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‘Miller’s Crossing’ (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 05, 1990
"Miller's Crossing" is brooding, dark and as coldly gleaming as gun metal. A gangster noir movie written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it is a grim classic to admire if not to love, a Dashiell Hammett-style jigsaw of hard-boiled argot, dame troubles and existential dread. As violent as the streets of Washington, this Prohibition-era drama -- "a dirty town movie," the Coens call it -- is more than a little at home as a blood-and-pulp parable for these times.
Gabriel Byrne is the quintessential noir loner, a moralist whose Bambi eyes belie his tough guy's air. Adhering to a twisted chivalric code, he is Bogart by way of Dublin, a rigid man of honor among thieves. And "Miller's Crossing" is very much a story of honor among thieves. In its hard heart of hearts, it is a masterfully written and visually unsettling study in manly love.
In the leading role of Tom, Byrne is torn -- make that shredded -- between his fedora-covered head and his scabbed-over heart. The hat, symbolic of Tom's quandary, leads a life of its own, blowing off in the wind, then magically reappearing on the stair. Like many a Hammett hero, Tom would keep everything under his hat, if only he could keep it on his handsome head. And it's no accident that the movie's moll, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), wins it from him in a game of chance. Love's a gamble and Tom, in debt to the local loan shark, has a record as a loser.
Verna is the boss's girl, a classic put-your-lips-together-and-blow broad, a heart-melting icicle queen with cast-iron defense mechanisms and finger-waved hair. Good at taking care of herself, she talks in catty claw-and-scratch. "Intimidating helpless women is part of my job," says Tom, grabbing her arm. "Well, go out and find one and intimidate her," Verna returns. Naturally Tom, hat tipped back over his glossy waves, wants her even more. Now he's caught between his duty to his boss, Leo (Albert Finney), and Verna's silken allure.
Tom is Leo's closest adviser and the older man loves him, in his hood's way, like the son he's never had. But he's even crazier about Verna. "You don't like her, Tom, but I trust her as much as I trust you," says Leo. And so Tom confesses a night with Verna and the partnership is dissolved. Tom signs on with Leo's rival, the hotheaded Italian Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who orders him to ice Verna's odious brother, Bernie (John Turturro), a bookie under Leo's protection.
"It's getting so a businessman can't expect a return on a fixed fight," complains Caspar, whose priorities aren't really all that unlike those of certain S&L chieftains. A little kingpin with an inferiority complex, he is easily manipulated by Tom, who convinces him that his henchman Dane (J.E. Freeman) is in cahoots with Bernie, allegedly Dane's homosexual lover. Whether straight or gay, the brutes find it impossible to cope with their feelings, which erupt in a volley of bullets and bashed brains.
"Miller's Crossing" explores that tension between cold blood and white heat in a thunderclap of venom and gunfire. If Tom's heart is pierced at all, it is merely for taking the pulse of the times. The Coens are playing a controlling game, the same as their cast of characters, and control frustrates passion, irrevocably. Love among these gangsters is a hard-luck affair.
But casting noir is another matter altogether. The Coens always get their girl, whether she is Frances McDormand of "Blood Simple," Holly Hunter of "Raising Arizona" or Harden here. All of them are astonishingly fierce actresses who approach their roles with quirky zeal. Harden, eloquent as the cheap satin moll, is an alumna of the stage, like most others in this explosive company. Finney, Byrne and Polito, to varying degrees, all seem capable of nuclear hatred. And do they ever blow.
"Miller's Crossing" is as disturbing and densely beautiful as its opening image, a lofty forest that dwarfs the gangsters as they laugh over their kill. There is an uncompromising magic about this primeval setting, until it comes over you like a wolf's shadow that this is where the brutal truly belong.
"Miller's Crossing" is rated R for graphic violence.
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