Tom Reagan, an advisor to a Prohibition-era crime boss, tries to keep the peace between warring mobs but gets caught in divided loyalties.
Gabriel Byrne was trying to get into character. That of Tom Reagan, the hard-bitten, punch bag anti-hero of Miller's Crossing. So, he turned to his director, Joel Coen, with an enquiry: "What's the significance of the hat? I need to know." Joel turned to Ethan Coen, never more than a beat away, "Ethan, Gabe wants to know what the significance of the hat is." Ethan paused for a moment, "Yeah, it is significant". Then he walked off.
Miller's Crossing is about a man chasing a hat, a significant hat. It is unswervingly the finest movie in the considerable Coen canon. Drenched in film lore (as always), designed with a sumptuous detail that extends the mood beyond reality into a meta-"movie" reality, it is shot with masterful elegance (by Barry Sonnenfeld) and performed, unusually for the brothers' work, with as much subtlety as caricature. And it has this script sent from God. A hyper-charged, multi-layered, whirligig of gangster lingo and idiom hatched from the noir pages of Dashiell Hammett by way of Raymond Chandler. This is as much a film about language and communication—with a pastiche phraseology unique and self-contained — as Tommy guns and gambling. The Coens are lovingly deconstructing another genre with a detail and care that constantly reveals new insights on every visit.
Their theme is friendship (brotherhood, almost) and a quest for integrity in a world morally devoid. And there you have your hat, although the Coens will have none of it — "I don't think you need to read the movie that way to make sense of it". As far as Tom's concerned it's everything he is, it's his identity and our laconic hero is the only moral order we can cling to in this sea of corruption, betrayal and bone-headed plays.
With due homage to the labyrinthine pulp that inspired them, the Coen boys tie the plot in a ridiculously complex knot of distinctive yet archetypal characters, nefarious double deals and constant betrayal. Second tier gangland boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to rub out Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro) because he suspects he's revealing his fixed fights (he is). City overlord Leo (Finney) won't bend because he's sweet on Bernie's sister Verna (Harden). Leo's confidant and adviser Tom can smell trouble, he knows Caspar's got big ambitions and that Verna's playing Leo for a sap (anyway he's been bedding her on the quiet). So Tom defects to Caspar (but not really) while Caspar's right-hand man Eddie Dane (J. E. Freeman) remains suspicious (rightly). Dane, though, is sweet on Mink (Steve Buscemi) who's sweet with Bernie and any second now the whole damned city (unnamed, but filmed in New Orleans) is going to explode into a gang war with Tom at the centre of the maelstrom.
Complex as it is, events are driven by the verbal pyrotechnics (Tom and Verna's delicious sparring is comparable to anything betwixt Bogart and Bacall:
Verna: "Shouldn't you be doing your job?"
Tom: "Intimidating helpless women is my job."
Verna: "Then go find one, and intimidate her."
There are also thrilling set-pieces — the sequence where Leo turns the tables on potential assassins, filling one with enough Tommy gun lead to make him dance like a crazed marrionette while Danny Boy lilts from his gramophone, is simply genius. The violence,
frequent as it is, gyrates from the cartoonish (Tom's incessant stream of bruiseless beatings) to sharp bursts of bloody brutality (Dane has his face smashed in with a coal shovel). The film never commits itself to realism, existing in a heightened milieu ruled only by the laws of movies.
The casting is inch perfect. Finney makes the charismatic Leo his own, despite having stepped in at the last possible moment when original choice Sterling Hayden died. Harden, atypically attractive with voluminously mad Dorothy Parker hair, is all twitchy sexuality and pout. While the regular Coen troupe weave their rabbit-mouthed magic (Turturro, Buscemi, Polito — look out, too, for cameos from Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand) as a bunch of slickly attired, self-serving double-crossers. Tom is the converse, his motives are loyalty and friendship — even trust on some deeply buried level, only his method is betrayal. A sack of bitter wisecracks, fuelled by sour bourbon and ever-present smokes, he plays all ends against the middle with rubs of Bogart in his sharp tongue and street loner persona. It's Byrne's finest moment, although he struggled with it — those damned elusive brothers. Tom paradoxically gives the movie heart. Fluttering evasively around the edges of Miller's Crossing is a twisted form of devotion, even love.
By the end, bodies have been strewn across town with Shakespearian abandon: Caspar is dead, Bernie is dead, Mink is dead, Eddie Dane is dead and Leo has won and got the girl and his city back. It was a smart play, there's no escaping that. As for Tom? Tom winds up with nothing. Nothing except his hat. And that is significant.
Who knew crime could be so funny? Gabriel Byrne has never bettered his performance.