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  • Post last modified:September 18, 2022

Miller’s Crossing: Whispering in Ears


Gabriel Byrne. Photo: 20th Century Fox

The first truly great film by the Coen brothers came on the trail of impressive features like the noir thriller Blood Simple. (1984) and the crime comedy Raising Arizona (1987). I would listen to anyone making the argument that especially the latter film is more original, but I still feel that Miller’s Crossing is even better because of how entertaining it is and how deftly the brothers weave inevitable influences into their tale of a Prohibition-era power struggle. As the story unfolds, one’s attention never wavers.

Sleeping with the boss’s girlfriend
In a big city somewhere in the United States during Prohibition, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) controls everything, from the mayor on down. His closest confidante is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), but Leo has no idea that Tom is actually sleeping with Leo’s girlfriend, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Her brother Bernie (John Turturro) becomes the spark that ignites a mob war between O’Bannon and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito); Bernie is a bookie who’s been skimming off of a scheme that Caspar’s gang were running. Tom wants Leo to simply give Bernie up to his rival, regardless of how Verna feels about it, but Leo hesitates.

After an assassination attempt on Leo, Tom pressures him harder, but his strategy causes a violent rupture between him and Leo. Now, Tom needs Caspar’s support…

Overcoming writer’s block
The idea of a right-hand man whispering in the ear of powerful men, trying to cause a clash between them, is far from novel. One obvious predecessor here is Yojimbo (1961), but in fact the Coen brothers were more directly inspired by the novel that Kurosawa probably also had read, Dashiell Hammett’s ”The Glass Key”, as well as his ”Red Harvest” that also influenced Yojimbo. There are many other novels and films of the gangster genre that attracted the Coen brothers as they spent a lot of time trying to get the story right, overcoming writer’s block. Visually, one of the greatest inspirations is a film by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Doulos (1963), that features a memorable shot of a gangster’s fedora in the forest.

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld stages equally striking scenes here, taking us through the chaos of a Prohibition-era city where the police won’t do anything without the permission of the mob boss currently in charge, to the silence of the forest just outside town where you go to get rid of a body, listening to the wind in the trees before the inevitable gun shot. The fedora we see belongs to Tom, the guy who’s constantly playing a game, often coming close to being defeated by someone who’s either smarter or bolder; Byrne is terrifically subdued in that role. Watching Finney as the Irish mob boss is a treat, not least in that sharply directed scene where Caspar’s assassins attack his home and he defends it with unflappable calm; Turturro and Polito are also marvelous as the insidious bookie and the Italian gangster who can’t stand being given the high hat.

The story takes place in an unnamed city, but much of the film was shot in New Orleans, a place where the crew found plenty of buildings that looked right in a Prohibition-era movie; turns out it was the right scene for colorful Mafia showdowns.

There’s also Carter Burwell’s ominous music score and the brothers’ black humor.

So, a lot of influences from different places, but in the end Miller’s Crossing is distinctly Coen-esque, from what kind of characters they put in their movie to what type of story and symbolism they’re focusing on. There’s also Carter Burwell’s ominous music score and the brothers’ black humor, a necessary part of the dialogue as well as the unlikely turn of events that Tom stumbles through. 

Miller’s Crossing 1990-U.S. 115 min. Color. Produced by Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld. Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Albert Finney (Liam ”Leo” O’Bannon), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman… Michael Jeter, Steve Buscemi. Cameos: Frances McDormand, Sam Raimi.

Trivia: The Coen brothers wrote Barton Fink while also struggling with this script. The role of the Dane was originally written for Peter Stormare. 

Last word: “I think when the film came out it was really underrated. There’s laugh-out-loud moments in that movie, whereas on paper, it didn’t necessarily read that way. When Albert Finney turns around says ‘They took his hair, Tommy. They took his hair!’ And of course, we’d just seen the kid run off with the guy’s rug in the earlier scene. I asked the Coens what their inspiration was to write the film, and I forget whether it was Joel or Ethan who said to me: ‘You always see gangsters in the street, but you never see them in a forest.’ I just thought that was so brilliant.” (Byrne, Cinephilia & Beyond)

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