“Miller’s Crossing”: Your “Hail, Caesar!” Salve

You check out Hail, Caesar! this weekend? The Conflicted Film Snob did. And as a fan of the Coen brothers since their 1984 noirish debut, Blood Simple,* I had high hopes for the film, this despite the unusually long review embargo (they didn’t start appearing until just a couple days before release) and subsequent reviews (generally lukewarm).**

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*That was indeed a blatant and snobbish name-drop. **With certain exceptions, of course, most notably this one by The New Yorker‘s hirsute film writer Richard Brody, who, in the tradition of his predecessor, Pauline Kael, prides himself on going against the grain, offering up effusive praise for films roundly considered mediocre. (For more evidence, please see the inexplicable love-fest that was his review of Judd Apatow’s This is 40. The entire Apatow canon, for that matter.)


So, want to know what I thought about the film? Well, you’re just going to have to keep wondering. Because I don’t critique the current cinema. That’s for others to do, including Michael Phillips, the fine Chicago Tribune movie critic whose recent review was spot-on, in my humble opinion.

No, I try to accomplish other things with this blog, such as blather about the myriad film-related things that have calcified in my brain over the years, chunks of which oftentimes get dislodged after viewing a current release. 

Know what Hail, Caesar! dislodged? (Other than a sharp pang of disappointment):

That it’s been far too long since I watched my favorite Coen brothers’ movie, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing.

Know it? I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. Not because I think you’re dumb or anything (are you, though? Remember, acceptance is the first step towards recovery), but rather because the average movie-goer is likely less familiar with the Coen’s earlier work, which includes the aforementioned Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and their first real auteurist triumph, the Palme d’Or-winning Barton Fink (1991):

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No, your average movie-going Joe is more likely to know the critically acclaimed films that followed, including Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Or perhaps some of their not-so-critically acclaimed movies, such as Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers.

Regarding the earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, we see the emergence of a cinematic style that can best be described as quirky. Take, for instance, Blood Simple, the Coen’s clever neo-noir, which, despite featuring adultery, murder, double-crosses, attempted cover-up, the confounding nature of blood (it’s hard to clean up), incorrect assumptions, mistaken identity, alive burial and the gruesome image of M. Emmet Walsh’s hand pinned by a knife to a window sill like a butterfly on a collector’s cork-board, the film oozes with eccentricity. Be it the writing, the performances, the cinematography, the staging, the editing–it all has a certain tongue-in-cheek quality, as if the Coens, a couple unassuming Minnesota boys, wanted to make damn well sure they wouldn’t be accused of pretension. Hell, they can’t even take dying seriously, as evidenced by the film’s wonderful last shot featuring a cackling, mortally wounded character staring up at the underside of a sink while saying, “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

As for their incredibly fun (and endlessly quotable) second film, Raising Arizona (1987), what can one say other than everything about it–from the yodel-heavy score to the hyperkinetic camerawork to the peculiar line deliveries to the general premise–is the embodiment of wry, quirky silliness:

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Which brings us, finally, to Miller’s Crossing, the 1990 gangster film in which the Coen brothers’ style evolved from that of a pair of talented Midwestern guys content to entertain themselves (and us) with genre exercises both gnarly (Blood Simple) and silly (Raising Arizona) to that of a pair of filmmakers serious about displaying a more mature appreciation of their art. Not that Miller’s Crossing isn’t without some of the Coen’s earlier quirks–they’re not above the occasional bloody gunshot wound or, more technically, whip pans–but their technique is generally more refined, as if suddenly they understood there was a finite amount of pleasure to be derived from treating the camera dolly like a rollercoaster or writing in the hayseed vernacular. In a nutshell, Miller’s Crossing marks their first truly grown-up movie.

Its plot is set in motion thusly:

At a meeting between Irish-American mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and rival Italian upstart Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), tempers flare when Leo refuses to grant permission for the execution of Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a bookie who, according to Caspar, has been enriching himself by revealing to the gambling circuit when fights have been fixed by Caspar.

