Forgotten Gem: Miller’s Crossing (*****) catching a star on the rise

Miller’s Crossing – 1991

Director Joel Coen
Screenplay Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J. E. Freeman, Albert Finney, Steve Buscemi

So many times I had a chance to see this film. So many times I didn’t see this film. For the longest time, I avoided it because I just didn’t like most of the other films I had tried to watch by the Cohens. Blood Simple is dry. Raising Arizona is great and quirky.

When it first came out, Miller’s Crossing. looked like a time period mobster piece. I took a pass because Goodfellas took over my world by then, even blocking out The Godfather Trilogy. Then I saw part of Barton Fink, which just went by me. Then I saw The Hudsucker Proxy. It felt like the Coen Brothers were in love with their own brand of humor and various shades of the color brown.

By the time Fargo came out, I enjoyed it. Waited to watch The Big Lebowski until after I was a father. O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? was enjoyable too. I was finally getting it. But I forgot about Miller’s Crossing entirely by then. Goodfellas still loomed large enough to blot it out.

A respected friend brought it up this week and a light turned on. I bought a copy. Over two nights and two complete viewings I understand what it is I have been missing.

The story is about Tom Reagan (Byrne), lead man in the Irish mob unit run by Leo O’Bannon (Finney) in an unnamed U.S. City. His most often used phrase is “I’ll think about it,” when everyone around him is ready to jump. Right off the bat he’s asked to see the side of two bosses, neither of which want what seems prudent. Even so, he becomes embroiled in the emerging dissension between them.

Part of this is due to his own decision to sleep with Leo’s girl, Verna Bernbaum (Harden). Whether he’s doing this out of feelings for her or to keep tabs on her for Leo is difficult to tell. The other mob boss, Johnny Caspar (Polito) wants Verna’s brother Bernie (Turturro) to pay for perceived double crossings with his life “…to begin with.” Leo, of course, can’t have the brother of his girl killed.

I will go no further into this somewhat convoluted but still crisp story. What I can say it the film is incredibly well acted by everyone, even folks like Freeman and Polito who never would have significant parts before or after this.

Gabriel Byrne is in another league, though. His Tom Reagan is a master study on the craft. In one of the most verbose films in recent memory, his reluctance to talk is what I will remember most about the performance. Even so, we can almost always tell which way he’s leaning. Almost.

His cool in the most chaotic of situations gives the viewer a chance to experience a heightened state of fear when the situation demands the feeling. We do this not based on any words he does or does not say, but in the fact that he begins to convulse. After all he’s been through, the moment this happens is the moment we understand the stakes have changed. This film should have made Byrne a huge star. Why it didn’t is a mystery.

Still there is one more performance that outshines even Byrne’s. That is the cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld. His camera lens, often a wide scope that actively moves in on its subject in a frenetic manner, becomes longer and more dispassionate in this film, for maybe the only time in his film career of which I am aware. The effect is chilling.


His work as a cinematographer speaks volumes. Of the nine films in which he worked the camera, seven are undisputed classics and none of these films are even close to bad. The classics include:

  • Raising Arizona
  • Throw Momma from the Train
  • Big
  • When Harry Met Sally…
  • Miller’s Crossing
  • Misery

It’s a murderer’s row of cinema at the time. He would go on to direct even more great films, like The Addams Family duo, The Men In Black Trilogy. One more classics in Get Shorty. There were other, not so successful films, but his movies never lacked for things to enjoy visually, even if the screenplay material didn’t match up with his talent behind the lens.

His work in Miller’s Crossing stands out stands out for the contrast with the rest of his career. Even if this was the only film he’d ever made, it still stands out. He is still able to capture the absurdity of the Coen’s humor in the raid scenes and the stylish noir of the hats and cigarette smoke. He is then able to seamlessly move the camera back to take in the most tense of situations with a style that evokes fear with its coldness. Then there are moments of passion, where the camera moves in to show violence in a jarring fashion. The combination of styles creates a world that is both irresistible and loathsome.

Miller’s Crossing continues the Coen’s incredible partnership with Carter Burwell. The title work here plays off of an Irish folk ballad “Lament for Limerick,” making the tune a haunting presence throughout the film. It threads throughout the film like a snake, slowly wrapping around the conscience of the viewer. Every trip out to the fabled location of the title becomes more dreadful until something just breaks.

This film is a definite display of two of the best filmmakers of their time in Joel and Ethan Coen. They show all of the range that would later be used to make some of the films which I really enjoyed, even if there were still those weird one offs that still haven’t grabbed me. If I only got on board at the time, perhaps I could have enjoyed this particular ride a little sooner. But I never look forward to looking back with regret. For now, I will just thank my friend Andy for leading me back to Miller’s Crossing.

(***** out of *****)

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