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Film: Miller's Crossing

That's you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart.
Verna

Miller's Crossing is a 1990 darkly comic neo-noir gangster film loosely based on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. It is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, and J.E. Freeman.

Set in 1931 in an unnamed Eastern metropolis , it's the story of Tom Reagan, The Dragon for Irish-American mob boss Liam "Leo" O'Bannon. When Leo falls for Femme Fatale Verna Bernbaum (who happens to also be sleeping with Tom), he ends up protecting her beloved brother Bernie, setting off a mob war - with Tom caught right in the middle.

The film is something of a dark horse in the Coen Brothers oeuvre. Despite lacking a massive cult following or any Academy Awards, it remains one of the duo's most critically acclaimed pieces. It's often referred to as "the other great crime movie of 1990."

This film contains examples of:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Bernie breaks down into primal sobs and pleads for his life. It's harrowingly pathetic. It only works once for Bernie.
  • The Alcoholic: Tom
  • Anti-Hero: Tom is an Unscrupulous Hero for he is a criminal and a deadbeat gambler who sleeps with his boss's girlfriend and backstabs his way through the film. However, he really does care for both Leo and Verna. All his plotting is for their benefit.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Leo.
  • Badass:
    • The Dane. He is more or less the strongest and most feared enforcer in the city, he wields a Cool Webley Mk VI and he absolutely beats the living manshit out of a professional prizefighter.
    • Tom, the protagonist, is a rather comical subversion. He repeatedly gets his ass kicked, and only commits one act of violence that actually accomplishes anything.
  • Badass Grandpa:
  • Badass in a Nice Suit
  • Batman Gambit: Tom is a master at this.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Tom (played by the Gabriel Byrne) is a rare male example of this trope - no matter how many beatings he takes, he never gets anything worse than a split lip.
  • Berserk Button: Johnny Casper is sick of "the high hat" and there's nothing he can't stand more than "a double-cross artist."
  • BFG: During a shooting in the middle of the gang war, Casper's gang's already massive amount of fire power is topped off when they unveil a Browning M1917 machine gun.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Tom succeeds in killing Leo's rivals, but winds up alienated from both Leo and Verna, who enter into a foolish marriage.
  • Black Comedy
  • Boom, Headshot: The Mafia frequently mentions shooting a person "in the brain" and it is how Mink, Bernie, and the Dane all die.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Leo fires a few thousand rounds from a Tommy gun without reloading. Rule of Cool is in full effect there, since it takes about 5 seconds of continous fire to empty a Thompson machine gun
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Bernie claims that Verna once tried to "cure" Bernie's homosexuality herself, though his word is less than trustworthy.
  • Bury Your Gays: Bernie, the Dane, and Mink are all dead before the credits roll, although they're not the only casualties.
  • The Cameo:
    • In addition to the Sam Raimi example below, frequent Coens collaborator (and wife of Joel) Frances McDormand appears as the Mayor's secretary.
  • Catch Phrase: Tom's "I'll think about it", which he says whenever he has no intention of doing what's been asked of him. Casper is smart enough to realise this, and so has his thugs beat Tom up when he tries the line on him.
    • "'Lo Tom. What's the rumpus ?"
  • The Chessmaster: Tom.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar) and John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum) must have been picking scenery out of their teeth for weeks.
  • Chiaroscuro: Used in many scenes. It is a Film Noir, after all.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Most of the cast, but especially Bernie. Bernie even lampshades it: "I can't help it, somebody gives me an angle, I play it."
  • The Consigliere: Tom to Leo but then he becomes a Treacherous Advisor to Johnny.
  • Couldn't Find a Lighter: Leo re-lights his cigar off a smoking tommygun after killing the would-be assassins who brought it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Tom and Verna, who engage in some classic noir reparte. Also Eddie, who doesn't seem to like when others does it.