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When Casper eventually leaves in a huff, Leo’s trusted advisor, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), makes clear that it was a bad play to refuse the request–Bernie isn’t worth the possible war that might erupt between Leo and Caspar as a result, which is exactly what happens. So why was Leo was hesitant to OK the killing? It seems he’s courting Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). And killing the brother of your girlfriend traditionally doesn’t go over very well. You know what else doesn’t go over very well? The fact that Tom is having an affair with Verna under Leo’s nose.

And so, with that set-up, loyalties are tested. And sides are switched. And punches are thrown. And hairpieces are stolen. And guns are fired. And hats are knocked askew. And much blood is spilled, graphically. Who will still be standing at the end?

I guess you’ll have to rent the movie to find out.

So what, you ask, is it about Miller’s Crossing that I dig so much?

Well, I could point to the performances, all uniformly excellent:

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And how much I admire the score, courtesy Coen-brother regular Carter Burwell, music you’ve probably heard many times without realizing it.

And then there’s Barry Sonnenfeld’s*** burnished cinematography, his lighting choices making every chocolatey piece of stained wood, every creamy piece of leather furniture look good enough to eat:

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***Yeah, the very same Barry Sonnenfeld who went on to become a famous director in his own right, helming such movies as The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black. Which, fortuitously, opened the door for the great Roger Deakins to become the Coen’s go-to cinematographer.


And then there’s that beautifully constructed set piece involving a failed assassination attempt on Leo as he smokes a cigar and listens to a recording of “Danny Boy” on the Victrola while lying in bed:

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And who can forget that fraught scene in which Tom, to prove his loyalty to Caspar, is forced to march Bernie into the woods and put a bullet in his brain (“Look in your heart, Tom!”):

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And finally there’s that running gag involving Tom’s inability to keep his hat on his head, something he hates with a passion (“Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat”), as illustrated in this clip compilation found on YouTube:

But you want to know what really makes the movie for me? The dialogue. In scene after scene Miller’s Crossing features the most beautiful language, a master class in rhythm and texture and humor and irony. A real tour de force, something that all we creative hacks aspire to. 

Take, for instance, the aforementioned opening scene, the fateful meeting between Leo and Caspar and listen to how its language ebbs and flows, how effortlessly it establishes the personality of the Caspar character, and how hilariously ironic it is:

Caspar:

I’m talking about friendship. I’m talking about character. I’m talking about–hell, Leo, I’m ain’t embarrassed to use the word–I’m talking about ethics. You know I’m a sporting man. I like to lay the occasional bet. But I ain’t that sporting. When I fix a fight, say I pay a 3-to-1 favorite to throw a goddamned fight, I figure I got the right to expect that fight to go off at 3-to-1. But every time I lay a bet with the son of a bitch Bernie Bernbaum, before I know it the odds is even up, or worse I’m betting on the short money. The sheeny knows I like sure things, he’s selling the information I fix the fight. Out of town money comes pouring in, the odds go straight to hell. I don’t know who he’s selling to, maybe Los Angeles combine, I don’t know. The point is, Bernie ain’t satisfied with the honest dollar he can make off the VIG. He ain’t satisfied with the business I do on his book. He is selling tips on how I bet. And that means part of payout that should be riding on my hip is riding on somebody else’s. So, back we go to these questions. Friendship. Character. Ethics. So it’s clear what I’m saying?

Leo

…as mud.

Casper

It’s getting so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can’t trust the fix, what can you trust? For a good return you got to go bettin’ on chance. And then you’re back with anarchy. Right back in the jungle. That’s why ethics is important, what separates us from the animals, the beasts of burden, the beasts of prey. Ethics. Whereas Bernie is a horse of a different color, ethics-wise. As in he ain’t got any.

Leo

So you wanna kill him?

The Dane [Caspar’s enforcer]

For starters.

And then, same scene, after Caspar has gone:

Tom

Think about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Casper losses us.

Leo

Come on, Tommy, you know I don’t like to think.

Tom

Yeah, well, think about whether you should start.

The Conflicted Film Snob can’t get enough of it. Which is good because each viewing reveals something new in terms of dialogue and plot. 

So forget Hail, Caesar! Spend you hard earned dollars on Miller’s Crossing. Which is available on Blu-ray (Conflicted Film Snob preferred home video format) and various streaming outlets.

Here’s the trailer:

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