I’ll think about it.
The mob is a business like any other. Leadership must be strong and decisive, employees must be loyal to a fault, and every once in a while you have to cut someone you like loose in order to not anger someone you might like less but definitely need more. Despite everything we learn as kids that ends up being useless, the concept of “choosing the lesser of two evils” will forever prove as useful as breathing and yet we have trouble reconciling such dilemmas due to emotional entanglements. Where normal people like you and me are concerned, hearts prevailing over minds will create minimal fallout. For a gangster like Leo (Albert Finney), however, the smallest sign of weakness through second-guessing could mean a bullet straight to the brain.
It’s why he keeps Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) around as his consigliere. When Leo is blind to the fact that he gains less from keeping a grifter like Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) alive than he loses by giving his top earner Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) the “high hat,” it’s Tom’s job to set him straight. By reading between the lines we can infer upon his flawless track record doing exactly that in the past. The difference today stems from Leo having fallen in love with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). So rather than recognize what’s necessary for his survival, romance takes the wheel. It’s therefore interesting to learn Verna is also seeing Tom on the sly. Unlike Leo, though, nothing will ever distract him from staying alive.
This is the general crux of Joel and Ethan Coen‘s love letter to Dashiell Hammett entitled Miller’s Crossing. Tom is our lead—a stoic man who gets himself in trouble whenever he opens his mouth considering it’s impossible to suppress any opportunity to deliver a bitingly witty retort. The way he carries himself in this way is why Leo keeps him close to speak his mind and lay everything out without fear of retribution. It’s also why Caspar and his goon The Dane (J.E. Freeman) want to recruit and despise him respectively. Tom gets away with his abrasive demeanor because he’s smart enough to know when power has shifted and which horse he should back regardless of whether those he cares about become caught in the inevitable crossfire.
He knows the impending war that’s brewing from Leo not permitting Caspar to kill Bernie (and his declaration to do so anyway) will have devastating fallout. One boss will go after the other and vice versa until even Chief of Police O’Doole (Tom Toner) laments the carnage despite being very comfortable in his bought and paid for stooge position to do or not do whatever these gangsters ask. To make Leo angry enough to acknowledge that Verna might be conning him to saving her brother, Tom proves willing to take a few lumps by admitting his affair with her. It’s a selfless act that ensures he remains smack dab in the middle of this avoidable feud, but with the roles of who’s his friend and who’s not reversed.
Tom will need plenty of luck to keep above water—an ironic truth considering his current gambling streak is bad enough to rile his bookie. But there are no hard feelings. Tom refuses to let Leo pay his debt because it’s his alone to square. He’s in this game and thus knows the risk. There’s a sense of integrity to Tom in this respect (strictly where it comes to business since he fully embraces the Prohibition-era setting’s misogyny). If led to the woods to catch his own bullet, he’d go silently because he’d have earned it one way or another. Rather than draw him with principles to become a hero, however, the Coens do it to brilliantly subvert the genre with an abundance of that same comedic irony.
The resulting contradictions are a big part of why Miller’s Crossing is so adored. There’s Caspar going on about ethics and how nobody can be trusted because they’re all vying for the crown. You know he’s sitting on a belly of ulcers, his paranoia and anxiety predating Tony Soprano by almost ten years. There’s doofy Frankie (Mike Starr) and his brutish frame coming at Tom with fists cocked only to walk away crying with a broken nose. His betrayed disbelief epitomizes the film’s tone perfectly because the rules state that he has to beat Tom up. His enduring his own pain in the process is therefore simply unfair. And you have to love it when Verna responds to Tom’s unwanted kiss with a vicious right hook.
These moments feel fresh because the Coens are consistently playing with our expectations of certain tropes by setting them up only to knock them down. Is Tom really a softy when it comes to pulling the trigger? Is Bernie’s life really a product of his friends’ generosity or are they all bridges he keeps merely to burn them when necessary? Is there love between Tom and Verna or have they both simply been using the other without remorse? Is it just his hope for romance that’s made Leo make some bad decisions of late, or has his age finally caught up? Each question is crucial for us to ask ourselves in order to stay on our toes as things progress because no one is inconsequential to the whole.
We may not recognize this fact until the end, though, because the Coens have spun this yarn with extreme efficacy. They don’t give Mink (Steve Buscemi) more than one scene because the role he plays is better suited to background speculation whether or not the performance warrants extra screen time. The same goes with Bernie considering he’s the central character everyone is searching for and yet only has four scenes. Turturro unforgettably turns from sarcastic confidence to blubbering fear on a dime for sympathy so keeping him in the shadows ensures we never get too close. Nobody is ultimately worthy of redemption and that’s why each proves so captivating. We love these characters because they’re flawed and thus allow the Coens to let the story dictate their ends.
It’s not a matter of who should die in any given situation because letting the person who would die is far better. Sparing Tom when circumstances look dire isn’t therefore a copout because he’s been set-up as a guy who earns that luck by being a straight shooter who never attempts to squirm his way out of situations he created. Rather than let him fast-talk his way to freedom, the Coens let the other characters act on their own impulses in ways that serendipitously benefit him. It’s then up to us (and Tom) to figure out who would do those things and why, the answers pushing him into yet another precarious corner that twists both greed and empathy into keys necessary for opening the next door.
Byrne is perfectly cast in the role with a gruff, no-nonsense attitude that gets him out of as many jams as it gets him in. He’s simultaneously just smart enough and too smart for his own good, every slick maneuver countered by a kickback from those he underestimates. His Tom is a literal punching bag manipulating his way through town with the goal of keeping his head and home intact—while also protecting those he cares about despite his actions leading them to hate him. Because he could just wipe his hands clean of the chaos and leave if he weren’t too stubborn to quit. Maybe he has a death wish that fate keeps interrupting or perhaps every step of this violent journey was planned from the start.
Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills. Series art by Cloe Ashton.