hat's the rumpus?"

This rumpled line echoes through "Miller's Crossing," the new period film by Joel and Ethan Coen. It also seemed apropos two weeks ago when the Coens attended a special screening of the film in Washington to benefit FilmFest DC, three days after having opened the New York Film Festival.

The Brothers Coen dutifully showed up for a post-screening party at Rossini's, temporarily transformed into a rumpus room for cinema buffs. Looking more like guys who spend too much time at the movies than guys who make them, they didn't work particularly hard at feigning indifference, sequestering themselves at a corner table and fading into cocktail anonymity -- Joel, 35, with his long, lazy black mane and the puzzled expression of an unresolved undergrad, and the close-cropped Ethan, 33, evincing the quizzical mien of the perennial postgrad.

What was the rumpus?

"To tell you the truth, we haven't been thinking about this one for a while," said Joel, who directs from collaborative scripts written with Ethan, who produces. "We've already shot, and have started editing, the next one."

The next one, "Barton Fink," will be the fourth in the Coen oeuvre, following their 1984 debut, the stylish Tex-noir "Blood Simple," 1987's screwball dramedy "Raising Arizona" and, now "Miller's Crossing," a '20s gangster tale filled with convoluted plot twists, ever-shifting loyalties, variable ethics and the most richly nuanced dialogue this side of David Mamet.

Obviously, the Coens are not interested in repeating themselves, or anyone else for that matter. Still, if one looks for "Miller's Crossing" antecedents, they can be found in the occasional celluloid classic -- "The Big Sleep," "The Maltese Falcon" -- and novels by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

"We weren't inordinately fond of that genre of movie," Ethan says pointedly. "We were inordinately fond of that genre of detective fiction."

Actually, "Miller's Crossing" was inspired by two Hammett works: "Red Harvest" provided the subtextual setting, a corrupt city seemingly inhabited only by underworld factions, while "The Glass Key" offered up the plot motor, an aging political boss and his young adviser both in love with the same woman.

"Hammett is probably the primary inspiration for the movie in terms of the tone, the genre, its being set in a sort of corrupt town and, to a certain extent, the nature of the hero," Joel concedes, "in the same sort of way that James M. Cain was a very big influence on us when we were making 'Blood Simple' and wanted to do a story that worked in a 'Cain way.' In this case, it's something that's a lot closer to the way Hammett wrote."

Indeed, "Miller's Crossing" has the melancholy ambiance and narrative density of good genre fiction -- unlike most period novels, much less period films, the Coens got it right, period. For one thing, their approach was less literal than go-figurative. "It's sort of borrowed from all over," says Ethan, "from Chandler novels and all those hard-boiled novels ... various remembered expressions. ..." (The Coens had to provide foreign distributors with a glossary to help focus their subtitles.)

Where "Blood Simple" was a macabre menage a` trois (or quatre), "Miller's Crossing" is a veritable orgy of death, deceit and double crosses that might seem ludicrous in a contemporary setting. By setting it in 1929, in an unnamed Eastern city (it was actually shot in New Orleans), the Coens are able to spirit the audience away with an unspoken "Once upon a time ... "

"It makes the world automatically more fictional and allows you greater license in certain areas," says Joel. "For instance, in 'Miller's Crossing' a lot of the slang is pretty authentic, but also a lot of it's made up, and you couldn't do that in a contemporary film -- at least not and get away with it."

Thankfully, the Coens have been getting away with it for years now, ever since they abandoned their native Minnesota for New York, where Joel attended the New York University film school and Ethan attended Princeton, philosophically. Like pal Sam ("Darkman") Raimi, they had wasted many wonderful hours making Super 8 films in and around Minneapolis, where their parents were university professors (of economics and fine arts, two solid albeit indirect bases for the brothers' approach to filmmaking).

In the early '80s they wrote "Blood Simple" as both a script and a prospectus, filmed a slick make-believe trailer though it was only a paper movie, and managed to raise $1.5 million from investors back in Minneapolis. Fortuitously, it was one of the first films picked up by the brand new Washington-based Circle Releasing Corp., a partnership between Ted and Jim Pedas (of Circle Theatre empire fame) and New York distributor Ben Barenholtz (originator of the midnight movie format).

Less of a whodunit than a whydunit, "Blood Simple" was not a huge box-office success, but it did land on many critics' Top Ten lists in 1985, and established the Coens as independent filmmakers with promises to keep. Joel had edited Raimi's "Evil Dead," and that year the Coens ended up co-writing a film that he directed. Titled "The XYZ Murders" (changed later to "Crimewave"), it would have been Raimi's first mainstream studio film. Unfortunately, the studio wrested control from Raimi, and the film was not only bungled in the making but virtually abandoned in the theaters. The Coens act surprised that someone has actually seen it.

