Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

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Mr Sausage
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Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 15, 2021 3:41 pm

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#2 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon Feb 15, 2021 4:06 pm

This is on the shortlist of the most engaging, simply entertaining movie experiences I've ever had and continue to have each watch, in addition to its thematic and emotional power. It's interesting, exciting, witty, hilarious, and tragic. I'll give it another watch soon and hopefully write more, but a few ideas I want to touch on as potential points of discussion:

The motif of Tom's hat and its significance. There is the obvious visual cues of when he's powerless or in control based on the state of his hat, but what of the dream? What of the hat as a tool to hide his emotions behind, as channeled by the incredible final shot where he shields his eyes under it and then we zoom in to watch him lift and express his silent love from a safe distance? Is that one-way secret affection devastating or encouraging to the state of his character?

Going off the above, I was speaking with my father recently about this film for the first time in years. Although he introduced it to me as a young kid, he eventually wrote some of it off as "too cartoonish" after we watched it a few more times together, so I was surprised at how emotionally affected he was by me even mentioning the film. My dad went on to say that he felt the film was the most devastating in memory about the inevitable necessity for men to bury their emotions in a cold, brutal world, one that doesn't only fail to reinforce paths to vulnerability, but actively sabotages these as existential handicaps. I tend to think of it a bit less cynically but inclusive of that reading. Tom Reagan is a man so full of love that only in the end do we really understand the lengths of his love, which defy simple readings of selflessness or selfishness, because he makes room for both without granting a soul an eye in to his inner mechanics. This is possibly the most fatalistic noir along psychological lines of social intimacy, and yet the power to act- to look up and admire that love from afar without anyone but the camera seeing him at the end- that is his to have and makes life worth living for it. Humility by this realist code is simultaneously the most lonely and most rewarding path within those confines.

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Sloper
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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#3 Post by Sloper » Wed Feb 17, 2021 1:54 pm

therewillbeblus wrote:
Mon Feb 15, 2021 4:06 pm
the incredible final shot where he shields his eyes under it and then we zoom in to watch him lift and express his silent love from a safe distance? Is that one-way secret affection devastating or encouraging to the state of his character?
What I like most about this shot is how the set-up creates a kind of epic, grandiose tone, with the music swelling and the camera pushing in and Byrne lending a heavy sense of artifice to his gestures – and it leads you to have certain expectations about what you’ll see when the camera peers under the rim of the hat. You expect Tom to wear a strong, stoic, dignified expression, or something like that – something kind of epic and self-important, befitting a ‘handsome, manly movie about men in hats’, as the Coens described it – but instead Tom looks more vulnerable than at any other time in the film. His eyes are pained and watery, and one of them blinks almost imperceptibly just before the shot ends, as though fighting back a tear (but not too obviously). It subverts the expectations raised by the build-up, but then the music also seems to shift (I’m not a musicologist so language fails me here) and include that sense of vulnerability as we go into the end credits. (I love the credits and always watch them all the way through.) It’s hard to describe this ending without making it sound sentimental and overblown, but the thing is it’s such a small moment: all of the artifice and stylised posturing comes down to something so personal and human. It takes me by surprise every time.

You bring up a really good question here: what emotion(s) do we see in Tom’s face here? I don’t disagree that it’s ‘love’ on one level (or two, because I think he loves both Verna and Leo), but I also feel it’s a lot more than that. There’s an incredible sense of loss at the end of this film, and it’s not just ‘lost love’.

The following might seem like a strange way to read Miller’s Crossing, but I’d be interested to know if anyone else has similar feelings (or indeed if anyone thinks this is bullshit).

From the beginning, Tom is heavily invested in maintaining peace, minimising killing except when necessary, and playing by the rules – the ‘ethics’ Caspar talks about at the beginning. He’s also heavily invested in being a loyal servant to Leo. In the course of the film, in order to ‘straighten things out for Leo’, he has to follow a course of action that compromises him in ways that he finds harder and harder to live with.

Tricking Verna into telling him where Bernie is, and then betraying Bernie, clearly takes some kind of toll, and by the way it’s interesting that at this stage he’s willing to be the cause of Bernie’s death, but not willing to do the job himself.

Then he relentlessly undermines Caspar’s trust in Eddie Dane, who – besides being a psychopathic murderer – is after all just being a loyal servant to his master, and who is after all right about everything except Mink (‘there’s always that wild card when, uh…love is involved’). So when Caspar finally snaps and kills his only real ally, Tom’s reaction is given special emphasis – and I think it’s another moment that chips something away from him. The same goes for the discovery of Caspar’s dripping, open-mouthed corpse.

Here’s a discussion question: why does Tom kill Bernie at the end? He has so many reasons, and it’s worth thinking through what they are, but he sums them up in the rhetorical question, ‘What heart?’ So maybe the real question is, why does Tom say this?

I like to think that one of his reasons for killing Bernie is that his most recent master – Caspar – ordered him to do it, then trusted him for having done it, and this act of loyalty is meant to offset the betrayal Tom has just brought to completion. I also like to think that what Tom did to Caspar and the Dane is one of his reasons for rejecting Leo at the end: besides the conflict over Verna and the beating he receives from Leo at the club, it feels inconceivable that Tom would go back to being Leo’s right-hand man, or that he would want any kind of forgiveness from him, especially given how oblivious Leo is to the weight and impact of what Tom has been through (‘it was a smart play all round’). For me, this is all feeds into the sense of loss Tom expresses in that final shot.

The ending takes place in the woods, and whether this is literally the same place as Miller’s Crossing or not, it feels like it; it’s the place where Tom almost became a murderer, then almost faced death, and has just witnessed the burial of the man he killed. At the end, he doesn’t just choose not to go with Leo, he chooses to stay in the woods. In literal, practical terms, this would be kind of awkward – what’s he planning to do here? Will he eventually follow Leo, at a safe distance? Is there another path out of the woods? But these are stupid questions. So here’s a better one for discussion: what does it mean that the film returns (sort of) to the titular location at the end, and that Tom chooses to remain there?

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#4 Post by therewillbeblus » Thu Feb 18, 2021 1:28 am

Great thoughts as always, Sloper. I definitely think the love Tom feels is towards both Verna and Leo, and in some ways Leo even more. His milieu is one where "respect" is a more socially acceptable channel for tough men to demonstrate love than romantic expressions of love, even when locked away in the bedroom, because it's not about appearances, it's about how unsafe it feels for a man like Tom to approach parts of himself that would disrupt that code, leave him vulnerable, shatter his identity, or perhaps worse- give him access to new truths within him that he isn't prepared to cope with. Tom isn't a fool- throughout the film he understands objectively that "respect" is a social construct given to who's in control, has the money flowing, and the power running through rackets. So on one hand what governs respect is arbitrary and Tom can comprehend logically this kind of pragmatic cynicism (nihilism, if you will) with an apathetic facade to boot. But deep down he has an emotional part, a part that respects Leo unconditionally, regardless of his illogical moves of self-destruction towards losing this elastic currency of respect.

This provokes Tom with unease- enough to throw himself and many other people through the wringer. Does he want to save Leo because he wants to maintain the stability of this expected life he's set for himself- so as to avoid going to those dark (well, arguably light- for us, not for Tom) places of emotion? And does his choice to refuse to go back to Leo in the end stem from the fact that his journey caused him to experience that damage/sobriety anyways (to the flexibility in systems of honor and respect, to the capabilities in himself that forced him to confront and eliminate cognitive dissonance in killing Bernie, to the emotional core he had and perhaps that he lost- or chose to close the door on)? In addition to the acting-job, does he become authentically frustrated at Leo- and why? Jealousy over Verna is too obvious, but I think it could be subconscious jealousy of Leo; that Leo has the audacity to let love guide him, to be vulnerable when Tom can't, to turn his blinders on to the fact that she's two-timing him and to be comfortable in that blind space that Tom doesn't dare revert to in a move of anti-self-preservation, the kind necessary to find his soul. Tom is the weaker man in this view, and part of him knows it, so he uses his strengths in wit and stoic psychological suppression to kill two birds with one stone: save himself by the simplistic codes he knows so that he can continue to live restfully within said codes, and save his friend so that Leo can have his cake and eat it too- love and live on his own terms, despite the unforgiving world around him that doesn't support said terms.

Tom is sacrificing himself for Leo, but also Leo for himself, because living comfortably as emotionally detached and complacent in the familiar is ideal for Tom's weakness- his fear-based part rejecting change. The gambling habit, and significantly taking beatings for it when Leo offers him a way out, is key here - Tom is far more comfortable going through the grind of expected consequences so long as he isn't tied to anyone but himself. It's self-destructive avoidance of vulnerability, but the rules are set. This reminds me of Llewyn Davis' beatings bookending that film, a cyclical rotation of repetitive experience dominating the existentialist surrender of the protagonist, in part because Llewyn chooses to surrender his agency and accept the beatings. However, in the process of this sacrifice, Tom encounters a necessary path to become ethically dynamic and engage in layers of self-sacrifice that he sought to protect himself from doing- the kind of sacrifice he wasn't prepared for, and this is what encompasses that loss. The Coens have painted the struggle of man existing in a confounding and harsh neutral world from the start of their careers, but they perfected the depths of the spiritual-corporeal struggle in this film, where regardless of the aspect of chance inherent in the cosmos, Tom- as a human being- is tragically fated to experience pain and loss by the nature of existing with limitations and the handicap of being ushered to distinguish those limitations via their failure to reach ideal states of being. The tragedy is reinforced only because Tom is compelled to perceive those ideals with some consciousness.

The heart of the film is the title of the film, literally and figuratively so. Tom realizes that he has a conscience (a heart) during that moment in the woods at Miller's Crossing. Tom accesses a sensitive part in himself that he can't bear but that he also can't help but exercising in a moment of empathic action. It doesn't fit his schema for self-preserving action or stoicism, but he feels compelled anyways, caught between two competing forces- a broken man for what might be the first time in his life. Tom later becomes sick in the same woods because he's afraid. He continuously looks up into the sky, the only time in the film we see Tom avert his eyes from a corporeal object or person, straight ahead at eye-level, that he's studying, manipulating, controlling, or planning to control. I think he's praying to God in that scene at Miller's Crossing; the God he rejects. How psychologically dangerous for Tom to attempt to foster a dialogue with God after spending his life intentionally operating on a nihilistic platform of selfish existentialism. In the moments when he breaks from this prayer looking at the sky, his eyes stare straight ahead in a look that I can only describe as dissociative- out of touch with reality, hopeless, not-present or guarded against what's coming. Tom has never been so out of control, so helpless, and ironically.. so alive.