  • Dead Man's Trigger Finger: A Black Comedy example, as Leo shoots a thug in the back with a Tommy gun and the thug shoots his own Tommy gun all over the place, including into his own feet.
  • Death by Cameo: Sam Raimi, the trigger-happy gangster with the Guns Akimbo
  • Defiant to the End: Aversion lampshaded by the Dane.
    Ever noticed how the snappy talk dries up once a guy starts soiling his union suit?
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Johnny Caspar talks like this a lot.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Played around with quite a bit, most likely due to the trope's frequency in Film Noir. Two of the three main antagonists, Bernie and Eddie Dane, are gay. Depending on how you look at it, they could be considered straight examples or aversions - Bernie's sexuality is never really connected with his villainy, while Eddie Dane is loyal to his employer and Mink. Not to mention that the rest of the cast is also pretty villainous, including the hero.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Tom himself at the end. This is filmed as an Homage to The Third Man
  • Dirty Coward: Bernie Bernbaum
  • The Don: Leo for The Irish Mob and Johnny Casper for The Mafia
  • The Dragon: Eddie Dane, to Johnny Caspar.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Tom tells Verna about the dream he has of his hat blowing along a forest road (the opening title sequence). Verna interprets it by guessing the hat turns into a crown when Tom puts it on his own head, thinking Tom is planning for when he can take over from Leo. Tom rebukes that interpretation, finishing that in the dream he doesn't even chase after his hat as "there's nothing more foolish than a man chasing after his own hat." Played straight, however, by movie's end.
  • Dueling Movies: Good Fellas, The Godfather III, and State Of Grace were all released around the same time.
  • Fake American: Englishman Albert Finney plays the Irish-American Liam "Leo" O'Bannon.
  • Fake Defector
  • Faking the Dead
  • The Farmer And The Viper: Lampshaded by Bernie, who claims, while pleading for his life, that ripping people off is just "his nature". He demonstrates it when Tom spares him and Bernie immediately blackmails him for disobeying the order to kill him. Subverted in that Tom figured all along Bernie would do exactly that, and twists the blackmail back on Bernie, forcing the next step in Tom's gambit.
  • Femme Fatale: Verna, subverted. While plenty of people die because of her, she's not directly responsible for any of them, even the one Tom blamed her for. She's the only person in the movie who genuinely doesn't want anyone to die, but her affair with Tom and her love for her brother get everyone else killed. She's a Femme Fatale despite her best efforts.
    • Actually, this one is kind of double-subverted, in that the character who plays the Femme Fatale character type much more closely is not even a woman...it's Verna's brother, Bernie (maybe an alternate definition for "femme")
  • Film Noir
  • A Fistful Of Rehashes: This picture is inspired chiefly by The Glass Key and is about a gang war that starts when one boss puts a bookie (who the other boss had put a hit on) under his protection, with The Dragon to the first boss (who, unusually for this trope, survives) Playing Both Sides.
  • Gambit Pileup
  • Gangsterland: A somewhat literal example in that the entire town consists of nothing but criminals.
  • Gayngster: Bernie, the Dane, and Mink. J.E. Freeman, who plays the Dane, is gay himself. Interestingly, so is Jon Polito, who plays the straight (and married) Johnny Caspar.
  • Greed: Bernie's motivation for just about everything.
  • Greedy Jew: As mentioned above under Greed, Bernie is greedy and he is called Jewish slurs many times throughout the movie.
  • Guile Hero: Well, anti-hero at any rate. Tom may be brilliant, but he doesn't have much choice — he's a lousy fighter.
  • Guns Akimbo: Sam Raimi in a cameo.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Eddie Dane
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Tons on it. Notably, a lot of Tom and Leo's dialogue makes them sound like a couple, and the Tom/Verna/Leo Love Triangle is arguably more about Tom and Verna competing for Leo's attention than Tom and Leo competing for Verna's. And then there's Bernie/Mink and Eddie Dane/Mink, but those are more text than Subtext.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • The local police chief affably chats up Tom both times. Once when his cops are helping the Irish mob take out members of the Italians, and again when the power shifts to the Italians and the cops take out the Irish mob instead.
