Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it’s always in the running.) I think it is perhaps their most successful blend of the serious and the darkly comic, of straightforward story-telling and stylization for its own sake — plus, it has subtext for days. It’s also the film that brought me back to the Coens, since their 1987 comedy Raising Arizona – yes, I know it is highly regarded by many — made me decide that Blood Simple was a fluke.
Miller’s Crossing is film noir fiction of the 1930s variety established by writer Dashiell Hammett. In fact, it owes so much to Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key that it’s a wonder the Hammett estate didn’t sue. At the same time, the material is so clearly filtered to fit the Coens’ sensibilities that it feels fresh and personal. The action takes place in an unnamed thoroughly corrupt Prohibition era town that is controlled by gangster boss Leo (Albert Finney) with the help of his right hand man Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne). Into this “idlyllic” set-up comes dissention when lower-level racketeer Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) is double-crossed by small-time grifter Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) and wants Leo to “take care of” Bernie — something Leo refuses because he’s stuck on Bernie’s sister, Vera (Marcia Gay Harden), who as it happens is sleeping with Tom. (Nearly everyone in the movie — apart from Leo and Caspar — seems to be sleeping with people they oughtn’t.)
This ultimately leads to all-out gang warfare, Tom’s break with Leo, and more double crosses than can be easily processed — and that’s not even considering the homoerotic subtext of the feelings between Leo and Tom. The film is less about the romance between Tom and Verna, or the romance between Verna and Leo—except in the fact that Tom and Leo connect through the same woman—than it is about the romance between Tom and Leo. Oh, there’s nothing to indicate even briefly that this is acted on (though there are several bits of suggestive dialogue, and Leo likens dealing with Tom to “handling” a woman), but their relationship is at the core of the film. (Interestingly enough, however, homosexuality is an accepted fact of life in the world of the film—seemingly more accepted than being Jewish, in fact.) At the same time, the film never forgets that it’s also a sardonic neo-noir gangster story with a wicked sense of humor and unfettered violence. Few emotionally deep films are this purely entertaining, and few entertaining films are this deep. It’s an extraordinary work on every level.
The whole film is faultless in its period detail and atmosphere, and all the performances are spot-on. The gangland argot and popular slang is perfect and delivered perfectly by a dream cast. And the Coens are at the peak of their creative powers in their cinematic creativity. Nearly every shot and every camera move is thrilling, while the scene where Caspar’s henchmen try to bump off Leo is perhaps the finest thing the Coens ever did.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Miller’s Crossing Tuesday, May 20, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.