I think Tom kills Bernie for a series of complex reasons related to this moment, all emotional (in a sense, making this one giant simple reason). The most obvious is that he's angry at Bernie for tricking him, but he's also projecting his own frustrations with himself onto Bernie, and that self-directed anger helps him forfeit his reservations to kill because he attributes the blame onto his yielding of the detached impartial shield he wears. Tom is also devastated, or profoundly sad, at the loss of his identity and desperately wants to reclaim it, as well as deathly afraid of being vulnerable again, having escaped death just barely from consequences of acting on his conscience. Also, I have to wonder if a part of him believes God intervened and resents that; or perhaps he prayed to God that if he was saved he would change (or for anything, it doesn't really matter 'what'), and then when he realized that Bernie planted Mink's body there, it was just further proof that God doesn't exist- that life is meaningless and the result of chance, and damned if Tom will be the one to let his guard down and leave things to chance again. It may seem like a practical move, but Tom needs to dissolve his emotional walls barring an act of murder in order to achieve this level of pragmatic action.

So ironically (the Coens love their irony), despite all of this emotion, Tom says "what heart?" because he has actively doubled down on indifference, denied his feelings to follow old familiar mechanical skills of strategizing and besting opponents with wit, self-preserving with a desperate drive to numb sympathy at all costs, and in that moment convinces himself that he believes he has no heart. Tom has now experienced loss of self, loss of faith in others, himself, and God, and reaffirmed that the only way to function in this world is to operate on self-will. If we consider a conscience to be a spiritual contact with God, or even define God to be the nebulous energy between Tom and other people, this would make sense. After a series of outward manipulations that have defined his identity- partly as defense mechanisms to avoid looking at his insides- Tom manipulates himself into choosing nihilism- but he can't sustain that choice. Tom wants to lose this emotional revelation- the spiritual experience he had in Miller's Crossing- but he can't, and the last shot shows it. If the woods are indeed symbolic, Tom goes back and stays there because it's the designated place where it's safe to feel; to lift his hat and stare off with emotional eyes.

The final scene always reminds me of The Third Man's final shot, but instead of an aloof position observing Joseph Cotton foolishly setting himself up to be snubbed by Alida Valli, we are granted an intimate swooping zoom to be one with Tom, in all his isolated love, emotion, and loss, as he doesn't even try to engage with the people he loves, feels emotion for, and has lost. He chooses to lose them in a final existential act, and perhaps he's choosing to find himself in the process, or to be more comfortable trying. Then again, maybe he's simply doing this because he's still sticking his feet in the sand in the conviction of having no heart. That look at the end though, that look gives me hope- because as tragic as the final move is, we know that Tom cannot turn back. He's opened up Pandora's box (well, arguably a great gift- for us, not for Tom, at least not yet) and this is the beginning of the rest of his life, trying to bury those emotions and access them. It'll be tough, and sporadic, but he can't stop what's coming to him- to quote another Coen brothers film. Perhaps the fact that Tom even lets us swoop in to see him, or that the Coens' camera feels safe enough to approach Tom in such an exposed state, is a good omen- or, to be a bit more empowering to the self vs a higher power- a good sign of Tom's potential, and his readiness to recognize its existence even if not to frame it as positive or even tangible just yet.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#5 Post by Sloper » Sun Feb 21, 2021 8:46 am

That’s a really fascinating and thoughtful deep dive into Tom’s character arc, twbb. It’s also very complex and I probably need to spend more time processing it… But whatever, here are a few thoughts.

There are parts of what you say that resonate very much with how I see this film, and others I perhaps diverge from. In particular – and I think we’ve differed on this point in other threads – I don’t see much engagement with the concept of God in this film, but I guess I see something like it...

It’s very interesting to hear your reading of the ‘looking up into the trees’ sequence, when Tom is being led (seemingly) to his death. It’s a scene I’ve often replayed in my head at difficult moments in my life, and I’ve always found it very comforting. To me, it’s not quite a prayer to God, but it does trigger that consoling awareness of a larger reality – a world that encompasses me but, in the nicest possible way, doesn’t care about me or my problems. In the Coen Brothers universe, this idea is often linked to a more nihilistic worldview that says the world is blindly malevolent, cruel things will happen to you for no reason, ‘out here you’re on your own’, etc., and there is something of that in this scene. To die in the woods is to die ‘like a dumb animal’. As Tom looks up into the trees he understands how alone he is, how completely fucked he is, and how dead he will soon be. The original screenplay repeatedly emphasises the ‘unearthly’ sound of the wind blowing through the trees in these forest sequences (including at the end, which significantly was scripted to take place on a hill next to the forest, not in the forest itself) and specifies that this sound should cut out at the moment when Tom apparently shoots Bernie. The wind in the trees is suggestive of the ‘soul’ or the ‘heart’ or the ‘something’ that constitutes the fundamental part of human existence, an intangible force that means we’re alive and human. So yes, from one point of view you could connect this to the idea of God, especially since Bernie was the one ‘praying’ in the earlier scene (although, pointedly, praying to Tom and not to God).

For me, though, it’s connected to Tom’s lucid perception of reality, and of the ‘bigger picture’ of what’s really happening, rather than suggesting an appeal to a higher power. It seems to me that Tom, Eddie Dane, and Verna are the only characters in the film who enjoy this type of lucidity, and hence are the ones who tend to say the most truthful, insightful things. In the scene in question, the Dane sees Tom looking up into the trees, looks up with him, and immediately picks up on what Tom is feeling: ‘Where are your friends when you need ’em? Where’s Leo now?’ In a line that was (wisely) cut from the original script, just as he starts strangling Tom at the climax, the Dane says, ‘I like the way you think. Maybe when you’re dead I’ll cut your head off, put it on my mantelpiece.’ This is a clumsy way of underlining the affinity between these two characters. A similar-but-different affinity is signalled between Tom and Verna in various ways: her unconditional loyalty towards her comically ungrateful brother mirrors the relationship between Tom and Leo; she has painfully lucid insights into reality like ‘We’re a couple of heels’ and ‘Nobody really cares, do they?’ (cf. ‘Where’s Leo now?’); and when she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger on Tom, he says sympathetically, ‘It isn’t easy, is it Verna?’

I’d sum this up by saying that these three are the only (major) characters in the film who don’t behave as if they’re playing a trivial game with no real consequences. This is one of the key recurring themes that has struck me more and more as I’ve re-watched the film. As I mentioned in my previous post, there is so much artifice and so much posturing, and along with that such a mind-blowing disregard for the value of human life, that the three characters who take all this seriously stand out in sharp relief, as if they’re the only ones who understand that this isn’t just a simulated, fictional reality but a real life-and-death struggle. And it’s assumed, throughout, that death is the end of everything, that there is no higher power looking down on us, that the only God you can pray to is the one holding a gun to your head, and that we therefore have to make our own rules and stick to them.

Here are two of my favourite motifs that link to this, both of which are set up beautifully in the first scene:

First, Tom’s drinking habit. There’s a moment in Hammett’s Red Harvest where the protagonist wishes he were stone-cold sober, as this would be the optimal condition in which to deal with the difficult conversation he’s about to have…but since sobriety is unattainable at the moment he has another drink to stabilise him. Miller’s Crossing begins with ice and whiskey: Tom needs a stiff drink and a cool head in order to face what lies ahead, and will have to keep himself regularly liquored-up (and cooled-off) as events escalate.

As the film begins, we hear something before we see anything: the hand grasping the ice cubes, three of them, to drop them one at a time into the glass, echoing the three principles (friendship, character, ethics) Caspar lists at the beginning of his speech. The shot places us in the position of a character listening to the speech, but from the side-lines – a spectator’s point of view – and it focuses on the drink rather than the speaker. This moment is partly intended to ‘brace’ us, the audience, for the experience we’re about to have. The first scene of the film begins by unloading a tonne of vital information (very much unlike the first scene of The Godfather that’s being referenced and parodied here) and raising heady, challenging concepts that we’ll need to think about very carefully. The first shot tells us to steel our nerves, but also reassures us that we’ll be looked after: the three ice cubes both echo and trivialise what Caspar is saying, and make us feel like we can safely take a back-seat and observe these complex goings-on from a distance; infrastructure will be constructed around this speech to help us keep track of what’s being said, and to keep it in perspective.

The second shot subverts the Godfather camera movement by dollying in (rather than out) on the speaker, allowing us to see the blurry figure approaching from the background, the clinking ice in his glass subtly emphasised on the soundtrack (again, this is marked at various key moments in the screenplay) – and there’s still something reassuring about the sense that we’re going to experience this film from his perspective, one that is relatively safe, marginal, and low on intensity.

But Caspar glances at Tom as he walks past (and again before he storms out a few minutes later), subliminally preparing us for the realisation that Tom has the real power in this scene, as ‘the man who walks behind the man, who whispers in his ear’. We don’t see Leo until Tom is standing behind him, because Leo doesn’t function without Tom. Likewise, when we do get a proper look at Tom, he immediately links eyes (and close-ups) with Eddie Dane, the man without whom Caspar cannot function – tellingly, at the moment when Caspar talks about being plunged back into anarchy, ‘right back into the jungle’, the state of chaos that will ensue when Tom and/or the Dane lose control of events. Both of these right-hand-men lose that control, or their loss of control is foreshadowed, in this scene: Tom’s ice cubes tell Leo (whispering in his ear) to cut Bernie lose, but Tom’s face reacts with visible astonishment when Leo refuses to comply; and the Dane has to take the lead standing up for Mink, and then has to put a restraining hand on Caspar’s shoulder when he loses his temper (a role Tom will usurp later on, before unleashing Caspar’s temper against the Dane).

So however lost we may feel amid this exposition-dump riddled with 1920s gangster jargon, the set-up with the drink and the unspeaking protagonist who gradually emerges from the out-of-focus shadows helps to orient us and make us feel just comfortable enough with the position we’ve been placed in. It’s complicated, but refreshments will be provided; we’re deeply involved and invested, but also cool and sedated and distanced.

That brings me to the second motif, which emerges at the tail-end of this first scene, when Caspar and the Dane have left and Tom reclines casually on the sofa, opening his mouth for the first time: ‘Bad play, Leo.’ We could have just come in from the lobby, or we could have been tuned-out for those first five minutes, but Tom can be relied upon to tell us simply and clearly what is going on and what it means. Not everything goes Tom’s way in this film, but he is always, unfailingly, right (or kind of knows he’s wrong and is groping towards being right). And the key motif here is his persistent mantra, ‘Think about it.’ I love the way he later uses this phrase to mean ‘no’ whenever anyone asks him for a favour; but it also means more than ‘no’, it means he’ll think about the request and figure out its significance in the grand scheme of things. (Significantly, the Dane knows to appropriate this motif when sending Tom to a deep dark place, confronting him with the bleak reality his life has boiled down to: ‘Think about this, smart guy.’)

