Or: Take it on the Heel and Toe While I Give This Yegg the High Hat
In the continuing vein of being able to do no wrong--a bold statement to be sure, and many of you will disagree--this 1990 release from the Coen Brothers is an intelligent, urbane, sophisticated Prohibition-era crime story heavily flavored with their unique style and wit.
But enough of this genuflecting. Let's get down to brass tacks.
Albert Finney is a five-time Academy Award nominee, Harden is an Oscar winner, Turturro has received prizes at Cannes, and Byrne ain't won crap that you'd care about--other than his Razzie for End of Days. But he's great in this, really.
Behind the Bar
Coen brothers fans--you know how it works. The brothers split the credits but each is heavily involved in the other's trade.
20th Century Fox and Circle Films laid out the dough together--and 20th Century Fox laid out the film itself.
The plot can be a touch complicated--'o what a tangled web we weave' sums it up in a line. The two most straightforward and honest folks in the film are the bosses--straight shooters, as it were.
Leo and Caspar get into a war over Bernie, whom Caspar wants killed (for starters), and Leo protects. Leo protects him because he's sleeping with his sister. But then, so is Tom.
This causes a falling out between the two, and Tom looks to go over to Caspar's side. Eddie Dane--Caspar's shadow --doesn't trust Tom, who doesn't trust anybody, especially not Bernie, who has been selling out Caspar's fixed fights and grifting a little bit more than he can chew.
I would also mention that Tom suffers from a combination of bad luck and a gambling problem, which has left him in dutch with his bookie, Lazar, and badly in need of money. Both Caspar and Leo offer to clear the debt for him, but Tom insists on taking care of it himself.
He does so by playing various characters off one another, eliminating his enemies and maintaining his loyalties until everything is fixed just so, and he walks away with the necessary scratch. As soon as it's in his hands--he places a bet.
I realize that isn't much of an overview, but to look at the plot from above, you still get a labyrinth. You'll get it as you go through it, though it'll take a couple viewings to pick up all the nuances. I still haven't, I'm sure, but each time I see it I am rewarded.
Why It's the Original Miss Jesus
That's what Tom says Leo thinks of Verna--and it represents one of the greatest parts of the film: the dialogue. It's some of the smartest I've ever heard, loaded with style lifted right out of the pulp crime novels of the mid 20th Century. There are pages of highly memorable exchanges and quirks. I will give just a few examples:
Verna, to Tom, about Leo
: I like him. He's honest, and he's got a heart.
Tom: So it's true what they say, opposites attract.
Tom, to Bernie: I figure a thousand bucks seems reasonable, so I want two.
Leo: Tom, you know O'Gar and the mayor.
Tom: I ought to. I voted for him six times last May.
Mayor Levander: (laughing) And that ain't the record, either.
The Dane, to Tom: You're so goddamn smart. Except you ain't. I get you, smart guy, I know what you are. Straight as a corkscrew, Mr. Inside-Outsky. Like a goddamn bolshevik, picking up your orders from Yegg Central. You think you're so goddamn smart. You joined up with Caspar. You bumped Bernie Bernbaum. Up is down. Black is white. Well, I think you're half-smart. I think you were straight with your frail and queer with Johnny Caspar. And I think you'd sooner join a Ladie's League than gun a guy down.
Those are a very few of my favorites, and they are all delivered with incredibly natural, smooth calm and confidence. Straight with your frail? What the hell does that mean? Don't know. Don't care. It's cool, and you pick it up anyway. I will never be as cool as Tom Regan or Eddie Dane.
The story is also loaded with subtext-for all the brilliant dialogue, there isn't a lot of jawing about what actually goes on between characters. Love features big in this film, but never on the surface of things--there are all kinds of love relationships between all of the characters, hetero and homosexual, but they are all handled so excellently that they integrate seamlessly into the overall plot. Watch this film, and try to figure out what it is that Tom Regan really wants--you may change your mind a couple of times.
Scenes to Flop For
No shortage--one of the absolute best is played out to a
public domain version of Danny Boy, and involves Leo defending himself very cooly with a Thompson machine gun. The man doesn't blink.
There's also a great moment between Caspar and his rather thick-headed kid, and Sam Raimi's cameo in front of one of Leo's nightclubs--which the police are knocking over on Caspar's orders.
Not exactly a box-office blockbuster. Miller's Crossing didn't enjoy the commerical success of Fargo, and seems to sneak under a lot of people's radar. Though the plot is dense, the implications in terms of character, ethics, loyalty, and morality go way beyond what is ever just mentioned in the script. It's truly a masterful work. Try to relax, and don't think too much. Your head'll outgrow your hat.
Let's get Stinko
Up for a challenge? This is a drinking game I've never played because I'm convinced it would kill me. The rules are simple--you just have to match Tom Regan, drink for drink. The whisky flows freely in this film--as you'd expect during Prohibition.
These Guys are Square G's:
For the Quest