    • When Tom hits the Giant Mook who's about to beat him up across the face with a chair, the latter says plaintively "Jesus, Tom!" like his feelings rather than his face have been hurt.
  • Idiot Ball: Frankie and Tic-Tac are given orders to make sure Tom kills Bernie. So what do they do? They stand by the car and wait while Tom walks Bernie into the woods. Alone. This is later lampshaded by the Dane, who beats them both up for being stupid and goes to check for a body.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Tom is arguably a jerk towards everyone because of his bluntness; nevertheless, he is right about everything he warns Leo about and has to weasel himself out of the mess when Leo ignores him.
    • Dane is a murderous psycho alright, but he is right about everything regarding Tom; too bad he's always two steps behind.
    • Bernie plays Tom out of murdering him and blackmails him just because Tom exposed himself by doing so, leaving Bernie little choice (according to him) but to seize such a saucy opportunity.
  • Kick the Dog: The movie's full of them. Leo delights in screwing with Johnny just because he can (he claims it's to protect Verna, but the sheer joy in his voice after says otherwise). Bernie does it when he kills his boyfriend to cover his own death. The king of it all, though, is when Johnny Caspar is killed right outside Tom's apartment. It's meaningless, since Leo can take care of the police.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: By the near end of the movie, Tom, when he kills Bernie. At that point, Leo's solidly in power once more, and both Tom and Verna are safe, and Bernie no longer represents any threat to Tom. The reason it technically fits here instead of Kick the Dog is because, Tom's previously shown not to hold grudges with his bookie's muscle, and kills Bernie without a hint of passion, so it's not revenge. Tom kills Bernie simply because he doesn't like the little weasel. Of course, this backfires for him, unless he'd made peace with the fact he wasn't going to end up with Verna, because it's obvious at the end that she knows.
  • Large Ham: Johnny Caspar.
    Caspar: "Just like I tell all my boys...ALWAYS PUT ONE IN THE BRAAAAAAIIIINN!"
  • Life Imitates Art: The Coens found it first hilarious, then infuriating, that while filming this movie full of police corruption they were repeatedly hit up for bribes by New Orleans Police Department officers.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Loan Shark: Lazarre and his underlings are Affably Evil ones. His stooges feel free to rough up the right-hand man of the city boss, but only a little bit, and not breaking anything. They know Tom personally, they're sorry about doing what needs to be done, and advise Tom to stop borrowing so much when he's already in debt.
  • Love Makes You Dumb:
    • Leo.
    • Also Eddie Dane, who easily sees through Tom's manipulations until Mink's death sends him into a blind rage, letting Tom turn Caspar against the Dane.
  • Love Triangle: Tom/Verna/Leo and Bernie/Mink/Dane.
  • Made of Iron: Tom
  • The Mafia and The Irish Mob: Dueling for supremacy, as was Truth in Television at the time.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Tom and Bernie. Tom may well be a full-fledged Magnificent Bastard, considering the eventual outcome of his scheming.
  • Modesty Bedsheet
  • Mood Whiplash: After the mostly comedic first half, the eponymous "Miller's Crossing" scene is pretty jarring.
  • More Dakka: During the siege of a Bad-Guy Bar, dozens of cops and mobster all fire their pistols at the club and one of them even unveils a water-cooled Browning M1917 machine gun. Also Leo unloading his Thompson.
  • Motor Mouth: Mink
  • Nice Hat: The entire cast, to the point of being a reoccuring motif.
  • Playing Both Sides: Tom schemes all the time to pull this off. Very similar or almost identical themes are seen in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars since all these films are based on Dashiel Hammett works.
  • Phrase Catcher: "Jesus, Tom!"
  • Psycho for Hire: Eddie Dane really enjoys his job.
    I am gonna to send you to a deep, dark place, and I am gonna have fun...doing it!
  • Retired Badass: Leo makes mincemeat out of a squad of hitmen, and still packs a mean right cross for an old guy.
  • Scenery Porn: Inevitable, since it's a Coen Brothers film.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Bernie again. It's surprising he wasn't shot for it.
  • Shaggy Dog Story
  • Shout-Out:
