"My favourite film" - Miller's Crossing

5 posts

Art Fag
My favourite film: Miller's Crossing

Guardian UK

Jason Deans

December 30, 2011

Brothers in arms … Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990) Photograph: Allstar

My all-time top celebrity spot? Gabriel Byrne , no question. On a Saturday in July 2003, the morning after two of my best friends marry, I'm in the bar of the Charlotte Street Hotel saying a final farewell before they fly off on honeymoon (also, the newly minted husband needs to borrow cash for the cab to Heathrow). As we swap war stories from the night before, I become aware of a familiar yet unplaceable Irish voice drifting over the conversation from behind me. After a few seconds, it comes to me – "What's the rumpus?" – so I sneak a crafty glance over my shoulder and there he is: Gabriel Byrne is sitting alone at a corner table, talking on his mobile phone.

I had a crashing hangover – was almost certainly still drunk – and this seemed fitting for the encounter. By this time Byrne was better known for The Usual Suspects , but for me he'll always be Tom Reagan, the magnificently rumpled, battered but undefeated antihero of the Coen brothers ' 1990 gangster film Miller's Crossing . The movie is soaked in booze, from the opening closeup of Tom's whisky glass and the clink-clink sound of ice cubes tumbling in.

In an era when action heroes such as Arnie and Bruce strolled through movies casually offing baddies by the dozen but rarely seeming in any genuine danger, Tom was my kind of protagonist – bumbling from one hazardous encounter to the next, the antithesis of omnipotent. (Likewise, I was drawn to Blade Runner 's Rick Deckard and Angel Heart 's Harry Angel.) Perpetually hungover and seemingly clad in the previous night's soiled threads, reeling from one savage beating or close brush with death to the next, he is all the time ready with a wisecrack ("How'd you get the fat lip?" ... "Old war wound. Acts up around morons"), working out the angles, spotting the grifts, prepared to gamble with his life on the next big play.


When I first saw Miller's Crossing at the cinema I had one of those "What the hell just happened?" moments. And not just because of the at-first-impenetrable, hard-boiled, rat-a-tat dialogue and dizzying plot twists. For most of the movie I was convinced that Tom's scheming (to recap: he shags the girl his mob boss and best mate loves, fesses up, gets beaten up – repeatedly – switches allegiance to a rival boss, engineers his murder, kills the girl's brother, switches back, but still loses the girl and his mate) was motivated by his love for Marcia Gay Harden's Verna. Right up to the climactic scene where Verna's brother, John Turturro's Bernie Bernbaum, is on his knees before Tom begging for his life: "Look in your heart … Look in your heart!" . "What heart?". Tom shoots him between the eyes.

OK, so he's an asshole. But he's an asshole who abides by his own set of rules, no matter what – killing the brother of the woman he loves (yes, I still think love's in the mix) to "straighten things out" with Albert Finney's Leo. I guess I should have seen it coming, given that the film is shot through with such a deep, dark cynicism from the opening scene, in which Jon Polito's psychopathic rival mob boss Johnny Caspar lectures Leo about friendship, character and ethics – "It's getting so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"


I can pay the film's script no higher praise than to note it has been referenced by my Guardian colleagues Andy Bull and Rob Smyth (scroll down to the lunchtime session of this cricket report) , who know a thing or two about fine writing. The dialogue fizzes and crackles along for 115 minutes, nowhere more so than in the sparring between Tom and Verna, which reaches a climax of sorts in a drunken brawl in a powder room : "Intimidating helpless women is part of what I do" … "Then find one and intimidate her."

During one of their post-coital exchanges it emerges that the film's MacGuffin, the hat blowing away through leaves in a forest, which appears at the end of the opening titles , refers to a dream of Tom's – and then the Coens casually dismiss it, with another slice of black humour. Verna analyses the dream and asks if when he caught up with the hat it had changed into "something wonderful". "Nah, it stayed a hat. And no I didn't chase it," replies an exasperated Tom. "Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat."


Ah, those opening titles. Carter Burwell's elegiac theme music can still bring an involuntary tear to my eye. This Pavlovian response became a tad inconvenient a few years later, when the theme turned up in a Caffrey's beer commercial .

Another thing that stays with me is the final closeup of Tom's face , after he's split for good with Leo ("Dammit Tom, I forgive ya" … "I didn't ask for that and I don't want it. Goodbye, Leo."). He leans against a tree as Leo walks off, adjusts his hat, then looks up, gazing ahead, with the camera holding on his impassive expression for several seconds. What is he thinking? What does it mean? I've no idea, so I'll leave the final word to Tom: "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well."
Art Fag

So many great moments. Kind of a lost Coen film, dragging behind the hits and the Lebowski cult.


Great flick. One of the best gangster flicks of all time.

Team Zissou

So many great lines.

"I'm talkin' about friendship, I'm talkin' about character...I'm talkin' about, hell Leo I ain't embarrassed to use da word...I'm talkin' about ethics."

"I say give him the sheeny. What's one heeb, more or less?"

"Dam' right. Every potato-eater from County Cork on the public tit."