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Film / Miller's Crossing

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

Miller's Crossing is a 1990 darkly-comedic neo-noir gangster film loosely based on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. It is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and stars 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 being a box-office failure at its release and 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."


I'll think about these tropes:

  • Action Fashionista: Several examples :
    • Tic-Tac straightening his tie before punching Tom.
    • Tom takes his gun and puts on his hat, before jumping from his apartment to shoot Bernie.
    • Leo puts his slippers on before he kicks ass.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Bernie breaks down into primal sobs and pleads for his life. It's harrowingly pathetic. And it only works once.
    Bernie: Look in ya heart... I'm praying to ya... look in ya heart...
  • The Alcoholic: Tom.
  • All There in the Script: It is never stated what year the film takes place in, although the screenplay states 1929.
  • Anti-Hero: Tom is an Unscrupulous Hero; 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.
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  • Badass Boast: Leo sets the stage for other ones.
    Leo: Johnny. You're exactly as big as I let you be and no bigger, and don't forget it, ever.
  • Badass Gay: 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 shit out of a professional prizefighter.
  • 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 Caspar 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, Caspar's gang's already massive amount of firepower 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.
  • 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:
    • Sam Raimi appears as the two-pistoled gangster who gets shot at the police stand-ups.
    • Frequent Coens collaborator (and wife of Joel) Frances McDormand appears as the Mayor's secretary.
  • Catchphrase: Tom's "I'll think about it", which he says whenever he has no intention of doing what's been asked of him. Caspar is smart enough to realise this, and so has his thugs beat Tom up when he tries the line on him.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: "That's you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart."
  • Gambit Pileup: Tom has pretty much everything under control until Bernie decides to blackmail him.
  • 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: Bernie is greedy and he is called Jewish slurs many times throughout the movie. On the other hand, most of the film's other criminal players are pretty venal too.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • Caspar complaining that Bernie's antics are ruining his fixed boxing matches. If you can't rely on a fixed game, what can you rely on?
    • 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.
    • Bernie tells Tom that Verna tried to sleep with him (see Brother–Sister Incest above) and calls her a "sick twist." Tom says she's always spoken highly of Bernie, and Bernie's response is "Well, you stick by your family."
  • 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.
  • Ironic Echo: Verna offhandedly mentions that Tom's all lie and no heart. Tom later lies to her brother to get his gun, outright calling himself heartless before shooting the stupid bastard.
  • 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!"
  • 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:
  • 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.
  • 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 mobsters fire their pistols at the club and one of them even unveils a water-cooled Browning M1917 machine gun. Also Leo unloading his Thompson.
  • The Namesake: there are a lot of characters crossing each other in the movie, none of them named Miller. Halfway through the film it turns out that Miller's Crossing is a location in the woods where mob executions take place.
  • Nice Hat: The entire cast, to the point of being a reoccuring motif.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: One thing that sticks in everyone's minds for this movie is that Tom suffers these repeatedly throughout the movie from a variety of sources.
  • Not So Stoic: When Tom is taken for his own walk in the woods, he doesn't beg for his life like Bernie. Just when it looks like he's going to Face Death with Dignity however, he stops and proceeds to Stress Vomit on the ground.
  • Oh, Crap!: The look on Tom's face when he finds out he's expected to kill Bernie.
  • 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!" Also, "What's the rumpus?"
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "What heart?"
  • 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.
  • The Reveal: Who killed Rug? Mink in a panic, thinking his affair with Bernie would get back to the Dane. Mentioned only briefly, and far too late for the knowledge to do anyone any good.
  • Scenery Porn: Inevitable, since it's a Coen Brothers film.
    • Leo's office in particular is one of those intimidating, shadowy rooms that sums up every Noir setpiece ever made. Roger Ebert was impressed with the room (and felt that it took away from the rest of the movie!).
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Bernie again. It's surprising he wasn't shot for it.
  • 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 Caspar 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 in a relationship with Mink and is implied to have a homosexual attraction to his employer, but he is everything but.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Tom and Verna.
  • Sleeping with the Boss's Wife: Tom sleeps with his boss Leo's girlfriend, Verna, resulting in a heated mob battle among several parties.
  • 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".
  • The Starscream: Verna believes that Tom is planning to take over from Leo when in reality he's cementing Leo's power over the city and has no interest in being a mob boss. See Dreaming of Things to Come, above.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
    • It's not dumb luck — Bernie dumped Mink's body there (after shooting him in the face) so people would continue to think Bernie was dead. Of course Tom had no way of knowing this, until a mook just happened to stumble across it just as the Dane was about to shoot him, to the trope is played straight after all.
  • Tuckerization: The Miller of the title comes from the Coen Brothers' frequent film editor, Michael R. Miller.
  • 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.
    • Possibly played straight even with Verna. Tom never says a kind word about her to anyone, and openly admitted to her face that he was trying to drive Verna and Leo apart.
      • His biggest problems with Verna was that her loyalty to Leo was compromised by her affair with Tom himself, and her protectiveness of her brother. Tom demolishes both, and while Verna's far from happy about it, does marry Leo at film's end.
  • 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.
  • Villain Protagonist: While none of the cast is particularly "good," Tom is easily worse than most, and his machinations make him responsible for the deaths of every character in the film other than Rug.
  • 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. However, there is a clue late in the film which points to the New York City area: Tom tells Verna to leave town and go to "the Palisades" until everything blows over. The Palisades is a stretch of rocky cliffs of Bergen County in Northern New Jersey and Rockland County of New York State.
  • 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 price 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 they (and Lazarre himself) actually like him.
    • Curiously, the biggest gambits in the movie come from everyone who underestimates Tom. Even Dane falls victim to his machinations.

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