In the first scene, Tom uses this phrasing to summarise the grand scheme of things, the conflict that has been set up: ‘Think about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Caspar loses us.’ Leo may speak for the confused, disoriented (and small, judging by the film’s commercial failure) audience when he says, ‘Come on Tommy, you know I don’t like to think.’ And Tom is addressing us as well as Leo when he responds, ‘Yeah – well think about whether you should start.’

This moment, and the closing of the door, prompt a cut to our first view of those trees going by overhead, with Carter Burwell’s sublimely incongruous elegiac score playing over it. I think this is another moment of comforting ‘refreshment’ for the audience, letting us escape from the claustrophobic, static shots inside Leo’s office into these beautiful tracking shots of swaying, verdant foliage. But it also foreshadows Tom’s confrontation with death; and, more generally, the fact that we see this view of the trees in the title sequence signals that this setting, this point of view, and the experiences associated with it, are what the film is centrally about. This is where you come to terms with reality, and you do so primarily from Tom’s perspective.

It was a great insight on Barry Sonnenfeld’s part that the woodland scenes should all be filmed on overcast days, and as he says they were very lucky that the weather allowed them to do this. For me, the presence of the sun in these sequences would (if only unconsciously) suggest some kind of monolithic god-like presence shining down on the characters. Instead, the reality we’re asked to come to terms with is lacking any single, objective point of reference – it’s an infinite proliferation of trees and clouds. It’s not obscured by fog, so it’s easily perceptible and not impossible to navigate; but the light is even and diffused, so this place is very easy to get lost in (‘we could have just as easily missed Bernie’s corpse as stumbled over it and I’d be dead now’). We see the forest from Tom’s point of view, and this perspective feels lucid and ‘correct’, but also cold and lonely. We have the rational faculties and the steady constitution to cope with it – and the facility with ‘snappy dialogue’ to go along with them – but by the same token we understand the weight and significance of what’s happening, and therefore understand how sad it is.

However ‘evil’ he is, the Dane’s death is invested with real pathos: you just know that he understands exactly what has happened, and in his last moments will be as aware of how his master betrayed him as Tom was earlier in the woods. And Verna doesn’t get a happy ending either. She knows that nobody really cares; she knows, deep down, that Tom got her brother killed; and she knows the best she can do is resort to marrying Leo to have some stability in her life. All she does is throw some dirt into a grave, say ‘drop dead’, and take the car on her own, but we get the picture: her position is just as desolate as Tom’s, and (in an understated, un-sentimental way) it’s truly sad.

I think that’s the key to why this film works so well: it has all the hard-nosed violence and wise-cracking and other aesthetic pleasures you could want from a film in this genre, but coupled with an emotional maturity that makes the whole thing unexpectedly profound and moving. It’s the latter part of the equation that is so often missing – from Coen Brothers films and, generally speaking, from films like this – and I can’t believe how well this film pulls it off. (Double Indemnity springs to mind as another great example, often mistaken for being tougher and colder than it really is, at least in my opinion.)

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#6 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Feb 21, 2021 2:03 pm

Sloper wrote:
Sun Feb 21, 2021 8:46 am
I don’t see much engagement with the concept of God in this film, but I guess I see something like it...

It’s very interesting to hear your reading of the ‘looking up into the trees’ sequence, when Tom is being led (seemingly) to his death. It’s a scene I’ve often replayed in my head at difficult moments in my life, and I’ve always found it very comforting. To me, it’s not quite a prayer to God, but it does trigger that consoling awareness of a larger reality – a world that encompasses me but, in the nicest possible way, doesn’t care about me or my problems. In the Coen Brothers universe, this idea is often linked to a more nihilistic worldview that says the world is blindly malevolent, cruel things will happen to you for no reason, ‘out here you’re on your own’, etc., and there is something of that in this scene. To die in the woods is to die ‘like a dumb animal’. As Tom looks up into the trees he understands how alone he is, how completely fucked he is, and how dead he will soon be. The original screenplay repeatedly emphasises the ‘unearthly’ sound of the wind blowing through the trees in these forest sequences (including at the end, which significantly was scripted to take place on a hill next to the forest, not in the forest itself) and specifies that this sound should cut out at the moment when Tom apparently shoots Bernie. The wind in the trees is suggestive of the ‘soul’ or the ‘heart’ or the ‘something’ that constitutes the fundamental part of human existence, an intangible force that means we’re alive and human. So yes, from one point of view you could connect this to the idea of God, especially since Bernie was the one ‘praying’ in the earlier scene (although, pointedly, praying to Tom and not to God).

For me, though, it’s connected to Tom’s lucid perception of reality, and of the ‘bigger picture’ of what’s really happening, rather than suggesting an appeal to a higher power. It seems to me that Tom, Eddie Dane, and Verna are the only characters in the film who enjoy this type of lucidity, and hence are the ones who tend to say the most truthful, insightful things. In the scene in question, the Dane sees Tom looking up into the trees, looks up with him, and immediately picks up on what Tom is feeling: ‘Where are your friends when you need ’em? Where’s Leo now?’ In a line that was (wisely) cut from the original script, just as he starts strangling Tom at the climax, the Dane says, ‘I like the way you think. Maybe when you’re dead I’ll cut your head off, put it on my mantelpiece.’ This is a clumsy way of underlining the affinity between these two characters. A similar-but-different affinity is signalled between Tom and Verna in various ways: her unconditional loyalty towards her comically ungrateful brother mirrors the relationship between Tom and Leo; she has painfully lucid insights into reality like ‘We’re a couple of heels’ and ‘Nobody really cares, do they?’ (cf. ‘Where’s Leo now?’); and when she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger on Tom, he says sympathetically, ‘It isn’t easy, is it Verna?’
This is a great reading, and I should clarify that I've come around to replacing the word "God" with a flexible definition of higher power to indicate a vague "awareness to a larger reality" and I'm almost always using it in that context.. I remember taking a class on spirituality in grad school where the professor said that every person, including hardened atheists, have a 'relationship' with God, even if it's a not an intimate one or one that recognizes its existence; because the basic nature of existing without omniscience forces one to react to their limitations- sometimes with flexible belief, resentful frustration, accepted ignorance via rejection or apathy and introversion, etc. So I think Tom absolutely has a "relationship" with a higher power of his understanding, and in that moment with the overcast skies (the condition of which I always realize too, and perfectly emphasizes Tom and the Coens' worldview) there is a piercing awareness intrusively reminding Tom of his lack of control. Now, whether his mind sways to prayer (to God or to luck or to fate, it doesn't matter, because regardless of what you call it, he would be looking for intervention) or whether he's meditating on how alone he is (how he's rendered impotent by his movement into the woods, away from his comfort zone of the mob-run urban streets where he can safely maneuver with his skill sets), or a frenetic combination of both and more, I'm not sure it matters. It's the sobriety to this situation itself that forcibly prompts Tom to be sober to his own vulnerabilities, and even though part of his mind can and has acknowledged his insignificance in the grand scheme of things, or located his heart and soul, or admitted how difficult it is to kill somebody (to credit his keen perceptiveness toward some degree of acceptance in how society operates, as you mention for the core three principals), those are tender aspects of the psyche that are easier to recognize when one is in their comfortable social context and able to bury it back down with a distraction in other external stimuli via manipulation, sex, gambling, or- as you point out- a drink. Tom thought he was equipped to handle his world, and even though he held the philosophy of nihilism and luck and theoretically didn’t believe he was special to be spared, the actual experience of going through this realization of disempowerment in acute detail provokes that existential defensiveness. It’s a whole different process in practice, when upended from stable supports in familiar settings and tools for psychological escape, than in theory or in practice with those stabilizers on hand.

There's definitely a reading where Tom's experience in the woods triggers sublimation, capitalizing on this awareness to use towards his advantage with humility, but I think the form of sublimation is one that defies any deviation towards a singular direction of tragedy or affirmation. In one sense, we could say that Tom has peeled back another onion layer of higher consciousness to comprehend that he must kill Bernie, that his heart is more powerful than he wanted to believe and may ultimately be a death sentence if fed. Going by this reading, his final actions are of supreme perception- where he's become self-actualized and makes a conscious decision to turn the valve of his emotion on and off with greater control, including finding a safe opportunity to turn the emotion back on in the final shot when alone in the woods. There's another reading though, where this sublimation is less of a healthy coping mechanism, and more of a regression from Tom's emotional capacity into cold apathy. My initial reading was intending to suggest that Tom had perhaps a fraction of a percentage of hope for God, or a spiritual connection with his conscience, left in him buried away in his unconscious- one that shone through in his interactions with Verna off-camera and his mercy for Bernie in the woods- and that after this experience where this was unlocked within his consciousness, Tom's sublimation works in the reverse and the overcast skies are now cast inwards over that tiny glimmer of light inside of him- not as a finite removal, but a layer of nebulous coating to allow him to carry on. I think both of these are occurring, so his change is one that is affirming and tragic, but it is also just 'what is' - an experience that has shaped Tom, just like all experiences shape us, due to our psychological mechanisms, and to call them deficits or strengths would be too concrete. Tom has evolved, and in the end we have the privilege of reading his growth as one that is life-affirming, tragic, fitting to both poles and ultimately elastic along the spectrum between them. But that's our projection, and Tom is living with it. All of this matters, but it also doesn't matter- and it's a kind of optimistic framing of nihilism that it doesn't. It is what it is, and there's something beautiful about that recognition of all evolution of character as necessary, inevitable, and profoundly moving- which, as you point out, isn't easy to pull off and is special by meditating on these feelings divorced from absolutist connotations through our, or God’s, imposed diagnostics.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#7 Post by knives » Sun Feb 21, 2021 3:01 pm

I can't find my copy so don't feel up to talking directly about the film, but I feel these excerpts (sorry for the picture quality) from Nathan Abrams' essential The New Jew in Film might help with the current conversation. These excerpts mostly focus on the film's use of stereotypes on Jewish sexuality to undermine those same concepts as well as. The first excerpt from the chapter Passivity deals with how the Coen's take the idea of the passive Jewish man and shrink it into a blatant homosexuality which is contrasted with a later chapter title Agency which deals with how Verna is portrayed as an active women. I also included a short thing about the film's use of toilets.
Hopefully this works.
Last edited by knives on Sun Feb 21, 2021 5:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#8 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Feb 21, 2021 5:19 pm

Thanks knives, that was an interesting read. What it specifically evoked for me- though not necessarily in the spirit of the essay- is how Bernie's characterization is significant for Tom to self-actualize further against. Bernie is a more marginalized person but adopts the same broadly nihilistic and individualist philosophies of Tom, yet his emotional isolation translates into the depths of sociopathy, which is existentially frightening, repelling, and also a valuable weaponized asset that Tom must also claim via assimilation and emotional sacrifice in order to survive. The irony here is that Tom and Bernie both operate within the framework that this is a dog-eat-dog world, and one with objectively indiscriminate values, but because Tom has a community and an ethical code self-prescribed by his subconscious through the love he feels for Leo, he is the underdog against Bernie who has no dominant community or imposed ethics from love.

