“You always take the long way around to get what you want, don’t you, Tom?” asks Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) about halfway through Miller’s Crossing, the Coen brothers’ third feature. Tom (Gabriel Byrne), the closest thing the film has to a hero, only replies: “What did I want?”
Like their leading man, the Coens tend to take the long way around, and most of the time, viewers come away from their films wondering what they wanted. I first saw Miller’s Crossing about five years ago, on my first tour through the Coen canon, and was roundly unimpressed by it. Since then, I have seen it three times, and each viewing has been more revealing, more impressive, more profound. The Coens like to play the long game. Few of their films have met with critical or commercial success upon their initial release, yet many of them have been recognized as masterpieces in the following years, and many of those that haven’t deserve to be.
Like many of the Coens’ best works, Miller’s Crossing seems designed to amuse and confound, though less obviously so. Its plot – concerning a gangland war and a clever middleman playing both sides – is standard genre fare, the broad strokes lifted from crime author Dashiell Hammett and the premise shared with Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). The Coens like to treat their tropes with affection and irony in equal measure, but tonally, Miller’s Crossing hews fairly close to the former, a few bits of oddball humor notwithstanding. All the same, it possesses that twisting, labyrinthine quality that marks so many of the great Coen pictures, a combination of pleasurable intricacy and existential discomfort. The brothers have always had a penchant for verbosity, but at their best, the rapid-fire rhythm of their dialogue and the sheer depth and density of wordplay and allusion justify comparisons to Shakespeare.
As in so many of the Bard’s works, the cast of main players makes for a veritable hall of mirrors; every character is reflected in another. The first scene introduces us to two interlocking pairs. Behind a desk is Irish crime boss Leo (Albert Finney), a sentimentalist with a “big heart” who, by his own admission, doesn’t like to think. The thinking is done by his right-hand man, Tom – “The man who walks behind the man and whispers in his ear.” Tom “sees all the angles.” He is constantly described as a thinker, a “smart guy.” On the other side of the desk is Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a garrulous Italian with grandiose notions about friendship, character, and ethics; behind him is Eddie the Dane (J.E. Freeman), his growling and bloodthirsty “shadow.” In terms of position, Leo mirrors Caspar and Tom mirrors the Dane. However, in terms of temperament, thoughtful Tom reflects intellectual Caspar, while no-nonsense Leo reflects the brutal Dane.
The plot is set in motion by another set of two – Leo’s paramour, Verna, and her brother, Bernie (Jon Turturro). Bernie is swindling Caspar, but Leo protects him for Verna’s sake, unaware that she is sleeping with Tom – who would gladly give Bernie up to avoid going to war with Caspar. Bernie, in turn, mirrors Mink (Steve Buscemi), his homosexual partner – as well as the Dane’s. The dissolution of the Bernie/Mink/Dane triad plays out in the background of the film, darkly reflecting the central love triangle of Tom, Verna, and Leo. “You don’t like me seeing Leo because you’re jealous,” Verna accuses Tom, though it is unclear whether he is jealous for her, Leo, or both. To imply homoerotic undercurrents between the two male legs of this trio would be overeager, perhaps, but neither is it easy to cast off the suspicion entirely. Such subtext, after all, would not be unprecedented in the Coens’ body of work. (Refer, for instance, to the jokey innuendoes of their following film, Barton Fink: “Sex? He’s a man! We wrestled!”) In any case, Miller’s Crossing revolves around a deep, ineffable, unspoken connection between the two men – a love of some kind or other, certainly, for where there is no love, there can be no betrayal. This betrayal is the hinge on which the story turns: when Tom sleeps with Verna, Leo is attacked in his home (indeed, in his bed) by Caspar’s thugs. The transition between the two scenes – camera drifting out through one set of waving curtains and in through another, accompanied by the strains of “Danny Boy,” which could be sung by a parent to a child, or one lover to another – suggests an inscrutable link between the two simultaneous events. The subsequent sundering of Leo from Tom and Verna sets the second half of the plot in motion, as Tom continues to go to great lengths to protect his estranged partner. “I thought you didn’t care about Leo,” Verna says. “I said we were through,” Tom replies. “It’s not the same thing.”
This unconditional love is an incomprehensible anomaly in the bleak world of Miller’s Crossing. The opening credits look up through the trees, a visual device commonly used by Kurosawa or Malick – but while the camera would catch glimpses of the sun in Rashômon or The Tree of Life, here it sees only a grey and clouded sky. Caspar insists that ethics separate men from animals – “Everything above board, so everybody knows who’s a friend, and who’s an enemy” – but ethics are in short supply in Miller’s Crossing, which, Rousseau-like, envisions its gangland setting as a game subject to ever-changeable rules. Discussion of gambling recurs repeatedly in the film; Tom is in growing debt to offscreen bookkeeper Lazarre, while Caspar only bets on fixed fights. While Tom takes his chances and stoically suffers the consequences, Caspar demands certainty. “If you can’t trust a fix,” he laments, “What can you trust?” Yet self-interest is the only constant in this film’s epistemological no man’s land, governed as it is by capricious circumstance and easily-distorted codes of conduct. And, as Tom puts it, “There’s always that wild card when love is involved.”
