Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Chasing a Hat: Miller's Crossing, 20 Years Later

"Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.” — Tom Reagan

By David Gaffen
The Coen Brothers’ celebrated third movie, Miller’s Crossing, which opened 20 years ago today, opens with an ethereal shot of the wooded area where the movie’s pivotal moments come to pass. Carter Burwell’s majestic score plays; we’re treated to an upward gaze of the dense forest a few hours outside of a never-named city. The camera pans downward to the hat — belonging, as we find, to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) — which then flies away, carried off into the forest by the wind.

Nothing in the movie that takes place following this is as hopeful; the opening images are illusory as the Coens go on to present one of their typically bleak films, one that offers no quarter to anyone who believes they’ve got something figured out that puts them ahead of everyone else. The chief characters are all working an angle — multiple angles, as it turns out. Some are trying to maintain what they have — the status quo, as represented by Leo, the town boss, played by Albert Finney, and Tom, his right-hand man and stony assassin, smarter than everyone else in the room at any given time.

Some are trying to move up in the world — Johnny Caspar, played to the hilt by Coen Bros. veteran Jon Polito, and his dead-eyed henchman, Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman), just as icy as Tom, but crueler. And then there’s Bernie Birnbaum (John Turturro), playing all sides against the middle, and just out for himself. No one is trustworthy — not even a fixed fight, which as Caspar notes, "If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin' on chance — and then you're back with anarchy, right back in the jungle."

Miller’s Crossing is one of the Coens’ more easily re-watched movies, their third film, one with more visual style than most, even if it lacks the emotional complexity of Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man. Perhaps that’s what makes it easily digestible — very few of the characters hide complex motivations other than keeping themselves safe, with (hopefully) a bit more money in their pocket. They're all betting on chance, and their shifting alliances suggest societal anarchy, where no one institution is strong enough to withstand corruption, which is the most enduring institution. The Coens drive that point home with an early scene where Tom enters Leo's office to find the Mayor and Police Chief, a scene mirrored later in the movie when Tom finds the same pair sitting with Caspar, recently installed as town boss.

The Depression-era setting makes it clear why they, as a whole, would be first, and last, most interested in self-preservation. It’s why Marcia Gay Harden’s Verna flies into the arms of Leo as a way of protecting her brother, Bernie; why Tom is eager to cast off Bernie because he correctly notes the threat of Caspar’s rising power.

Ultimately not a one of these characters is allowed to relax in the knowledge that they've improved their circumstances. As Tom tells Leo, the only reason he holds any power is people believe he’s powerful — without that belief, he has no power. The sole reason why Tom is able to withstand his making enemies among most people he sees is his cunning and usefulness to Leo; his fortunes take a turn for the worse without Leo’s backing.

Similarly, Eddie Dane is of practical use to his boss, Johnny Caspar, as long as it is believed that he isn’t going behind his back. It’s a confidence game Eddie ends up losing — and where Tom comes out the victor. But the infallibility of his judgment has long been called into question, leaving him in the woods alone by the end of the movie.

The harsh circumstances are overlaid with admirable camerawork and sequences — the early scenes in Leo’s office, as well as the justifiably classic scene where hit men come to kill Leo. This scene — and most scenes, really — were demands by the Coens to sit up and watch, as Leo is clued into trouble by smoke seeping through the floorboards, and as we watch the slow development as he gently rests his cigar on an ashtray and drops into his slippers before sliding under the bed to avoid the hail of bullets.

Finney still looked dashing at that time, dodging the gunfire in a silk robe whilst carrying a tommy gun, eventually taking out all of the guys who had come to get him, “Danny Boy” on the soundtrack. It’s one of those satisfying “movie” moments; a character later refers to Leo as “an artist” with his weaponry — but that’s clearly a call to the filmmaking itself. The later sequence where Caspar murders Eddie Dane stands as a brilliant contrast: dimmer lights, harsher music. There’s no romance in the camera here, focusing on a bloody, drooling Caspar as he bellows (with another man screaming in the background) about putting a bullet in someone’s brain.

Early in the movie Tom tells Verna of a dream he had, about his hat flying away in the woods. She surmises that the hat turned into something different — something “wonderful.” But Tom tells her it didn’t — it was just a hat. Whatever the characters are chasing after is an illusion. Buried in the sumptuous visuals is that bleak reality — a cold void, like the void in Tom’s chest: there is no ‘something wonderful,’ some pot at the end of a rainbow to fulfill one’s dreams. It’s just a hat.

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Incredibly perceptive review of the Coen Bros.`s re-make of "The Glass Key.``

And please don`t say it wasn`t. It was.

It wasn't an exact remake, more an homage to Dashiell Hammett in general. IMDb lists both The Glass Key and his novel Red Harvest as uncredited sources for the screenplay. The Writers Guild is very particular about sourcing and if it had been directly adapted either from the movie's screenplay or the novels, they would require the credit to read that way, but they recognize it as being different enough to be an original screenplay as opposed to an adapted one.
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