That’s no disrespect to current screenwriters; on the contrary, setting your crime story in the olden times is a smart move, one that maybe lets you play down the special effects mumbo-jumbo (that’s the technical term for it) and play up the plot development.
And that’s exactly what the Coen Brothers did in Miller’s Crossing, all the way back in 1990. I had been told to watch this movie many moons ago but only got around to it in the past year, perhaps as a subconscious palate cleanser for their most recent release. It did the trick.
It’s a quick, dirty noir that’s never grimy, thanks in large part to Carter Burwell’s warm score. The juxtaposition between the movie’s gangster darkness and musical lightness is refreshing, and it’s exactly the type of unexpected touch you’d expect from the Coen Brothers, even back then. They have a penchant for lightening darkness, usually with hilarious dialogue (mostly from Frances McDormand), and so the music takes them down a different tonal path.
The Coens also bring out the asymmetry in Hollywood’s most symmetrical elite. Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden fit quite nicely into the world of Miller’s Crossing; Byrne is no stranger to mob stories, but he always gives off an outsider air. Here, he’s in it the thick of it as someone else’s consigliere Tom. Byrne is Tom Reagan, second-in-command to Leo (Albert Finney) and first in bed with Verna (Harden), who’s also seeing Leo.
Two of the Coens’ usual suspects stand out in that stacked cast: Steve Buscemi, as unlucky Mink, and John Turturro, as bookie Bernie Bernbaum. In fact, I’d say Turturro gives the performance of his life as Bernie, who is embroiled in a war between Leo and his rival, Caspar (Jon Polito). He is cocksure to some, groveling to others, never confident in himself and always willing to reassign his loyalty. He runs such a gamut of emotions that you’re never sure what you’re going to get, but you know it’s going to be real in that particular moment. Bernie is pathetic, but he’s not unsympathetic. I can’t believe this guy hasn’t won an Oscar.
Miller’s Crossing is peak Coen before their peak. (And I’m not entirely convinced their peak has happened yet.)