Tom's hard exterior and manipulative actions are defense mechanisms just as Bernie's are, but Bernie's additional shell of immoral detachment is framed observationally as a fault yet subtly it's also a resilient necessity due to his marginalized status- not even so much demographically along sexuality or ethnicity but to his placement in the social order. So while there is potential for sympathy between these two men in another life, in a neutral space where their respective actions don't affect the other, this can't exist in one of both colliding wills and suppressed emotional grievance. The idea of harmony is dissolved due to the fact that Bernie is actionably creating negative consequences within the social context of constructed rules, but also because of how they hurt each other's feelings. Though they both try to swallow this sensitivity and rationalize their behaviors to the former logical reason, we sense (and Bernie even begins to express this hurt before reverting back to the pragmatics of his revenge) that the emotions are driving these actions. And of course we often detest people most who remind us of our own non-preferred qualities- so it makes sense!

This transformation of Tom also lends itself to the tragedy of his relationship with Verna. Verna, like Tom, puts up a facade of emotional apathy and engages in ethical compromise to protect her individualized love-guided ethics, but she is willing to run away with Tom, to sacrifice this cold worldview for an idealized one where they can actually be free to express themselves and be together on their terms. Now, the question of whether Tom wants this or not is up for debate - though I'd argue at least a 'part' of him does - but by vacating that emotional space in his dance with Bernie he surrenders the opportunity to escape from the confines of this familiar, and rather comfortable, world for one of idealized bliss, and in the process we are left to wonder whether this fatalism stems from helpless circumstances or from the overwhelming nihilistic psychology making these choices. I think the former influences the latter, but this is one of the reasons why this noir is so affecting- because it's this choice that masks as fate, that feels the pressure of fate- from systems, ethics, love, realism, protection, the unfamiliar fright of what "their terms" could mean outside of a milieu whose codes are predictable, etc.- and one that is fear-based and weak, as well as self-aware and strong.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#9 Post by Brian C » Sun Feb 21, 2021 10:36 pm

Interesting comments here, and as it happens, by coincidence I rewatched the movie myself a few weeks ago as part of a planned slow chronological Coens retrospective. I continue to think that Blood Simple is clever but sort of amateurish and ultimately inconsequential, and that Raising Arizona is mostly tedious aside from the ever-wonderful Holly Hunter (aside from The Ladykillers, it's my least favorite Coen film by a wide margin). But Miller's Crossing to me is the movie where the Coens really came into their own.

Anyway, having seen the film four or five times now, I'm left wondering more than ever what Tom's real motivations are. I'm pretty sure he doesn't care much for Verna, and I'm not even so sure he cares much about Leo, at least on a person-to-person level. What I am pretty convinced of, though, is that he very highly values his position as Leo's right-hand man, to the extent that his self-perception is almost entirely consumed by it and he even is Leo's right-hand man after Leo fires him and leaves him for dead. The prestige and power that he holds in that position - I always get a kick by how much he enjoys making fun of the mayor and police chief who are subservient to Leo and then Caspar - is plainly a source of great pride to him, and I think he spends the movie trying to get that back, only to fail.

It seems no coincidence to me that the movie opens at the exact moment that Leo disregards Tom's advice, in what I think we can safely presume is an extremely rare event, if it's even happened before at all. With his clear-eyed foresight, he knows that his position is now threatened, and this sets into motion everything else he does subsequently. And so he makes his move, immediately visiting his boss's girlfriend and the source of the threat to his position. The dialogue here indicates that they've been lovers before, but the scene plays to me a lot more as if he's setting up his move than it does a source of emotional fulfillment to him. Then Leo stops by and Tom makes another attempt to talk him out of his relationship with Verna in extremely harsh and derogatory terms.

Later, when Tom tells Leo about his affair with Verna, I think it's pretty clearly revealed that his interest in Verna was mostly as a weapon to use against Leo. That's his whole play - if he can't convince Leo that Verna's no good on her own terms, then he'll make a graphic example of what he's talking about to throw in Leo's face. It's the perfect play, a wedge in between Leo and Verna, and even if that doesn't convince Leo (and it probably won't), then it gives him cover to get closer to Caspar to make his play there. This is who Tom is - two steps ahead, always thinking through the angles.

The way I interpret the ending is that he knows that Leo's intention to marry Verna means that the rift between them is permanent; as long as Leo has someone else around that he values and cares about, then he can't have the position that he held before. His advice might be sought and even followed most of the time, but always there would be interference, another point of view to compete against. This might be "love" in some sense - it's not like he was willing to play the same role under Caspar, after all - but I guess in the final analysis of things I think Tom and Leo and even Caspar aren't that different. All of them want to run things, but Tom recognized that he could run things most effectively with Leo as a front. And that'll never be the same, so he walks away, having lost irretrievably what he was trying to regain and the source of his identity. It's to the movie's credit, though, that I can't see how things will go from there with him. Most likely, probably, is that without Leo's protection - which isn't made explicit but seems reasonable to presume he has - Tom's proclivity for running up huge gambling debts will get him killed.

I guess I see Tom through a much more cynical and self-dealing lens than either of you guys, but truth be told it's hard to really say. One of the pleasures of the movie to me, and the one that makes it so rewatchable, is that the plot hits all the expected genre beats, but the characters have such rich inner lives, even if those are not very clearly seen by the audience. And so their motives are hard to work out very clearly even if their actions are to some extent predictable and demanded by the genre. Take Verna for example - how does she really feel about Leo or Tom, or even Bernie for that matter? It's easy to see Leo as a means of security for her and I would guess she's legitimately looking out for Bernie too, but like Tom, she's working a lot of angles and seems to have multiple irons in the fire. Are her feelings for Tom more genuine than her feelings for Leo, or is he just another play for her? Maybe she's even counting on Tom spilling about their affair together, as a jealousy play to secure her position with Leo.

Or the Dane - how strong is his loyalty to Caspar? We know he's prone to a double-cross, and is it possible that the reason Caspar is swayed so easily in the end is that Tom sort of accidentally stumbled on the truth? Obviously the suggestion of double-crossing Tom had a huge impact on Caspar and his sense of "ethics", and maybe it just confirmed Caspar's gnawing doubts that he already had to begin with. After all, Tom and the Dane are negative copies of each other in so many ways. The Dane is a gleeful killer, and he's so much blunter and instinctive than Tom, to the point of being downright contemptuous of Tom's "smart guy" methods and personality. Honestly, Caspar is more like Tom than the Dane is, and it's natural for me to wonder if the Dane wasn't just as contemptuous of Caspar, and perhaps didn't like being "the man behind the man" as Tom did. But then, Tom's loyalty to Leo isn't as rock-solid as it seems, either, since he's willing to walk away in the end.

At any rate, I like what Sloper says about Tom, Verna, and the Dane being separate in their fundamental ability to see the world more than the other characters. They really do stand out, and they also play closer to the vest than the others. Caspar can't breathe without spilling everything that he's feeling, and Leo has the confident indifference of a man that's used to not being challenged often and coming out on top even when he is. But the other three remain largely hidden to us, in ways that become more interesting to me the more I watch the film.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#10 Post by Sloper » Thu Feb 25, 2021 1:28 pm

knives wrote:
Sun Feb 21, 2021 3:01 pm
I feel these excerpts (sorry for the picture quality) from Nathan Abrams' essential The New Jew in Film might help with the current conversation... Hopefully this works.
Thanks for sharing this knives, it was an interesting read. I think there are some contradictions in Abrams' reading of Verna: he says that she is 'defined solely by her manipulative sexuality', that she 'seduces Tom', and finally that she is 'a coldly manipulative, hyper-sexual Jewess, but one who is simultaneously caring and family-minded, going to extraordinary lengths to take care of her brother in a display of menschlikayt'. He also seems to take Bernie's derogatory comments about her more or less at face value, when it seems to me they're meant to provoke a complex response.

Abrams is responding to one 'angle' from which Verna is looked at - the one that says she is a 'grifter tramp' playing the necessary angles to survive. Tom occupies this stance very stridently when trying to get Leo or Verna to do what he wants, but like the story about Dane selling out Caspar's fix, I think it's a convenient fiction, or rather (in this case) a half-truth. Tom is fond of saying 'Nobody knows anybody', but when Verna retorts, 'You know [that I'm not a murderer] or you wouldn't be here', I think she's essentially right. Yes, her relationship with Leo is largely pragmatic, but she's quite open about her motivations - and yes, she's cheating on Leo with Tom, but she also makes it clear she would drop Leo in a second if Tom ever made a commitment to her. I might say more about this (my next post will be a self-indulgent 'stuff I love about Miller's Crossing' epic) but I thought it was a relevant thing to point out given twbb and Brian C's points about the opacity of the characters:
therewillbeblus wrote:
Sun Feb 21, 2021 2:03 pm
But that's our projection, and Tom is living with it. All of this matters, but it also doesn't matter- and it's a kind of optimistic framing of nihilism that it doesn't. It is what it is, and there's something beautiful about that recognition of all evolution of character as necessary, inevitable, and profoundly moving
Brian C wrote:
Sun Feb 21, 2021 10:36 pm
Anyway, having seen the film four or five times now, I'm left wondering more than ever what Tom's real motivations are. I'm pretty sure he doesn't care much for Verna, and I'm not even so sure he cares much about Leo, at least on a person-to-person level. What I am pretty convinced of, though, is that he very highly values his position as Leo's right-hand man, to the extent that his self-perception is almost entirely consumed by it and he even is Leo's right-hand man after Leo fires him and leaves him for dead. The prestige and power that he holds in that position - I always get a kick by how much he enjoys making fun of the mayor and police chief who are subservient to Leo and then Caspar - is plainly a source of great pride to him, and I think he spends the movie trying to get that back, only to fail.
Brian, I really like your reading of the film, and it made me look at some things in a new light. I disagree on some points, but as both the above quotations indicate, the obscurity of these characters' inner lives is a key feature of the film, and one of the things carried over from the Dashiell Hammett novels. There are so many clues hinting at deep feelings, psychological dysfunction, and intense motivations - but we never get the key that unlocks and explains everything, and are left with the intricate but superficial power-plays and manipulations.

One exchange that comes to mind here:

Verna: I wanna know why. What was in it for you?

Tom: Nothing for me. Giving up Bernie was the only way I could see to square things for Leo.

Verna: I thought you said you didn't care about Leo?

Tom: I said we were through, it's not the same thing.

Verna: I don't understand and I don't care - I don't care what reasons you had, or you thought you had.

Tom comes unusually close to expressing an actual emotion here, but stops short. According to Brian's reading, he's deluded when he says that there was 'nothing in it for him', because he was still chasing that lost power and influence; and I guess in this reading, if Verna hadn't gone back to Leo and proposed, Tom would have accepted his job back at the end.

