Blu-ray Review: MILLER'S CROSSING, The Lonely, Existential World of Gangsters

Criterion's release of the Coen Brothers' gangster film is a worthy addition to the collection.

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Blu-ray Review: MILLER'S CROSSING, The Lonely, Existential World of Gangsters

While only their third feature film, Miller's Crossing remains a favourite among many fans of the Coen brothers. Somewhat surprisingly only the third of their films to get the Criterion treatment (after Blood Simple and Inside Llewyn Davis), this Prohibition-era-set gangster noir has lost none of its power or strangeness in over 30 years, and still holds surprises, even for those (and I'm sure you're out there) who've watched it a dozen times. The release features new interviews with actors, crew, and investigations into the film, how the films stands as a representation of hard-boiled crime and its presence in the canon of noir, an essay, and beautiful artwork by Patrick Leger.

The world in which Tom (Gabriel Byrne) moves is one of crime, regret, tested loyalties, and constant betrayals. As he moves from one crime boss, the Irish-born Leo (Albert Finney), to the Italian gang lead by Caspar (Jon Polito), while having an affair with Leo's girl Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), set to kill then protect her brother Bernie (John Turturro) - you would be forgiven for perhaps getting a little confused in the plot, as likely the character do in their world. It is a world in which nothing exists but the criminals and the crimes they commit against each other, where the struggle for power is all that matters, and truth is a concept that has long since died.

Watching this film, having not seen it in several years, there were several things that struck me. First, how the distinctive tropes of different types of crime film are blended together. First, the gangster film: there is a certain elegance with which Leo's world is portrayed, with its club and bar and waiters dressed in uniforms - Leo might have raised himself from nothing, but he takes nothing for granted. Tom, also from the old country, is decidedly uncomfortable, and it shows; perhaps he is better off with another crowd. Not that Caspar's work doesn't have riches, but even when Tom briefly switches sides, he finds only a slightly different side of the same coin.

Miller's Crossing is often called in part a noir, even though it's set pre-war; that seems to come out a bit more in the tone of loneliness. Tom, Leo, Verna, Bernie: loyalty and trust is impossible when each of them is alone, even in those brief moments when they can give each other pleasure. That loneliness that is not only out in the woods, but in the city. We only meet a few characters that are outside the criminal world, and only for a few moments (such as Tom's landlady): no other people exist except those tied to the gangs (even the police are on the gangster's side so long as they get their share), are a part of this story. The world is this, and even at the end when all debts are settled, Verna, Leo, and Tom each make their way home alone. Perhaps they are all dead, and ghosts, set to wander throught their gangster world.

Despite the bleak tone and story, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld doesn't make the world look bleak, with rich tones of brown and green, some sort of touchstone against the dark and gloom of the characters' lives. Between him and editor Michael R. Miller's work on the attempted murder of Leo, that remains one of the greatest scenes of all time in cinema, the terrible beauty of the guns and fire, the crisp and smooth editing, and of course, the glorious rendition of 'Danny Boy'. The music by Carter Burwell is another contrast to the bleak story, reaching these orchestral, epic heights of beauty that make us forget the small and desperate world that Tom inhabits.

Miller's Crossing remains one of the Coen brothers' top films, and a darkly magical film filled with rage, sadness, ennui, and violence that feels so visceral that you'll feel each punch to Tom's gut. It's very much worth revisiting.

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The cornerstone of any Criterion release is the restoration; for Miller's Crossing, the 2K digital restoration, approved by Sonnenfeld and the Coens, with a new surround sountrack mix, resonates on the screen. In the interview with Sonnenfeld, he discusses the different lenses he used, the way he wanted to bring out certain colours for the different scenes to either reflect or contrast the mood, and it shows in this copy. The score, whether it be that insane inclusion of the Irish ballad Danny Boy in a massacre scene, or the final anti-trimuphant notes as Leo leaves Bennie's funeral, can make you feel like you're seeing it on film on a big screen.

The Coen brothers have a reputation for being somewhat terse and guarded in interviews, prefering to let their work speak for them. So the interview with author Megan Abbot is a nice surprise; but discussing their love for and influence from the hard-boiled and noir fiction of Dashiell Hammett and others, Abbot draws them out to, in a roundabout way, discuss how they created the film, and how they process their influences and ideas onto their work.

Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro met for an interview, and it's always interesting to hear actors talk about their roles from years ago. They discuss how the strictness of the dialogue allowed them freedom of movement, and how the philisophical and existential discussions in the script have followed them in other roles. Burwell and music editor Todd Kasow talk about how they jumped in head first to the world of movie music, and how they learned that the Coens brothers always know what they want (and that they're usually right). Production Designer Dennis Gassner's insights into how he turned New Orleans into a generic mid-west city, give an interesting account of the trials and joys of location shooting.

The accompanying booklet, with its gorgeous sepia-tone design, features an essay by Glenn Kenny. Kenny looks at the character of Tom Reagan (Byrne), as a contrast to other Coen heroes and anti-heroes, and how Miller's Crossing sits in the pantheon of the Coens' work, as a more serious story and one that, as their third feature, displayed the kinds of depths they would subsequently achieve with most of their films.

Miller's Crossing

  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Gabriel Byrne
  • Albert Finney
  • John Turturro
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Joel CoenEthan CoenDashiell HammettGabriel ByrneAlbert FinneyJohn TurturroCrimeDramaThriller

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