"It was a good lesson in maintaining a certain amount of independence," Joel says, pointing out that "there's some fun stuff in it, definitely. We've always thought that we'd sort of let Sam make the mistakes for us, watch what happens and learn from that. He made 'Evil Dead' before we made 'Blood Simple,' and we sort of looked at his experience with that."

Adds Ethan, "Sam's like that bird in the cage {that you put} in a cave so you can see if there's gas down there. When we hear Sam screaming, we run in the other direction and leave him there to strangle on the gas fumes."

This is said lovingly, and in fact Raimi and the Coens (who once shared a house) have touched each other's films in subtle ways. A grizzled Raimi does a cameo in "Miller's Crossing" as the Snickering Gunman.

"He was very good, wasn't he?" says Ethan.

" 'Young Jack Ruby,' we called him," Joel adds appreciatively.

Raimi's cameo ends quickly when he's machine-gunned to death. Lovingly.

"Raising Arizona," released in 1987, was as surrealistically comic as "Blood Simple" was somber. Made for $6 million, it took in $22 million and established the Coens' commercial prospects without damaging their artistic reputation. Some critics heralded a new wave of American filmmakers that included the Coens, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Wayne Wang. Asked if they saw themselves as part of that wave, Ethan says, "I really don't think about it."

"But he's asking you to think about it now," his older brother prods, to little avail.

"I don't know," Ethan says after a while. "One would be hard pressed to describe it if there is one. People really are different."

Neither are the Coens particularly anxious to talk about the "meaning" in their movies, much less read film critics' interpretations of same.

"It's getting less and less interesting," Ethan says. "With 'Blood Simple,' I read everything that I knew was around. You see your name in the papers... ."

"And whether it's good or bad, it's really a kick," Joel adds.

"Now it's not so goddam funny anymore," Ethan says with a chuckle.

"It is getting less fascinating," Joel finishes, dryly.

If the Coen brothers benefit from the support of the critical community, they are even more fortunate in their relationship with Circle Releasing. Jim Pedas praised the Coens before the FilmFest crowd for always bringing their films in "on time and under budget," which may explain why they've been coveted by several studios, and also why this Circle remains unbroken.

"You just couldn't be in business with better people," Ethan says. "We made an arrangement several films ago: {Circle} said, 'You go out and do what you want and we'll sell the movies.' They commit to financing the movie regardless of what happens in their discussions with the studios {20th Century Fox so far}. It's going to get made because they're interested and it's not contingent upon a studio's interest."

Adds Joel, "The studios have respected that sort of arrangement. We've not had any problems in keeping the creative control in our own hands."

Such largess is rare in the film world, though Ethan observes that "nobody gives us a blank check. We give {Circle} a script and a budget and they know we're going to deliver something that resembles that script for some price that basically resembles that budget."

"It's trust on both ends," says Joel. "They trust us to give them what we said we were going to give them, and we trust them to go out and make a deal that makes sense as far as exploiting the movie is concerned."

"Most studios make deals based on script, budget and cast, which we're never in a position to present to the Pedases," Ethan explains. "Once we get a commitment from them, then we go out and cast whomever we want."

Unlike other filmmakers, the Coens seem entirely satisfied with their budgets. "Barton Fink," for instance, will have a lower bottom line than "Miller's Crossing," and all three Coen films together don't equal the average $12 million-to-$14 million budget for a studio production these days.

"I don't think we've felt pinched, or felt that we could have done anything significantly different or better had we had a lot more money," says Ethan the producer. "Even with 'Blood Simple,' where we really did it for a dime, I don't think we ever walked away thinking that whatever mistakes we made or whatever we wished was different would have been different had we had twice the budget."

As for the money at the other end, Ethan says only that "probably it matters to us in the respect that the more money {a film} makes, the easier it will be to do another one. It's strange, though, because it's all just numbers -- 4 million people see it as opposed to 8 million. What do numbers mean intuitively at that point?"

"It does become really abstract," Joel suggests. "Theoretically you made the movie for other people to watch, it's for an audience, so you want as many people as possible. It would be disappointing if the film went out there and did no business by virtue of the fact that it wasn't getting seen by anybody. But after it reaches a certain point, it's really weird to differentiate whether a million and a half or 3 million see it."

Adds Ethan, "It sort of leaves the realm of the human. At any rate, more people are going to see it than I'm ever going to meet in my life, so what difference does it make beyond that?"

"Yeah, that's true," says Joel.

One approach that has allowed the Coens to make films that feel more expensive than they are is their fabled pre-shooting preparation: lean, meticulous scripts and storyboards, with everything from dialogue and blocking to camera angles worked out to the last detail. The difference between a script and a final cut is thus minimized, though the filmmakers say the reality of the process is less rigid than its reputation.