Maybe a related question here is, why is Tom 'through' with Leo after he gets beaten out of the Shenandoah Club? If I'm trying to read Tom's expressions during that sequence - or projecting something onto them - I think it's more than just a sense of public humiliation and loss of status. He's genuinely mortified and betrayed that Leo has not only turned against him, but that he can't see what's really going on and is obstinately making so many 'bad plays'. There's some hurt pride there, of course, but a stronger sense of real disappointment in his master, and a sense that Tom no longer wants to work for someone who can't be trusted to listen to reason - he cares enough about Leo to save him, but his job as Leo's advisor has become untenable. I think that would still be the problem even if Verna were out of the picture.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#11 Post by therewillbeblus » Thu Feb 25, 2021 2:46 pm

Without getting too deep into my field, I think this reflects how when someone says they “don’t care” it’s almost always a half-lie. If you didn’t care you wouldn’t even utilize the effort to stress that you didn’t care, or engage in conflict, so part of Verna does care about Tom’s reasons despite saying she doesn’t, likely because she understands that she cannot understand him fully (just as Tom’s actions throughout the film are revolved around him inserting himself into conflict- his demonstrations that he ‘cares’ are louder than any character's in this film- what he cares 'about' is up for debate, and I think all the responses in this thread so far are partially right about the depths of complexity that begin to answer this question that’s as enigmatic to Tom as it is to us).

Anyways this exchange with Verna Is one of many sober moments in this film where characters realize how hard it is to know anybody, even if, as you say, we can glean some information from others to know them a little. Whether this intimacy is ‘enough’ is the question. I see Verna and Tom both taking rather tragic trajectories in their respective, and delicately blended, narratives; deciding to default to their comfortable ways of superficial introversion to avoid the challenge of coping with the emotional risks of making themselves vulnerable for the sake of knowing a small fragment of an unpredictable lover. It feels futile, hopeless, unstable, a poor gamble to stake one’s life on (including and most acutely both their emotional and physical wellbeing). It's a strong enough surge of ineffable mass for these characters to diagnose as fatalism, but I think what makes this noir more interesting than most is that we're left holding the weighty concepts of fate, chance, and agency together, and recontextualizing fatalism to incorporate the the tendencies of our own emotional defense mechanisms to prescribe that result, along with the realism of an engulfment by cosmic and corporeally powerful external forces. Other noirs hit on this too, but not quite so deeply, and without the same dose of humility in refusing to assign a concrete diagnosis while offering empathy to the characters as they scramble to find that concrete conclusiveness, even when the paths they take may seem to be regressive. They're not, at least the therapist in me doesn't think so.

I think Tom is ‘through’ with Leo for similar reasons as Verna and Tom do for being 'through' with each other - Leo has become unpredictable. He loves Leo and covets that place at his table, but that risk of making himself vulnerable to a man who unpredictably rejected him (however predictable a reaction to betrayal should be, Tom certainly wasn’t expecting a physical beating) as well as made emotionally-based illogical moves that threatened both their social positions, can’t be rationalized by the heart or the mind any longer. It’s self-preservation of all these areas- of emotion, logic, and the threats to mortality- that cause Tom to part from Leo, but he cannot stop caring, and this circles back to my earlier post in highlighting that Tom is (in ways rooted in emotion, ethics, and the spiritual inner connection between both that he cannot comprehend half of) compelled to act on this 'care.'

This is a film about a lot of things, but one that I'm fairly certain about is the boundless risks that spawn from social and emotional engagement, and how we respond to those to protect ourselves and others, at times from a safe distance without full awareness of the 'reasons' under the iceberg of our psyches driving us. These actions are as contradictory as all of ours in real life, yet they carry internal logics that are relatable in observation and give empathy to the inner conflict, at times framed in the externalization of an outer conflict, and that's part of what makes this film so powerful: it's a giant onion to peel back layers from just like our own psychological and existential plights within our milieus. I have hidden my heart from myself and from others, and shown it alone when at a safe distance, and regardless of all the phenomenological casual links or psychological foundations, that experience, isolated from reason, matters.

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Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#12 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Feb 25, 2021 4:07 pm

Maybe an unexpected reading:

Tom’s weird thing with Leo makes sense if you understand it as a long-term romantic relationship, but a homosocial one where desire is displaced onto a woman they both share. Tom, the more knowing of the two, knows he’s interacting with Leo on this level and is ambivalent; Leo is oblivious, and when he finds out, abusive.

Tom’s subsequent reactions are those of someone in a serious long-term relationship that’s been abruptly severed, with things said and done that can’t be withdrawn, but where the connection has been too deep and long-lasting to just be divested. Tom still loves Leo; that feeling isn’t just going to disappear. But he knows too that the relationship they had no longer exists and cannot be returned to. Too much has changed. Leo doesn’t understand this; he tries to resume things as tho’ nothing had changed, and takes Tom’s reaction to the offer of reconciliation as simple, petty rejection, to which Leo has an uncomplicated reaction of annoyance. Tom has a more complicated understanding of what’s happened, and stares at Leo with concern and loss, but without doubt or insecurity. Tom’s final look is that of an old lover who has to give up the longest, most important relationship of his life because he knows love isn’t enough to keep it going.

In that central relationship, one party is perceptive and sensitive, less dominant, more other-focussed, a caretaker. The other party is willful, dominant, a provider and safety-net, but self-focused, lacking awareness, expecting others to take care of him without understanding what that care means to them nor what they go through to provide it. When the relationship ends, Tom can’t stop taking care of Leo like always because, well, such patterns are hard to break, especially when the emotional impetus behind them is still there. So when Tom claims he’s not doing anything for himself by helping Leo, he’s right in a material sense, he’s not seeking any particular gain, but wrong in an emotional sense. He cannot stand around and see his love hurt.

The movie is an interesting portrait of the aftermath of a long term romantic partnership, just with fedoras and tommyguns. (You aren’t required to take this angle with strict literalness).

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#13 Post by knives » Thu Feb 25, 2021 4:11 pm

Lovely points all. I think your valid comments on Abrams is addressed by how they are excerpts and not full readings. The book’s big theory as addressed by the title is that starting roughly in the ‘90s Jews were portrayed in a new way compared with previous generations with the surface implications being his main concern. How those surface portrayals of passivity and agency are changed.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#14 Post by Sloper » Sun Feb 28, 2021 12:54 pm

therewillbeblus wrote:This is a film about a lot of things, but one that I'm fairly certain about is the boundless risks that spawn from social and emotional engagement, and how we respond to those to protect ourselves and others, at times from a safe distance without full awareness of the 'reasons' under the iceberg of our psyches driving us.
That’s a really good way of putting it, and I think it gets at the reason why I like Miller’s Crossing so much more than any other Coen Brothers films. Most of the time, I feel like the Coens aren’t willing to risk getting emotionally invested in their characters. They prefer maintaining a distance, and this means that a lot of their films are just cynical and hard-nosed (nothing wrong with that in itself), while others feel like they have a gaping hole at their centre, or they come across as false and sentimental when they do try for emotional depth.

Miller’s Crossing is a perfect fit for their sensibility because it’s specifically about emotional repression and the dangers of commitment or attachment, so the thing I find problematic in their other films is the focal point of this one. The whole film is shot through with this theme and, amid the complex plotting, it articulates all the relevant ideas very clearly, giving the story a sense of coherence and emotional resonance; but it simultaneously manages not to spell the theme out too obviously or mawkishly, maintaining its cool façade in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

Here I'd like to underline twbb’s earlier point about the unwelcome bond formed between Tom and Bernie after their ordeal in the woods:
therewillbeblus wrote:…while there is potential for sympathy between these two men in another life, in a neutral space where their respective actions don't affect the other, this can't exist in one of both colliding wills and suppressed emotional grievance. The idea of harmony is dissolved due to the fact that Bernie is actionably creating negative consequences within the social context of constructed rules, but also because of how they hurt each other's feelings. Though they both try to swallow this sensitivity and rationalize their behaviors to the former logical reason, we sense (and Bernie even begins to express this hurt before reverting back to the pragmatics of his revenge) that the emotions are driving these actions. And of course we often detest people most who remind us of our own non-preferred qualities- so it makes sense!
That scene where Bernie pleads for his life, which significantly takes place at the mid-point of the film, also stands out as the most 'emotionally naked' moment. The scene has a huge impact on me every time: despite knowing how he will blackmail Tom later on, I always find Bernie’s frenzied plea for mercy utterly harrowing.

This is down to a lot of things, but primarily the acting. Turturro’s performance here goes so far beyond what you would expect in a scene like this, and takes the scene to a level that should feel insanely over-the-top, but doesn’t because it’s perfectly judged and measured at the level of the smallest detail. Anyone can flail and scream hysterically, but it takes real skill to do this with such conviction. Bernie’s breakdown in the forest feels completely authentic to me: Turturro goes to a very dark place when he incoherently spits out the words ‘this is some hop dream’ and you can barely make out what he’s saying, or when he screams over and over again, ‘I can’t die out here in the woods like a dumb animal’.

The key thing, I think, is that it’s so embarrassing. It’s not Tom Haverford in Parks and Rec, bursting into tears until you’re so disgusted that you’ll do anything to make him stop – it’s the tragic version of that, where you look at Bernie and see the naked, shivering, spluttering reality of the human condition; the panicking, cornered animal that we all turn into at the moment of death. There’s a moment in Red Harvest where a character is dying and refuses to show any pain or fear, and the narrator says something like, ‘He was determined to die as he had lived, in that same hard shell.’ In this scene Tom Reagan, filmed from a low angle, his expression as hard as a rock, stalking onwards in perfect harmony with the camera, embodies that hard shell, and the confrontation between that image and the reverse-shots of Bernie (stumbling around, adjusting his braces, looking back over his shoulder, and finally losing all equilibrium and collapsing to his knees) packs an enormous existential punch. The music sounds like – I don’t know how to put this any better – mortality itself, looming slowly but inevitably towards Bernie, with Tom as its instrument, with tolling chimes and needling strings that sound like spirits reaching up to drag Bernie into the underworld. This is what actually happens when you ‘take him into the woods and whack him’.

A possible loose-end in a generally airtight plot: it’s not entirely convincing that neither Frankie nor Tic-Tac would accompany Tom on this errand. But then again I think the film works hard to get away with this. Partly I think this is where the ‘triviality’ of the gangsters pays off; it’s in character for them to prefer hanging around by the car and drinking, because they like each other’s company and they don’t take their work seriously (notice Tic-Tac rolling his eyes when repeating his boss’s rule about ‘putting one in the brain’). But in this case it also makes sense because why would anyone willingly subject themselves to the traumatic experience Tom has here?

The question at the heart of the near-execution scene is, what do you do if you’re in Tom’s place? You’re looking at a man, Bernie, whose ‘manly resolve’ has completely disintegrated and who will not disguise any of the terror he feels when faced with death.