    • Tom Reagan's name references Tom Hagen from The Godfather and Sean Regan from The Big Sleep.
    • A newspaper headline seen briefly reads "Seven Dead in Hotel Fire". This is a reference to Barton Fink, which was released a year later than Miller's Crossing but written at the same time. Also, Tom's apartment is at the 'Barton Arms'.
    • The opening scene is also something of a parodic parallel to the opening of the original Godfather, where an Italian man gives a monologue to a mob boss, requesting a murder.
    • Several nods to The Third Man, particularly the ending and many camera angles.
  • Shovel Strike: Johnny Casper viciously does this to the Dane when he is manipulatied into thinking that the Dane is a traitor.
  • Sissy Villain: Bernie.
    • Subverted by Dane, who is implied to have a homosexual attraction to his employer, but he is everything but.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Tom and Verna.
  • Smoking Is Cool
  • Smug Snake: Bernie Bernbaum isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • Leo guns down some mooks to a soulful rendition of "Danny Boy" that he's playing on the gramophone.
    • More generally, Carter Burwell's delicate and emotional score contrasts sharply with the dark and cynical tone of the film.
  • Spotting the Thread: Done by The Dane: "I wondered, why would Einstein want to talk with a gorilla"
  • Stuffed into the Fridge: Bernie's murder of Mink. Needless to say, Eddie Dane is very unhappy about this.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: The scene from which the film gets its title.
  • Tap on the Head: Averted. When Tom is kicked in the head by one of Caspar's goons, the cop who wakes him up informs him that he's only been out for ten seconds or so.
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • There Is No Kill Like Over Kill: How many bullets did Leo unload into that one guy?
  • They Plotted a Perfectly Good Waste: Some suspect the instances of tropes such as the aforementioned Beauty Is Never Tarnished are intentional throwbacks to the style and tropes of classic gangster flicks.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Frankie and Tic-Tac, Johnny Caspar's two stooges.
  • The Farmer And The Viper: Tom and Bernie, for a while.
  • Too Clever by Half: The Dane's evaluation of Tom. Zigzagged as Tom's schemes are about to backfire on him, but this gets subverted by dumb luck thanks to a second body disposed in the woods.
    The Dane You are so goddamn smart. Except you ain't!
  • Undying Loyalty: Tom looks like he betrayed Leo - and in a way he was by sleeping with his favorite girl Verna - but the entire gambit Tom plays to end the gang war was to protect Leo all along. Played straight with The Dane, who was always in Caspar's corner, but Tom is able to play on Caspar's quick anger to get him to kill the Dane.
  • Very Punchable Man: Tom is a rare (maybe unique) main character variant. He commits two overt acts of violence in the movie (hitting a Mook with a chair and killing Bernie). The rest of the time he's getting his ass kicked left and right — often by design.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot
  • Vote Early, Vote Often
    Leo: You know O'Doul and the Mayor, right?
    Tom: I ought to, I voted for him six times last November.
    Mayor: And that's not even the record.
  • Where The Hell Is Springfield?: It's set in an unnamed town, although it was filmed in New Orleans.
  • Wild Card: Tom
  • Xanatos Speed Chess and Gambit Roulette: We can't know for sure if The Plan was set from the start or improvised along the way.
  • Your Cheating Heart
  • Zero Approval Gambit: Tom pulls several:
    • He deliberately alienates himself from Leo (and takes quite a few beatings in the process) in order to eliminate Leo's competition and any threats to Verna while simultaneously providing himself an exit from his life of crime. This comes at the prize of losing Verna to Leo.
    • He saves and (later) kills Bernie with full knowledge that these acts won't provide him any benefit whatsoever to anyone's eyes; still he proceeds out of principle and in both times it comes to bite him in the ass.
    • Throughout the movie, Tom carries a gambling debt from Lazarre well aware that he will be eventually reached by his cronies. They do come to beat the crap out of him but they remind him that they'd rather not be hurting him because he is a good guy to their and Lazarre's eyes.

Midnight in ParisThe Roaring TwentiesThe Mummy Trilogy
MermaidsFilms of the 1990sMisery

alternative title(s): Millers Crossing
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