Miller's Crossing (United States, 1990)

July 17, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Miller's Crossing Poster

Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ third film (following Blood Simple and Raising Arizona) introduced the kind of comedically-tinged approach they would employ for some of their darkest and most compelling films, including the critically-lauded Fargo and the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. A combined homage to the gangster films of the 1930s and the noir thrillers of the 1940s, Miller’s Crossing boasts intelligent, witty dialogue delivered by accomplished actors, a blood-soaked saga of Prohibition-era criminals double-crossing one another, and a gallery of offbeat characters who never fail to lose the essential humanity underlying their quirks.

At the time when Miller’s Crossing was released, audiences still didn’t really know who the Coens were. Blood Simple, although an art-house darling, never achieved mainstream acceptance (its lifetime gross was shy of $4M). The hilarious comedy Raising Arizona played in more theaters and made more money but it didn’t really break through until it was on video. Those familiar with the Coens didn’t know quite what to make of Miller’s Crossing. Those who didn’t know a “Coen” from a “Cohen” promptly dismissed the film. It was a box office failure. Critical reception, middling at the time, has improved significantly during the nearly 30 years since the film’s September 1990 release.

The movie doesn’t specify an exact time or place, but it’s set in the late 1920s (possibly 1929) in a major city (possibly New York). Control of the city rests in the iron grip of kingpin Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), whose domination is so firm that even the mayor and police commissioner take their marching orders from him. He is being challenged by an upstart, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), whose strict code of ethics prevents him from betraying allies and whose ferocious henchman, Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman), enforces his will with a fist and a gun. Caught between these two bosses is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Bryne), whose assets are between his ears not in his hands. He doesn’t own a gun and is routinely pummeled in fights yet his counsel is sought by Leo and Johnny. He works for the former – while sleeping with his girlfriend, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) – but Johnny is keen to recruit him and, to that end, makes Tom an offer he can’t refuse.

When a falling-out with Leo (over Verna) leaves Tom in a precarious position, Johnny sees his opportunity. Before agreeing to admit Tom to his crew, however, he has a job for his rival’s former right-hand man. Verna’s disagreeable brother, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), has stolen from Johnny and this act can’t go unpunished. Bernie is currently being protected by Leo. Tom’s assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to take a couple of thugs with him and rub out Bernie. The final shot is expected to be delivered by Tom in the middle of the woods at a place called Miller’s Crossing.

Miller’s Crossing may be beloved more by movie buffs because of the volume of earlier films it references than because of its storyline or personalities. Staying true to its roots, the film doesn’t seek to re-invent the genre. The snappy dialogue (which is occasionally a little too smart for its own good), witty repartee, and strongly delineated characters are obvious strengths but the plot, although not predictable, is in keeping with what one expects from this sort of a movie. Later in their careers, the Coens would become known for flouting conventions; they weren’t at that point yet when they made Miller’s Crossing. That being said, the movie never fails to engage; it moves briskly, sweeping the viewer along for an easily digested two hours.

Directly or indirectly, the Coens reference at least a half-dozen films: 1932’s Scarface, The Glass Key, The Third Man (during the funeral scene), Rear Window (the name “Lars Thorwald”), Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, The Godfather (opening meeting between Leo and Johnny), and Once Upon a Time in America (ringing phone). One doesn’t have recognize all (or any) of these references to fully enjoy Miller’s Crossing but, for film buffs, they add another layer of appreciation.

As is sometimes the case with the Coen Brothers, the decision was made to populate the cast with accomplished character actors rather than trying to score a “name” or two. (Arguably, the first major star to appear in one of their movies was Paul Newman in The Hudsucker Proxy.) This focus on performance quality over marquee recognition is one reason why Miller’s Crossing is a goldmine of strong, memorable portrayals: the steely intensity of Gabriel Byrne, the salty sensuality of Marcia Gay Harden, the unflappability of Albert Finney, and the simmering violence of J.E. Freeman. Arguably, the film’s standout is John Turturro as the sleazy Bernie – the first of many performances he would give for the Coens as their mutual careers evolved. Steve Buscemi has a small role as the fast-talking Mink, and there are cameos for Sam Raimi and an uncredited Frances McDormand.

Miller’s Crossing has its share of moments that highlight the filmmakers’ love of the offbeat. On one occasion, children playing in an alley come across a corpse. Before rushing off to inform the authorities, they remove the dead man’s hairpiece. Later, a badly beaten man begins barking/shouting for no apparent reason. Then there’s the “Danny Boy” attempted assassination, in which Albert Finney gets to play a character who would be at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie. (Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, was about to start production around the time that Miller’s Crossing was released.)

When one looks back at the careers of the Coens, certain films come immediately to mind. Miller’s Crossing isn’t among them. However, although history has labeled it as one of their “minor” works, it has stood the test of time better than 90% of what was released in 1990 and proves to be as entertaining in its own way as any of their other early works. Miller’s Crossing is an excellent hybrid gangster/neo-noir film that delivers with both barrels, giving a preview of the biting wit and suspense that would characterize the brothers’ best non-comedies during the years to come.

Miller's Crossing (United States, 1990)

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Albert Finney, Steve Buscemi
Home Release Date: 2019-07-16
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1990-09-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1