Leo regards himself as invulnerable, some minor characters (like the Sam Raimi gunman) die as though they expect to re-spawn a few seconds later, and even Tom – when placed in the same position as Bernie – limits himself to staring mournfully up into the trees before collapsing and vomiting; he understands what’s about to happen and the snappy dialogue dries up, but insofar as he expresses his fear, he does so involuntarily.

Not so Bernie: he externalises everything that’s going on inside him, exposing his ‘heart’ completely. He repeatedly asks Tom to at least acknowledge that he has these same fears in his heart. If you can feel that connection to another person, on that most basic level of empathising with their fear of death, how can you kill them? The question never arises as long as we stay inside our hard shells and refuse to communicate or connect, and inhabiting a world like that is one of the great pleasures of the Dashiell Hammett / film noir / gangster genre. But in the best examples of this genre there are always moments when the cracks show, when Phyllis Dietrichson discovers feelings she didn't know she had, or Ned Beaumont stares ruefully at the empty space left by his former master.

Part of the ‘genre commentary’ in Miller’s Crossing involves taking these moments of vulnerability and amplifying them, within a surrounding narrative that also amplifies the artifice and absurdity of the genre’s conventions, language, and so on. (By the way I love the running joke about Rug’s hair – ‘They took his hair, Tommy… Jesus that’s strange’ / ‘Why did Mink take Rug’s hair?’ ‘Ah beats me, the kid was dizzy’ – and it feels like a parody of the ‘Who killed the chauffeur?’ aspect of the Chandler/Hammett-type mysteries, where the plotting is so intricate and detailed that you end up with too many loose ends and you find yourself obsessively trying to resolve them all.) By playing up both sides of this equation, the film ends up doing more than just toying with genre tropes, and asks profound questions about why we tell and enjoy stories like this, and what they tell us about repression, vulnerability, and so on.

To get back on point: Bernie’s frenzy is naked and embarrassing. So yes, it’s no wonder that he feels so humiliated by this, and is so intent on getting his revenge on Tom – not just for betraying him, but for making him show such vulnerability, as if that were the worst thing one person could do to another. ‘I guess I made kind of a fool of myself out there. Bawling away like a twist. You didn’t tell anyone about that? … Of course, you know about it.’

That phrase ‘like a twist’ is also used by Leo when Tom storms out on him: ‘Goddamn kid’s just like a twist!’ It means that Tom is too sensitive, too easily offended, too attached (‘Mother hen, eh?’), and it’s another embarrassing moment: Leo’s credibility has been crucially undermined in front of O’Doole and the mayor, but it's also embarrassing in the way that a lovers’ tiff is (for those who have to witness it), compromising the polished, professional appearance of the Leo/Tom relationship that we saw in the first scene.

It’s also telling that Bernie responds so viciously to Tom’s (brilliant) ‘But what have I done for you lately?’ wisecrack: ‘Don’t smart me. See, I wanna watch you squirm. I wanna see you sweat a little. And when you smart me, it ruins it.’ Tom doesn’t get to be the smart, hard shell anymore – now he has the be the vulnerable one. ‘You make me laugh, Tommy. You’re gonna catch cold and then you’re no good to me.’ Bernie even mocks him for his over-sensitivity in the face of his (Bernie's!) vulnerability: ‘I’d just squirt a few and then you’d let me go again.’ You’d have to be so weak and soft, ‘like a twist’, to be moved to sympathy by someone who just ‘squirts a few’; but of course we know that Bernie did a lot more than that, and was not putting on an act, and now he's trying to save face.

When Tom hears Bernie’s plea to ‘Look in your heart’ at the end and responds, ‘What heart?’ before (loyal to Caspar’s instructions) putting one in the brain, I don’t think he’s saying ‘I have no heart’, but rather is asking a different rhetorical question: ‘What [do you know about my] heart?’ (cf. Leo earlier, ‘Maybe you’re wrong about this, you don’t know what’s in Verna’s heart’, and again, Tom’s repeated insistence that ‘No one knows anyone’). The point is not that Tom has no feelings, but that this time he won’t allow Bernie access to them. He made the mistake of allowing that connection to form in the woods, but this time the hard shell remains intact. Like the operative in Red Harvest, Tom is by this point resigned to being ‘blood-simple’ and meting out death without hesitation or remorse. His rhetorical question lets Bernie know that, with everything else that’s happened, it is now presumptuous to think that Tom has too much empathy to gun a guy down.

In short, Tom isn’t denying his feelings, but he is closing himself off having been burned too much and too often by human attachments, and he is also signalling that whatever constitutes his ‘heart’ is now capable of cold-blooded murder, at least in this case. It’s both a very satisfying, cathartic, and ‘cool’ moment of resolution, and a really tragic conclusion to the ‘problem of Bernie’. It encompasses everything that has gone before, including the emotional impact of the scenes in the woods and of all the deaths, betrayals, and other sacrifices that have been set in motion by Bernie’s chiselling and Leo’s refusal to play by the rules. It makes complete sense that Tom does this, and it’s sort of a relief; but it also carries a huge cost, and there’s still something poignant about Bernie’s look of utter bewilderment when that tiny hole appears in his forehead.

Then we come to the ending, and the other moment of resolution and catharsis:
Mr Sausage wrote:Leo doesn’t understand this; he tries to resume things as tho’ nothing had changed, and takes Tom’s reaction to the offer of reconciliation as simple, petty rejection, to which Leo has an uncomplicated reaction of annoyance. Tom has a more complicated understanding of what’s happened, and stares at Leo with concern and loss, but without doubt or insecurity. Tom’s final look is that of an old lover who has to give up the longest, most important relationship of his life because he knows love isn’t enough to keep it going.

In that central relationship, one party is perceptive and sensitive, less dominant, more other-focussed, a caretaker. The other party is willful, dominant, a provider and safety-net, but self-focused, lacking awareness, expecting others to take care of him without understanding what that care means to them nor what they go through to provide it.
(The second paragraph here reminds me a lot of Raising Arizona (my next-favourite Coen Brothers film) – not sure where to go with that but wanted to mention it.)

That’s a great analysis of the difference between Tom’s and Leo’s reactions. Leo is so oblivious and clueless about what has really happened. Calling what Tom has done a ‘smart play’ seems reductive to us, having witnessed everything first-hand, and Leo is also missing something crucial when he says ‘I supposed you picked that fight with me just to chuck yourself in with Caspar?’ Tom replies, ‘I don’t know. Do you always know why you do things?’ And Leo just says, complacently, ‘Sure I do.’ This harks back to their earlier exchange where Leo says ‘You do anything to help your friends like you do anything to kick your enemies’ and Tom retorts, ‘Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.’

At first the two conversations seem to contradict each other, as if Tom by the end has lost track of his reasons for doing things. But I think another key detail here is where Tom says that ‘there just wasn’t any point’ in telling Leo what he was up to. He already tried as hard as he could to talk sense into Leo, and failed. Tom knows why he did all these things; but he's past the point of wanting to sustain his bond with Leo by telling him about these reasons. What would have been the point in explaining to Leo what it took to take care of him and straighten things out for him, when he was clearly too narcissistic to appreciate or understand this? Leo is eager to throw money at Tom, or to demand help (‘Help me out Tom, I wouldn’t know where to start looking’, ‘I’d give anything if you’d come and work for me again – I need you’), but he never really does anything to indicate that he cares about Tom. It's arguably a case of unrequited love.

I particularly like your comment about the lack of doubt and insecurity in Tom’s rejection here. One of my favourite moments is when Leo magnanimously forgives Tom (‘Damn it Tom, I forgive you’, the ‘damn it’ suggesting that he’s making a generous effort here) and without missing a beat Tom says, ‘I didn’t ask for that and I don’t want it. [Long pause.] Goodbye Leo.’ There isn’t the slightest sense that Tom is making a mistake here, or that he’s just being ‘stubborn and pig-headed’ – in fact this is probably the healthiest and least self-destructive thing he does in the whole film. Like the killing of Bernie, it comes at a cost and with a sense of loss, but it’s also incredibly satisfying and makes you breathe a sigh of relief. It has that one-two-punch rhythm you find in a lot of great endings: Bernie is the problem, so Tom kills him; but then, on a deeper level, Leo is the problem, so Tom rejects him.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, something really interesting happens on the soundtrack here, and to understand it we need to look back at the other scenes in the woods.

First, at the end of the title sequence, we hear the wind blowing underneath the music as the hat drifts away into the forest. Then, when Tom takes Bernie into the woods, we hear the wind again, underneath the music and accompanying it: when Tom is pointing the gun down at Bernie, you hear the wind rise to a higher pitch twice, in two waves, with a sort of haunting, howling sound. But when the shot is fired and the music cuts out, we hear something different: the trees creaking. It’s significant that the sound first occurs when the music stops, and that it occurs again throughout the scene where Tom is led to his near-death, where there is no extra-diegetic music. To some extent, I think this means that the sound is a kind of supplementary layer to the soundtrack, fleshing out the ‘aural scene-setting’ at moments when this won’t get in the way of the score (which the wind doesn't because, unlike the creaking, it has a more musical quality).

But the sound means more than this, I think, and is obviously picking up on the detail I noted before from the screenplay, which repeatedly describes the forest sounds as ‘unearthly’. It’s kind of a horror-movie sound effect, like the timbers of a swaying ghost ship, or floorboards creaking in a haunted house. Because it’s associated with Miller’s Crossing, a location associated primarily with death, the sound evokes dead souls bristling in the trees, and it's also kind of a hollow, rattling, skeletal sound. Literally, of course, it’s the sound of the indifferent, non-sentient wood that surrounds Bernie and tells him he’s going to die ‘in the woods like a dumb animal’. We first hear it at the moment when Bernie thinks he is dead, and then is told that he’s (effectively) dead, and the sound continues to reverberate as Bernie runs away and Tom is left alone to reflect on his choice. The sound fades away as Tom returns to the car, and we next hear it when he is brought back to Miller’s Crossing and has to face death himself. Having Frankie singing ‘La Ghirlandeina’ here provides a poignant contrast: it’s an obliviously sentimental, joyful song about Frankie’s ancestral homeland, while Tom’s ears are filled with the ominous creaking of the woods and the Dane’s cold-blooded taunts. This adds another layer of meaning to Tom’s gaze up into the canopy – he’s listening to the trees as well as looking at them.

For me, the most important thing here is the thematic link between the confrontation with mortality in the scene with Bernie, Tom’s empathic decision to spare his life, and the mortal danger this puts him in. The doom-filled music in the earlier scene represented Tom, the agent of death bearing down on his victim; when he gave up that role, he suddenly found himself hearing what Bernie had been hearing when he was looking frantically up at the trees; and that’s the sound that fills his ears again now that his number is up. (This is one reason why it’s so important to have a brief reprise of the ‘killing Bernie’ music when Tom finally does kill him, and why it feels like there’s something missing from the tampered-with blu-ray versions: Tom is reclaiming the role he had renounced before, and the repetition of the musical motifs helps to underline this narrative arc.)

