A black fedora drops onto the screen right in front of us. Sprawling out in front of the camera is a wooded scene with leaves and tree debris stretching out to the far edge in the back. The hat is lifted off the ground and randomly twirls toward the back of the screen until it disappears out of view.
The black fedora in the woods appears near the beginning of the third Coen feature “Miller’s Crossing“. We are in the 1920s prohibition era and an advisor to an Irish Mob boss is about to be caught between two rival gangs. Tom Reagan (played by gangster-ish looking Gabriel Byrne) is that advisor for Leo O’Bannon (a young Albert Finney) who runs an unspecified city of the eastern coast of the US. Leo is carrying on a relationship with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and Verna is also having an affair with Tom. Got all that?
Verna’s brother is Bernie (John Turturro in the first of recurring roles in Coen Brother movies). Rival mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) puts out a hit on Bernie who is a bookie. Going against the advice of Tom, Leo (again the other mob boss) extends protection to Bernie thus continuing the gangland war.
The Coens (who wrote the screenplay as they nearly always do) again mess with genre (as they did in “Blood Simple”) with “Miller’s Crossing” taking on a slow-burn mob picture and mixing the overall work with aspects of film noir. A viewer has to make it through the first half an hour to be rewarded with what the film has to offer later. The front half of the movie is definitely talky but lurking later are mobster assassinations, 1920s-style shootouts and the trademark Coen dark humor.
If I’m putting my critic hat on, I have to say that the mixture of these thematic elements do not always feel even. The seriousness of a mob rivalry in the Prohibition-era with hits and assassinations out in the woods is interwoven with scenes such as when Leo gets the jump on rival gang members trying to kill him. He shoots a would-be assassin from the driveway of a home in the back through an upstairs window. The assassins’ body convulses as it is riddled with bullets and the tommy gun of the assassin starts firing in a pinwheel motion spraying ammunition into the ceiling and the floor as his arms move in a circle. It is a scene that is outrageous and funny and completely absurd. And yet, we are dealing with the Coen Bros.
For the unevenness though, “Miller’s Crossing” is a considerably original gangster movie that has its own flavor. Richard Corliss, the legendary Time Magazine film critic, in 2005 listed the movie as one of the top 100 movies ever made since the inception of the magazine. The third Coen feature is also consistently listed as one of the best gangster movies of all time (though certainly not anywhere near as good as “The Godfather 1 and 2” and “Goodfellas”). As good as the movie is, this is probably over praise.
SPOILER: At the end, when Leo and Tom have made up over the double crossing after the funeral of Bernie, Leo praises Tom for his well-thought out plan of turning against him (Leo) in order to orchestrate all these events. As Tom walks with Leo in the woods of Miller’s Crossing, he states something along the lines of, “you know that feeling where you act and you don’t even think things through” suggesting that the entire “plot” of Tom as simply random. As random as a black fedora being blown around in the woods. No accident the Coens return again and again to this theme. END SPOILER
A random note: look for a young Steve Buscemi in a small role in this movie. Of course, he would become a famed Coen player (especially later in “Fargo”).
My friend Jake mentioned that I should give actual ratings to my reviews and suggested a “Lester Lauding Level (LLL)” so I’m start employing that.
LLL for “Miller’s Crossing”= 4/5
Ranking of Coen Bro Movies (so far):
Raising Arizona (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)