There is no honor among thieves, which is why crime movies are so fascinating. In a world built around breaking the law, there must be an element of trust for professional criminals to do business with each other. But at all times, everybody knows they are just one missed cue away from a knife in the back, which means living by a countdown clock in one’s head between now and the critical moment when they are reminded that no career criminal ever dies peacefully at home. And while plenty of crime cinema mines this territory for all kinds of compelling stories, few do it so well as the Coen Brothers do in their neo-noir gangland masterpiece, Miller’s Crossing.
The story takes place in an unspecified American city during Prohibition. Leo O’Bannon is an Irish crime lord who shares the city with his Italian rival, Johnny Caspar. O’Bannon is advised by his right-hand man, Tom Reagan, whose main fault is that he’s sleeping with O’Bannon’s girl, Verna Bernbaum, on the side. When Johnny Caspar moves to have Verna’s brother Bernie killed to settle some gambling debts, a war seems inevitable. So Tom sacrifices his position with O’Bannon to operate independently between the warring crime factions in the hopes of somehow playing each side off the other in such a way that only the people he cares about come out on top. It’s a Byzantine web of betrayal, counter-betrayal, counter-counter-betrayal, and enough suspicious motives to give even a saint white hair. But by the time it’s all over, Tom will have been to the infamous place in the woods known as Miller’s Crossing, where doomed criminals go to disappear, and everybody knows that once you make a trip out there, you never come back the same person…that is, if you manage to come back at all.
This is a movie with all of the signatures of the Coen Brothers at the height of their powers, where they manage to blend both their love of gruesome drama and black comedy in a tale of criminal intentions, plans within plans, and the karmic debts one builds up when living a life of crime. It might not be as bleak as some of their other films, nor as screwball. But it inhabits a unique universe where the story they wish to tell is told in the perfect manner, making Miller’s Crossing the sort of thing nobody could ever duplicate. Nor would they want to. Trying to redo this movie would be like trying to recreate a song played on a Stradivarius. Even if every note and tone is identical, it still just isn’t the same, and you end up feeling a little dirty for having tried to manufacture such magic on demand.
Much of Miller’s Crossing overtly nods to specific inspirations, with entire shots framed from classic crime cinema that has gone before. The story of a master strategist manipulating both sides of a war to an uncertain aim is something is hardly new, as is the punchy pace of the dialogue, or the winding nature of the narrative as it doubles back on itself again and again in an effort to leave the audience unsure of what’s even happening any longer. But what matters much more than any of this is execution. Part of the magic of the Coens is their ability to make homages with a light touch, distilling what makes every great gangster movie great without sacrificing their own vision, style and points to make. The end result is a movie made in 1990 that felt like an undiscovered classic from 1947. One does not just stumble into that kind of result. One gets that through a savant’s knowledge of the genre, and virtuosity behind the camera.
There are almost too many terrific scenes here to count, but a sure favorite is a tommy gun opera in which Leo O’Bannon survives an assassination attempt within his own home, shoots his way out from under his own bed, and then manages to walk calmly out of the place, all to the tune of “O Danny Boy” and 700 rounds per minute of .45 ACP. It’s a scene that reveals just how much talent the Coens have for action cinema, and why their restrained use of action makes it work so incredibly well when it does appear.
Another is what might be the movie’s signature moment, when Tom Reagan must bring Bernie Bernbaum out to Miller’s Crossing to execute him. What we think will be a rote exercise in putting a bullet in the brain makes an abrupt about-face when Bernbaum begs for his life with uncommon intensity, and Reagan actually grants him mercy. It’s a moment where Reagan reveals that that despite his best efforts, the guy really does have a moral center. And letting that slip reverberates throughout the rest of the movie, driving the plot and setting the tone for what follows.
But the moment of truth comes in the movie’s final moments, after Tom’s manipulations are all said and done. He has blown up his allegiance to Leo O’Bannon in a twisted show of loyalty. He has endangered himself through a rare show of mercy. He has very nearly let himself get caught out because of misplaced trust. He has broken every cardinal rule of criminal survival and is rewarded by seeing everybody he cares about walk away from him. It would seem like Tom has dealt himself the mightiest of defeats, but that’s a short view of things. He might have secured his survival by repudiating the kind of mercy that got him into so much trouble earlier on, but he re-discovered enough of his humanity to return to a world where can put all of this underworld madness behind him. The question is, is that what he really wants? Who knows. Tom Reagan surely doesn’t. But at least he’s got all the time he needs to find out.