We next hear the creaking of the trees in the final scene, but it doesn’t kick in until just after Tom says ‘Goodbye Leo’. Again, it helps to fill out the soundtrack for a few moments while there’s no dialogue and no score, so it does have an important ‘pragmatic’ function. But thematically, it gives weight and meaning to the rejection. Even if we only register it subliminally, that haunting creaking noise means death, and specifically it means Tom’s awareness of death. I’m repeating my earlier point here, but I think the soundtrack (among other things) is linking Tom’s rejection to the multiple deaths he has caused, been complicit in, or witnessed, and perhaps most of all to the death he almost suffered himself.

How could Leo understand any of this? How could Tom explain it to him? The ‘Danny Boy’ sequence, taken on its own terms, is very ‘cool’, and Leo is ‘an artist with a Thompson’, but I don’t think we’re invited to have an uncomplicatedly flippant response to this scene, and on one level it tells us that Leo is a sociopath. Take the machine-gunning of the assassin in the window: in a sense it’s absurd and funny, but there’s also something vividly horrifying about a corpse being held aloft by tommy-gun fire, dancing around and still spraying bullets from its own gun. Maybe I’m going too deep here, but we’re watching a dead man behave as though he were still alive, and there’s a link between this and Leo’s delusional attitude towards mortality. He’s surrounded by danger and all he hears is a sentimental Irish song – his version of ‘La Ghirlandeina’. (I also feel like there's a subliminal association between this flailing dead man and Bernie flapping his arms around in the woods.)

No sooner have we seen Leo coolly posing with tommy-gun and cigar than Tom bursts in on him with a series of rebukes: how does Leo not understand how vulnerable he is, how close he came to dying, how much this war will ‘hurt everyone’ and ‘mean killing’; how does none of this register with him? Mr S has commented on Leo’s annoyed, bemused expression at the end of the film, and this recalls his reaction when Tom reveals his affair with Verna. First he laughs, as if Tom has made a joke; then he makes a strange groaning noise which I always take to mean, ‘Damn it, now I have to think about this in order to figure out how to respond’; and then he just opts for the dumbest, most obvious, macho-posturing response and beats the shit out of a man who is putting up absolutely no defence. To quote Mr S again:
Mr Sausage wrote:Tom’s weird thing with Leo makes sense if you understand it as a long-term romantic relationship, but a homosocial one where desire is displaced onto a woman they both share. Tom, the more knowing of the two, knows he’s interacting with Leo on this level and is ambivalent; Leo is oblivious, and when he finds out, abusive.
Part of what’s frustrating about Leo is his refusal to take his relationship with Tom, or with anything, seriously - he never thinks about anything. In the relationship between Tom and Verna, it is Tom's apparent failure to care (though not to think) that causes problems. I'm responding here to some of the earlier readings of Verna in this thread: I think one of the poignant things about Verna is how obviously hurt she is by Tom’s wisecracks and assumption that 'playing the angle' is all anyone in this world can do. For instance, when she says, ‘You think last night was just more campaigning for my brother?’ she seems (to me) totally sincere, and is urging Tom to take her feelings for him seriously. He responds by grabbing her and insulting her, and she calls him a ‘pathetic rum-head’ (read: ‘you don’t mean that, you’re just saying it because you’re drunk – go home and dry out’); then Tom drunkenly sneers ‘And I love you angel’ and kisses her against her will. There are lots of reasons for her to be angry here, and to punch him, but most of all I think her anger is a response to Tom’s brutal parody of feelings that, for her, are profound and earnest (cf. ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ playing over Leo’s ‘kiss-off’).

You see this earnestness most clearly after Verna has been dumped by Leo: she’s not even particularly angry at Tom, looks forward to leaving town with him, and kisses him affectionately when he later gives her the vague update about Bernie. His guilty face at this moment tells us that he knows how she feels, and probably (I think) feels the same way about her, but is locked out of expressing this by circumstances. Perhaps he cares just as little for Verna as Leo does for him, but his pained expression when Leo tells him he and Verna are getting married suggests that Tom does ‘love’ her in some way. But this is a complicated issue, and to analyse this aspect of the film, I think you’d need to compare it with the ending of The Glass Key – especially the version in the novel, which is more sobering than in the film. And of course, as twbb noted earlier, Tom’s loss of both relationships recalls the ending of The Third Man, a film the Coens frequently watch when preparing to make a new film (I think I heard this on the Joel Coen episode of the Team Deakins podcast).



Just to ramble on a bit – because this opportunity doesn’t come along every fortnight – I’d like to go back to twbb’s very first point in this thread:
therewillbeblus wrote:This is on the shortlist of the most engaging, simply entertaining movie experiences I've ever had and continue to have each watch, in addition to its thematic and emotional power. It's interesting, exciting, witty, hilarious, and tragic.
Yes - above all, this is just an amazingly well-made, entertaining film.

The colours, for example, are perfect: there’s just enough sepia, green, brown, pink, red, and black, in just the right combinations and just the right number of scenes, starting with that beautiful first shot of the drinks cabinet. It’s not just that each individual scene looks great, it’s that the overall visual rhythm (within and between scenes) is so well judged: in a film that’s as heavy on dialogue and exposition as this one, it’s important to vary the settings and colours, and this film manages that in perfect harmony with its period-specific world-building.

That world-building, more generally, is another of the main reasons why this film is so special to me. Period films – including some made by the Coens – can become tiresome when it feels like they’re ‘playing’ too much with the period trappings, or when they don’t do so with real conviction (and I'd say conviction rather than authenticity is what counts here). I know some people feel that way about this film, seeing it as a cartoonish and messy pastiche that's all style and no substance. But it seems to me that Miller’s Crossing is so in love with its Prohibition-era setting, and with the Dashiell Hammett tropes and language, and so thoroughly committed to inhabiting them and putting them together into a meaningful story, that it’s a textbook example of what a really good pastiche can accomplish.

It also has to be said that there’s something about the setting and its aesthetic, and the way the Coens use this, that appeals to me on a hard-to-define and largely unconscious level, and that may even be the primary reason why I’ve been obsessively re-watching this film since I was 14. It’s a place I love to spend time in.

I love Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography, and as great as Roger Deakins is (and the other cinematographers they’ve worked with), I think something is missing in Barton Fink and the subsequent films, compared to those first three. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say what that missing thing is, but it’s something like life, or energy, or wit, or at least the particular kinds of life, energy, and wit that Sonnenfeld brings… He made a conscious decision to tone down his hyperactive style and fondness for wide-angle lenses, and opt for a more ‘handsome’ approach in this film, and as with the colour-scheme, the dynamic between static telephoto-lens shots and wide shots that establish the settings and spatial relations is finely tuned in every scene. And then, what an impact it has when the Dane says ‘That ain’t all we know, smart guy – recognise your playmate?’ and we get that characteristic Sonnenfeld camera movement, pushing in dramatically like an excited child towards the faces of Drop Johnson and then Tom, then repeating this movement at several other key moments in the scene, including Tom’s reaction to the Dane’s death. Saving up these camera moves is such an effective way of amplifying the intensity of this climactic scene. (And what a great set that cavernous, hellish room is.)

The timing of the editing, the shot-reverse-shots, the sound effects, it’s all perfect. One detail I particularly like: notice the repetition of, ‘Hello Tom. [Door closes behind Tom.] You know O’Doole and the mayor.’ The timing of the closing door is the same in both cases, and this is what really sells the joke. I look forward to both moments, and they always make me laugh.

And now let’s talk about my favourite moment in the film. All four scenes with Bernie (not counting the phone call) are my favourites, and the one in the woods is probably the best, but it’s his first encounter with Tom that contains this unparalleled treasure:

Tom: Leo gets your sister, what are you selling me?

Bernie: Come on Tom, it’s not like that at all, it wasn’t my idea. She’ll sleep with anyone, you know that. She even tried to teach me a thing or two about bed artistry. Can you believe that? My own sister. Some crackpot idea about ‘saving me from my friends’. She’s a sick twist alright.

Tom: She speaks highly of you.

Bernie: Yeah well you stick by your family. The point is…

There are so many lovely things going on here. We get reaction shots of Tom after ‘she’ll sleep with anyone, you know that’, and then ‘can you believe that’ (the cut to Tom happens on ‘know that’ and then ‘that’, which is nice). This means that we register Bernie’s calculated dig at Tom for being attached to Verna, and the fact that he’s belittling their affair as a trivial fling (because of course Bernie wants Verna to stick with Leo); and we also register Tom’s disgust at Bernie’s insult to Verna, and maybe his own ambivalent feelings about Verna given her unhealthy attachment to Bernie (‘You me and Bernie, where would we go, Verna? Niagara Falls?’).

The medium-shot of Bernie reclining in his chair with his hands draped over the arms and his legs crossed insolently in front of him fits perfectly with his complacent dismissal of his loyal sister in the first part of his speech, and then with the ‘stick by your family’ line, but for the ‘crackpot idea…sick twist’ section of his speech we cut to a close-up of his face, focusing our attention on his emotions rather than his entitled position. This means we register the hint of self-loathing and despair when he gazes off to one side and says ‘some crackpot idea about saving me’ (setting up his existential agony in the woods), but also the shift into cold contempt when he calls his sister a ‘sick twist’ (setting up his post-Miller’s-Crossing behaviour).

Then we get the razor-sharp irony of Tom’s joke, ‘She speaks highly of you’. Just a minute earlier we heard Verna’s completely un-ironic defence of ‘poor misunderstood Bernie’, and now Tom picks the best possible way of pointing out the sad disconnect between her love for Bernie and Bernie’s contempt for her. Then Bernie supplies the punchline: ‘Yeah well you stick by your family.’ It’s not that he doesn’t register the irony in what Tom just said – you couldn’t miss it – it’s that he genuinely regards this principle as self-evident when it works in his favour, but wouldn’t even contemplate living up to it in his treatment of Verna…which, again, sets up so much of his subsequent behaviour.

The whole exchange also tells us a lot, without being specific, about Verna and Bernie. You get a sense of this brother and sister, growing up without other forms of support in a hostile world, bound together with uncomfortable intimacy, Verna always looking out for Bernie, Bernie resenting his dependency on her, Verna going to desperate extremes to curb his self-destructive tendencies, Bernie despising her and using her all the more intently. The fact that Verna went as far as trying incest is, to Bernie, merely evidence of what a ‘sick twist’ she is; Tom’s implied sympathy for Verna encourages us to see it in a different light, as evidence of how blind, unconditional, and even self-destructive Verna’s love for her brother is. In fact this is another reason why Tom kills Bernie in the end: it’s Verna, even more than Leo, who needs saving from this guy.