"Certain scenes {in 'Miller's Crossing'} follow the storyboard more closely than others," Ethan explains. "In general, action scenes are more rigidly shot than dramatic scenes, almost by virtue of necessity. In dramatic scenes we like to start out with a visual idea, but once we start working with the actors and rehearsing the scene other ideas come in, either from the actors or other things that occur to us while we're watching them do it."

"We're more rigid with dialogue than with blocking," says director Joel, "but dialogue changes too, though not often. It's imagined abstractly and you write it down. It's another thing to listen to it once it's been inhabited by the characters and the actors."

"Sometimes actors will consistently misremember lines because it feels more natural, and indeed sounds more natural coming out a different way," Ethan says. "I don't think most actors think it's particularly remarkable that we stick to the script. The reason they work with us in the first place is not usually the money, it's because they like the script."

They probably loved "Miller's Crossing," not only for its period dialogue (replete with ethnic edges), but its very abundance. This is a truly talky film. "We remarked as we were working on it that it's a very dialogue-driven movie and it's very unusual in that respect," Joel admits.

That may also explain why the cast is so theater-rooted: Gabriel Byrne, who plays the morose existential hero, Tom Reagan, is an alumnus of Ireland's fabled Abbey Theatre. John Polito, visceral as the Italian crime lord Johnny Caspar, has a long on- and off-Broadway re'sume'. John Turturro, as the seedy Bernie Bernbaum, has made impressions on both stage and film (notably as the racist son in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing").

Marcia Gay Harden, making her film debut as the tough vamp Verna, had worked in small theaters here and in New York and adds to the string of Coen discoveries that includes Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter. She told the Village Voice that working on the set of "Miller's Crossing" was "like being in school and the principal is this really young guy your age."

The film's ever-shifting on-screen relationships must have kept everyone on their toes -- you almost need a dance card to figure out who's stepping on whom. Had Donald Trump written "Miller's Crossing," it would have been called "The Art of the Double Cross."

"It's certainly a good plot catalyst," Joel says.

"In a story, you want to keep surprising the audience, keep them off balance," Ethan adds.

"Depending on what you want your relationship with the audience to be in any particular movie or story," Joel clarifies. "In 'Blood Simple,' there's double crosses going on, but the audience is aware of them in advance of the characters, whereas here there's a different strategy, where the double crosses are happening but the audiences are not sure. You're keeping them in the dark... ."

While there are bursts of cartoonish violence -- one character does an extended dance as machine gun bullets twirl him around -- there's less physical than psychological damage. Tom Reagan has terrible things done to him most frequently, suffering almost as much as Sam Raimi's favorite punching bag, Bruce Campbell. But "you don't want to sit through subsequent scenes in the movie looking at contusions and colorful marks on Tom's face," Ethan says, adding that it would have created a make-up and continuity nightmare.

You can almost hear the wheels whirring and the gears clicking in Tom's head as he maneuvers through the minefield of "Miller's Crossing." That, in turn, may account for what the Coens describe as the "discreet, restrained" camera work, a marked contrast to the often frenetic pace of "Raising Arizona."

"If you've got characters in a room basically just yapping, it dictates a more conventional coverage," says Ethan. According to Joel, "It seemed to fit the mood of the movie better to keep the camera a little more static. And you wouldn't really want a lot of darting, crazy camera stuff. It's not necessarily inappropriate for the period or the subject matter, it's just the mood. ...

"There's also something about seeing these characters in different spaces, where you want the camera in a sense to throw them into space so you see them as figures in these different environments -- the offices, the woods, the clubs. ... I'm not sure why, but it's something about what they look like in the spaces and how they walk through the spaces. You want the camera to hang back a little bit and just observe it."

The one time it doesn't is quite noticeable: a violent scene inside Johnny Caspar's oak-lined study. "It's different in terms of everything," Ethan concedes. "Mise en sce`ne, the Gothic room, the music is not of a piece with the rest of the score -- it's an odd little eruption. ... We wanted to punctuate it with a little nightmare."

"There's the dutch angles, and we fast tracked in ... it's a stylistic burp in the middle of the movie that doesn't really fit with the rest," Joel says conspiratorially. (Their first notable burp came in "Blood Simple" when a camera tracking down a long bar simply bumped over a passed out drunk in its path.)

The Coens aren't saying much about the film that now occupies their attention, except that it stars John Turturro and that it was written during a three-month-long writer's block they experienced in the middle of the year it took to write "Miller's Crossing." Naturally, the new film is about writer's block.

According to Joel, "It's about a Clifford Odets kind of playwright in New York in 1941 who has a success on Broadway and goes to Hollywood to write wrestling pictures for Wallace Beery, and it's about what happens to him when he moves into a hotel in Hollywood and essentially discovers that he can't write."

We'll have to wait.