Love is a wild card in the game of Miller’s Crossing because it is always hidden. Nobody knows anybody, according to Tom. This is partly true because the mistrust that pervades the world of Miller’s Crossing makes it singularly ill advised to show oneself (and thereby one’s weakness). Yet it may also be true that it is simply impossible for one person to convey the fullness of his or her authentic self to another. The first words spoken after the film’s opening credits speak to a world of difference between the internal and the external, the subjective and the objective:
TAD: “Wake up, Tommy.”
TOM: “I am awake.”
TAD: “Your eyes are shut.”
TOM: “Who ya gonna believe?”
The eyes may be windows to the soul, but the characters of Miller’s Crossing take care to shutter and bar these windows so no one can see inside. The mind, the seat of subjectivity and a person’s internal world, resides behind the eyes – inside the head. Hence, to kill a man, Caspar exhorts, “Always put one in the brain.” When a corpse is found in an alleyway, his glazed, unseeing eyes are wide open and a bystander curiously removes the toupee from his head. Death is nothing less than the shameful unveiling of a person. In death, all secrets are revealed; a person’s true nature is laid bare.
In life, Tom’s self-concealment is symbolized by his hat; it protects his head and hides his eyes. Throughout a first viewing of the film, Tom’s true nature is unknown to others, to the audience, and even, perhaps, to himself. Yet this hermetic façade proves fragile. Tom’s vice, gambling, starts to expose him. As the film begins, he has lost his hat to Verna by betting it in a card game. When she sleeps with him – knows him, in the Biblical sense – she takes it off. Upon learning of this betrayal, Leo strikes Tom in the face, sending his hat flying off. When the usually impassive Tom breaks down in fear, facing execution, the Dane prepares him for death by uncovering him, removing his hat and flinging it away. In each instance, the removal of Tom’s hat reveals his weakness, his powerlessness, his vulnerability.
The film’s opening credits show a hat floating through the woods on the wind – a visual recalling the flying saucer in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a similar story of isolation and loneliness. This image is returned to in a dream Tom recounts, shortly after he and Verna have fallen out of Leo’s favor and into each other’s arms:
VERNA: “What are you chewing over?”
TOM: “Dream I had once. I was walkin’ in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came up and blew my hat off.”
VERNA: “And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, and finally caught up to it. You picked it up, but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It changed into something else, something wonderful.”
TOM: “No, it stayed a hat. And no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”
And yet, the more closely one watches Miller’s Crossing, the more one realizes “chasing his hat” is precisely what Tom spends the entire film doing. Unwillingly exposed, he tries desperately to protect and conceal himself again – to seal up the last chinks in his armor of self-protective lovelessness.
Though I have not counted and have no exact figures to back up such a claim, I am fairly certain that the words “Jesus” and “Christ” are said more often than any others in Miller’s Crossing. Nor do I think this is merely colorful language. Whatever their impish public personae might suggest, the Coen brothers may be the most Judeo-Christian filmmakers in the history of the medium. Who else so casually yet insistently invokes a Biblical frame of reference through phrasing and symbolism? Fragmented or refracted though they may be, echoes of Biblical narratives resound through the Coens’ entire body of work, and if some of their films can be justly described as “nihilistic,” perhaps they are able to evoke a sense of cosmic despair so keenly only because they have something substantial to juxtapose it against. Six of their first seven films are about Hell, Jesus, or both. Blood Simple. frames the state of Texas as an infernal nightmare through which sinners blindly traipse. The very title of Raising Arizona, of course, is a play on “raising hell,” and Barton Fink sends its protagonist on a Dantean journey through his own personal Inferno. Miller’s Crossing, too, paints a hellish picture of the world, but it is also the first entry in the Coens’ oeuvre to introduce a Christ figure, no matter how dim His reflection may be. The Coens smuggle symbolism into their film undercover as profanity, and it all circles around Tom Regan. Or, as characters are always saying, “Jesus, Tom.” “Christ, Tom.”