There are so many moments like this in the film that combine exposition, character development, humour, and pathos. But this is my favourite one. Maybe my second favourite, though it's not quite as layered, is the exchange between the Dane and the unnamed, unseen gangster in the car:

What's that potato-eater up to?

Beats me.

That's Bernie's sister, ain't it?

Beats me.

Well what's he seeing her for?

Beats me, maybe-

Shut up. Get lost. [Car door opens and closes.] I'll see where the twist flops. [Cut to Verna's door being kicked open.]

We probably don't need to be reminded that Verna is Bernie's sister; but we need to know how the Dane knows that Verna and Tom are together; we need to know why this makes him suspicious about the supposed execution of Bernie (so that he interrogates Frankie and Tic-Tac about it); and we need to know that he's following Tom to set up his later discovery and interrogation of Drop Johnson. So we need to see the Dane following Tom, but we also need him to express all these concerns, and he can't just talk to himself. His companion in the car is a kind of parody of the exposition-enabler whose ignorance stands in for that of the audience - the dialogue here, and the fact that the other gangster is never even seen, is a great joke at the expense of this type of narrative convention, but it's also entirely in character given the Dane's relationship with the morons who populate both Caspar's and Leo's gangs.

Speaking of exposition, I love how Miller’s Crossing tells its story, and how it reveals information in exactly the right order. You could spend all day analysing the first scene and how much it sets up, but crucially it leaves out Verna; then notice how Verna is introduced, first as the woman who made off with Tom’s hat, then as Tom’s love-interest… Then when Leo drops by and Tom says, ‘Thought about cutting Bernie loose?’, we find out about Leo’s attachment to Verna and his motive for protecting Verna just when we’re ready to do so: ‘Can’t do it, Tommy, can’t do it. In fact that’s sort of why I’m… Tommy I don’t know where Verna is.’

Or consider Mink. In plot terms, Mink is one of the most important characters in the film, yet he only appears in one scene (and his voice is heard briefly on the phone in another). This means the film has to work extra hard to make sure we know about Mink and understand who he is, where he is at a certain time, and who he’s attached to. You could make a list of all the references to Mink in the film and see how this is accomplished – simple stuff like ‘Who made off with my hat?’ ‘Verna. Verna and Mink.’ ‘Who?’ ‘MINK AND VERNA.’ Or the way Tom repeats Mink’s name several times in the one scene where he appears. And of course they cast Steve Buscemi and give him lots of fast-talking verbal tics to make him more memorable.

When Mink first greets Tom in the club he says, ‘I see you got your hat back.’ Tom says, ‘What of it?’ and Mink responds, ‘Not a thing Tommy, if it ain’t my business I got not a thing to say.’ Mink is letting Tom know that he has something on him – his affair with Verna, to which the recovered hat is a clue – just before asking for a favour… But Mink has overplayed his hand, because Tom now knows something more dangerous, which will facilitate every move he makes with Caspar: that Mink is ‘jungled up’ with Bernie as well as the Dane.

It’s all very dense and detailed, but even on a first viewing you pick up on everything you need to know, because the film takes care to underline the important stuff and make each character’s motivations (and relations with other characters) clear whenever they need to be.

Part of what helps with this is the tendency, typical of this genre, to limit the number of characters in each scene and advance the plot through a series of 1:1 conversations. Notice how many characters never interact with each other. We never see Leo with Verna (except for about a second at Bernie’s graveside) because we know everything we need to know about their relationship within ten seconds of finding out about it. On the other hand, because we never see Verna with Bernie, we need the exposition in the ladies’-room scene and the first scene with Bernie in order to understand their relationship, and the dialogue in these scenes has to work harder to get the point(s) across. We never see Bernie interact with anyone other than Tom (except briefly when he’s being roughed up by Frankie and Tic-Tac) because we have enough to keep track of with the shifting power dynamic and ambiguous emotions between these two.

Here’s an interesting one: Eddie Dane, despite appearing in a few scenes with Caspar, never really addresses him or talks directly to him – even when he says ‘Does he want a pillow for his head?’, ‘Nuts’ (one of my favourites), or ‘Mink is clean and this clown is a smart guy’, it still feels like he’s addressing Tom. Like Tom in the first scene, the Dane’s role is to stay in the background (I love how he just appears, suddenly and creepily, in the background of the shot when Tom sits down after O’Doole and the mayor leave Caspar’s office), and any conversations he has with his master need to happen behind the scenes. We learn about these conversations after the fact and when the Dane is absent, and all of this factors into our understanding of the rift that is opening up between Caspar and his henchman. Notice also how Caspar keeps addressing the Dane: ‘You hear that, Dane? My kid is as smart as a whip. Even Uncle Eddie thinks that’s funny. [Cut to the Dane, unsmiling.]’ He often does this to try and get the Dane to be more accepting and trusting of Tom – so we gradually get the impression that a bond is forming between Caspar and Tom, and that Caspar is becoming more alienated from the Dane.

One final detail, or cluster of details, that I’m very fond of… When Tom goes to see Drop Johnson, he walks down a long corridor and we hear a loud fight going on between a man and a woman. Cinematic convention would lead us to think that the yelling man is Drop Johnson, and that we’ll see the fighting couple when Tom opens the apartment door...but instead we see a large, meek man, silently eating puffed wheat and reading the funny papers. It’s a typical Coen Brothers joke, but it also has a larger function in the story: it sets up Drop as a gentle giant in opposition to the bellowing monster next door. This adds to the pathos when we find out that the Dane has tortured this poor man (‘So I grabbed the gorilla and I beat it out of him. You give me a big guy, they break easy every time’), and sets up the ‘punchline’ of this character’s arc when he actually does turn into a bellowing monster once he sees the Dane is out of action and unable to hurt him anymore.

Oh, and the sound effect when the Dane’s eyes seep out of his head is also really good.

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DarkImbecile
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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#15 Post by DarkImbecile » Sun Feb 28, 2021 1:02 pm

TL;DR:
Sloper wrote:
Sun Feb 28, 2021 12:54 pm
...the sound effect when the Dane’s eyes seep out of his head is also really good.
(Fantastic post, as usual, sloper)

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Brian C
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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#16 Post by Brian C » Sun Feb 28, 2021 3:25 pm

Agreed, great post.

I always wonder about how Tom really feels about letting Bernie go in the woods. It's key, I think, that it's one of the few moments in the movie that he's genuinely caught by surprise; clearly he wasn't expecting to be told to carry out Bernie's murder himself, and he's caught off-guard and doesn't have a plan for how to handle it. I would guess that his aversion to being the actual trigger man is real and sincere, but I also think that he simply hasn't had a chance to think through the implications and consequences. After all, word will certainly get around that he was the killer, which could complicate his dealings with both Leo and Verna and compromise his efforts to neutralize the war between the two gangs. After all, offering up Bernie was supposed to be a peace offering of sorts to defuse tensions, and now here it's backfired on him, and his desperation is hard to watch (as it is later on when he's taken back to the woods, after his foresight fails him again).

But again, it's hard to say. Perhaps offering up Bernie was a miscalculation in the first place; it would be pretty obvious to Verna, at least, that he sold Bernie out even if he didn't kill him personally, and would probably push her even closer to Leo (which is, of course, basically what ends up happening). It made sense for Tom to push for Bernie's death when he was still working for Leo - it both got rid of an obvious business problem of Leo's, while Leo would take the blame from Verna ... a win-win as far as Tom is concerned. But giving up Bernie working for Caspar doesn't seem to help Tom out in the long run; it gets him in with Caspar but at the cost of his longer-term goals.

I suppose an interesting question, if one could read Tom's mind, is when he realized that Bernie wouldn't stay dead. In the moment, he might not have realized or understood how Bernie would respond. Maybe he realized the risk soon after when regained his composure, or maybe he didn't realize until he sat down and saw Bernie across from him in his apartment. Certainly his effort to run downstairs and cut Bernie off after their reunion was not very disciplined, and it seems only right that Bernie anticipated this response from Tom and got the drop on him. Maybe Tom really did expect Bernie to keep his word, although it seems out of character for Tom to trust Bernie when so much is at risk. But then, Bernie is a blind spot for Tom all along - Bernie also outsmarts Tom by thinking to stash a replacement corpse in the woods in case Caspar's men get wise, which never occurred to Tom. For as much pride Tom takes in seeing all the angles, Bernie's one step ahead of him throughout most of the film.

At any rate, when Bernie encounters Tom with a gun at the end, he's facing a Tom who's played out the angles and is back in control. "What heart?", I think, is Tom's way of telling Bernie that Bernie misjudged him, and that Bernie overestimated the effect that his pleas for mercy had on the decision to let him live in the first place. Maybe that's true to some extent, but more likely that's just Tom post-rationalizing his earlier decision, in the same way that Bernie post-rationalized his embarrassing pleas. Now, though, "heart" no longer has anything to do with it. Tom knows what the angle is now and is prepared to see it through.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#17 Post by therewillbeblus » Sun Feb 28, 2021 9:36 pm

Sloper wrote:
Sun Feb 28, 2021 12:54 pm
In fact this is another reason why Tom kills Bernie in the end: it’s Verna, even more than Leo, who needs saving from this guy.
There's so much to take away from that excellent post, but this is something that I hadn't really considered and is yet another shade of Tom demonstrating his love/emotions secretly and stoically, as well as one more addition to his already complex and dense psychology of motivations, both conscious and unconscious to himself, and us.

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Re: Miller's Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990)

#18 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Mar 01, 2021 12:36 am

“Sloper” wrote: The whole exchange also tells us a lot, without being specific, about Verna and Bernie. You get a sense of this brother and sister, growing up without other forms of support in a hostile world, bound together with uncomfortable intimacy, Verna always looking out for Bernie, Bernie resenting his dependency on her, Verna going to desperate extremes to curb his self-destructive tendencies, Bernie despising her and using her all the more intently. The fact that Verna went as far as trying incest is, to Bernie, merely evidence of what a ‘sick twist’ she is; Tom’s implied sympathy for Verna encourages us to see it in a different light, as evidence of how blind, unconditional, and even self-destructive Verna’s love for her brother is. In fact this is another reason why Tom kills Bernie in the end: it’s Verna, even more than Leo, who needs saving from this guy.
There are a number of such unequal emotional pairings in the movie:

Tom:Leo
Verna:Bernie
Dane:Mink

Each pairing is sundered. Despite the overall good of this, each sundering leaves deep wounds (in the case of The Dane, causes such an emotional outburst that it leads to his own violent death. He’s also the only one to maintain his illusions about the other to the very end).

The Verna:Bernie pairing I think clarifies Tom’s own relationship with Leo—just seeing how Verna stretches herself to the end and gets so little back.

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