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Film / Miller's Crossing

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"Look in your heart!"

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

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 the massive cult following of The Big Lebowski or the Academy Awards of Fargo and No Country for Old Men, 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. We actually never actually see him eat during the movie.
  • 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.
  • 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 in a Nice Suit: it's a film full of gangsters dressed to the nines.
  • 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."
    • Eddie Dane's is Mink. It's a Fatal Flaw.
  • 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 Chessmaster: Tom sees all the angles.
  • 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.
  • Crocodile Tears: Bernie. It saves his life once, but Tom has no problem ventilating his skull the second time he tries pulling his "look into your heart" ploy.
  • 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: A variation in Johnny Caspar — while all of the words he employs are in common use, he's given to excessive, long-winded, pontificating speeches that he seems to think are intelligent and witty, but show him to be an uneducated roughneck with a superiority complex. When making the case why he should get to kill Bernie in the opening scene, he frames the problem as an issue of "et'ics" while saying he suspects Bernie's cheating him, confusing the point he's trying to make; after Leo sneers he's clear "as mud", Johnny launches into another speech about ethics that's somehow even more rambling and indirect.
    Caspar: I-i-it's gettin' so a businessman can't e-expect, no return from a fixed fight! Now if you can't trust a fix, what can ya trust? For a good return you gotta go bettin' on chance, and then, you're back with anarchy — right back inna jungle. That's why et'ics is important. It's what separates us from the animals, beasts a' burden, beasts a' prey. Et'ics. Whereas, ah, Bernie Bernbaum is a horse of a different color, et'ics-wise. As in he ain't got any.
  • 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 Cop: The police force that Leo has on his side, and that have later sided with Caspar instead.
  • Dirty Coward: Bernie Bernbaum.
  • The Don: Leo for The Irish Mob and Johnny Caspar 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.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Tom is a rare example of a protagonist (albeit a fairly villainous one) fitting this trope. The audience is kept in the dark as to his motives and intentions, and even when by the end of the film his goal becomes clear, his reasons for it do not. The most explanation he offers is the very enigmatic "Do you always know why you do things, Leo?"
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Caspar dotes on his son, even though he's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
  • Face Death with Despair: Bernie Bernbaum tearfully begs on his knees for Tom Reagan not to kill him: "I can't die out here in the woods, like a dumb animal!" It doesn't work the second time around.
  • Fake Defector: Tom defects to Caspar, but his loyalty remains with Leo.
  • Faking the Dead: Bernie uses Mink's corpse to fake his death.
  • 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.
  • The Ghost: we never get to meet Lazarre, the bookie whom Tom owes and who sends his thugs to rough him up.
  • 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.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Eddie Dane, a gayngster, has no use or patience for women.
  • 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 claims that Verna tried to sleep with him to convert him into heterosexuality and calls her a "sick twist." Tom counters that she's always spoken highly of Bernie. Bernie dismisses the observation with, "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, allowing Tom to fake Bernie's death. This is basically required for the rest of the plot to work. Dane beats them both up for being so stupid and goes to check for the body (which he finds, because in the meantime Bernie had murdered Mink, dressed the corpse up to look like his, and left it at the Crossing).
  • 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:
    • Hypocrite though he is, Caspar's beef with Bernie is justified in the world of organized crime, and Caspar's going about things the right way in asking Leo's permission to deal with it. Tom tells Leo as much as soon as Caspar leaves the room.
    • 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.
  • Large Ham: Johnny Caspar.
    Caspar: "Just like I tell all my boys...ALWAYS PUT ONE IN THE BRAAAAAAIIIINN!"
  • 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 makes a "bonehead play" by protecting his lover's brother, which puts him in danger.
    • 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.
  • The Man Behind the Man: While Leo rules openly, even he admits he'd never dare challenge Tom directly. The moment Tom defects to Caspar's mob, Leo's falters. Leo's general lackadaisical attitude, and Tom's more serious one, suggest Tom's the real brains of the outfit.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Tom and Bernie. Tom may well be a full-fledged Magnificent Bastard, considering the eventual outcome of his scheming.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Verna, post-coitus.
  • 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.
  • Motor Mouth: Mink talks fast, though it might simply be because he's nervous during his one and only scene.
  • 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Liam "Leo" O'Bannon's is a thinly-veiled reference to Dean "Dion" O'Banion, an Irish mobster who was Al Capone's primary rival in the Chicago bootlegging wars. Unlike Leo, the real O'Banion lost.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: It's set in an unnamed city, 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.
  • 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.
    • The realization that he's been Out-Gambitted slowly creeps up on Bernie after Tom reveals that The Dane is already dead so Johnny Caspar's killing can't be pinned on him, Bernie had just given Tom the gun he used to shoot Johnny right before learning of this, and Tom also has Johnny's pistol and no desire to spare Bernie's life a second time.
  • Pet the Dog: Tom spares Bernie in the woods even though he reaps no benefit from it and it actually places him in great danger, it is purely from moral conviction. He observes to Verna later when she hesitates in shooting him "Not easy, is it?". He also saves "Drop" Johnson from being beaten to death by Caspar, it would actually benefit him to shut Drop up permanently but he spares him purely as a matter of conscience. Tom actually seems very popular with many people, the bartender, the bookie etc, only The Dane seems to bear him any real animosity.
  • 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. Eventually subverted, as Tom never broke loyalty to Leo.
  • Phrase Catcher: "Jesus, Tom!" Also, "What's the rumpus?"
  • Pragmatic Villainy: the corrupt police chief wants everything to just keep running along smoothly with everyone getting rich and no violence. Tom actually agrees with him but can't admit this as it would be taking sides against Leo and then Caspar.
  • 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!
  • Re-Cut: The Criterion release trims out about two minutes of film, most notably the "Jesus, Tom" line, reportedly at the behest of the Coens. Controversy arose because at no point did Criterion mention that these cuts were made.
  • 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.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: The Dane is correct about the identity of the body found in the woods. He's entirely mistaken about who put it there, and why.
  • 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.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Cigarettes or cigars, everyone looks 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 The Londonderry Air ("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. It is a variation of "Lament for Limerick", a tune written to commemorate the end of the Williamite/Jacobite wars in Ireland, a conflict which drove rival factions who supported their vying kings to war, pitting brother against brother.
  • 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.
  • 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 '20s: It's prohibition times. Gangsters and flappers abound.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • This is also to assume that Tom having refused to kill Bernie in the first place had everything to do with his schemes and nothing - with plain pity and mercy.
  • Tuckerization: The Miller of the title comes from the Coen Brothers' frequent film editor, Michael R. Miller.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Bernie repays Tom's humanity in sparing his life by blackmailing him and threatening to go public with proof that Tom failed to dispatch him like he was trusted to by Johnny Caspar. It's why Tom isn't nearly so forgiving the second time Bernie ends up on the wrong side of his gun.
  • 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.
  • The Unseen: Lazarre is more a force of nature than a person. He lurks over Tom's character for the whole film.
  • 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 (and possibly Mink?). Granted, some of the worst difficulties he faces in the story come as a result of the few times he shows a sense of genuine human decency.
  • 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.
  • Wild Card: Tom is caught between Leo and Caspar in their gang war and proves to be the deciding factor.
  • 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.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Several characters refer to Bernie as "The Schmatta," a Yiddish word meaning "rag," as a way of demonstrating their contempt for him and his Jewishness
  • 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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