The Coens’ filmography is such that any two of their films, selected at random, would make for good conversation partners. That said, I suspect that the single most illuminating counterpart to Miller’s Crossing is The Hudsucker Proxy, released four years later. The two are not likely to strike one as congruous at a first glance. Both feature rapid-fire dialogue with a distinct flavor of Old Hollywood, but The Hudsucker Proxy is a zany, warmhearted romp, about as far as one can get from the cold brutality of Miller’s Crossing. All the same, the films are two sides of the same coin. Both are truly unexpected retellings of the life of Christ, depicting nothing less than the transition from Old Testament to New Testament. In both films, the Christ figure is associated with the mind. Tom is a “thinker,” a “smart guy,” while The Hudsucker Proxy’s Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is christened “Idea Man.” Both Christ figures offer respite from the fickle cycles of worldly prosperity, symbolized in Proxy by literal circles (a la Boethius and Fortune’s wheel), and in Miller’s Crossing by the corrupt government officials who are now in one office taking orders from Leo, now in another taking orders from Caspar. In The Hudsucker Proxy, however, the Christ figure prevails; in Miller’s Crossing, his sacrifice is not accepted by those – literally, the Jews – he wishes to save. Bernie abuses his mercy for personal gain. By the film’s end, Verna openly hates him and his bond with Leo has been irreparably broken.
The Coens drop various hints to situate the film in its symbolic context. Leo (“Lion” – of Judah?) represents the Old Testament God. Like Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) in Proxy, he is an authority figure who occupies a place of power and commands the world below. Sounding like God chastening the nations of the earth, he warns Caspar, “You’re exactly as big as I let you be, and don’t forget it, ever.” Caspar (an Italian, not coincidentally) represents the Roman rulers, who want to exert complete control over their earthly empire. Considering the Judaic symbolism, it is only apt that Leo refers to him as a “pig.” More broadly, Caspar stands for all worldly kingdoms that seek to exalt themselves against the Almighty. “Leo ain’t running things!” he rants. “I ain’t interested in ancient history!” Even so, Leo is also a mere mortal; per Tom, he is “not God on the throne.”
In any case, it is Tom who receives the most prayers. “If I was a horse,” one bookkeeper jokes, referring to Tom’s poor gambling luck, “I’d be down my fetlocks praying you don’t bet on me.” When Tom takes Bernie out to Miller’s Crossing to kill him at Caspar’s behest, the latter repeats, “I’m praying to you. Look in your heart.” Tom is also a man of sorrows; he is constantly beaten, but does not open his mouth to complain. Like Christ on the cross, his legs remain unbroken, despite threats to the contrary. “He likes you, Tom,” remarks a messenger from Lazarre after one beating. “He said we didn’t have to break anything.” Tom also takes Leo’s wrath upon himself, submitting to the boss’ furious blows without retaliation. Given that the lyrics of Danny Boy are about a parent sundered from a child by death, it is not difficult to interpret the film’s second half as a gloss on Christ’s separation from God at the crucifixion.
Tom’s cross is the location from which the film takes its name, Miller’s Crossing, where sacrifices are made and substituted. (“Jesus Christ!” exclaims one thug, upon seeing the corpse.) On this cross, Tom is torn apart and divested of his earthly loves. Eddie the Dane plays the part of the devil, or the mocking Pharisees: “Where are your friends when you need ‘em?” he taunts. “Where’s Leo now?” He demands to see evidence that blood has been spilled, and when Tom’s true motives are revealed, he growls: “I am gonna send you to a deep, dark place, and I am gonna have fun doing it!” Indeed, Caspar’s firelit trophy room, where nightmarish violence takes place, is the hell into which Tom descends after his crucifixion.
Miller’s Crossing is a dream place where bloodguilt is mystically transferred. “This is a dream,” Bernie cries as he is led into the woods for his execution. (“You haven’t seen Bernie Bernbaum since he was shown across,” someone later remarks.) Tom tells him, “I had a dream about you… I dreamt you were lying out at Miller’s Crossing with your face blown off.” The logic of substitutionary sacrifice is at play throughout the film. “You’re dead, get me?” Tom tells Bernie after sparing him, but Bernie returns to blackmail Tom for this act of mercy: “Anyone finds out I’m alive, you’re dead.” Bernie and Tom are linked because of Bernie’s guilt and Tom’s mercy. And as one character puts it, paraphrasing Caiaphas: “What’s one Hebrew, more or less?”
Insofar as Leo is God, Tom takes his wrath upon himself. Insofar as Leo is man, Tom takes his sin upon himself. Bernie must die, and Tom kills him so Leo’s hands can remain clean. Tom kills Bernie so Leo can marry Verna. Tom gives up his heart for Leo, but Leo does not understand or accept Tom’s offering. “You do things for a reason,” Tom says at multiple points throughout Miller’s Crossing, recalling the traditional understanding of Christ as the reason or logos of God, but Leo does not like to think, and he is not willing to begin. In the film’s final scene, Bernie is being buried in a Jewish ceremony and Leo has converted to Judaism in order to marry Verna. The New Covenant is rejected in favor of the Old. “Things can be the way they were,” Leo pleads. “I know it! I just know it.”
Tom refuses. New wine cannot be put into old wineskins. The two men part, donning their hats again, their intimacy a thing of the past. But the camera glides under the brim of Tom’s hat – exposing him to the viewer, if to no one else – to show that he is still watching from afar, and that what remains of his heart is breaking.