‘Miller’s Crossing’ is touching and studiously crafted love letter to American film noirs and the seventh art in general

Every detail counts, JOEL COEN positions Rug Daniels "Rug" to camera on MILLER'S CROSSING (Photo courtesy of Will McCrabb)

The Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed Miller’s Crossing can be easily studied in two distinct ways. Firstly, it’s one hell of a gangster thriller, enriched by beautiful imagery, impeccably strong acting performances, a bulletproof screenplay and abundance of indelible details usually attached to the Coens’ filmmaking style. But secondly, this 1990 financially modest entry in the fruitful resumes of the groundbreaking American auteurs might as well be analyzed as an inspired, touching and studiously crafted love letter to American film noirs and the seventh art in general. Miller’s Crossing is nourished with plentiful references to older gangster films or prime examples of film noir, relying heavily on the far-reaching literary work of Dashiell Hammett. Joel and Ethan paid their respect to their cinematic ancestors, doing it unpretentiously, with a delightful amount of style, heart and creative impulse. Limited by a modest budget, the directors tried to cope with the situation by casting their family and friends in minor roles, struggling with writer’s block, insufficient funds and the relentlessly freezing cold. The major roles, however, were played thrillingly by the reliable veteran Albert Finney, excellent Marcia Gay Harden and Gabriel Byrne, as well as an absolute delight and one of the most underrated American artists John Turturro. Since the very first haunting shot of a black hat dancing in the wind amid a forest clearing, Miller’s Crossing makes a promise to the viewer, and with every passing frame it duly delivers on it. A beautiful film and one we hold extremely dear in our hearts.

Screenwriter must-read: Joel and Ethan Coen’s screenplay for Miller’s Crossing [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“After a film noir and a madcap comedy, the Coen brothers were again, according to Ethan, making ‘a conscious effort not to repeat ourselves’ when they undertook the writing of Miller’s Crossing. They started from a genre they wanted to do, the gangster film, and an image: ‘Big guys in overcoats in the woods—the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.’ ‘We weren’t thinking so much of gangster pictures,’ adds Joel, ‘just novels.’ And while their first film had been inspired by the plot-driven pulp fiction of James M. Cain, for this one they turned to Dashiell Hammett: ‘He took the genre,’ Joel explains, ‘and used it to tell a story that was interesting about people and other things besides just the plot. In Hammett, the plot is like a big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background. It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important.’” —Miller’s Crossing Production Notes

The Coen Brothers interviewed.

Your films contrast sharply with the greater part of the Hollywood films of today. For example, you begin all your films in the middle of a scene without any kind of establishing shot, as in Miller’s Crossing.
At the beginning of Millers Crossing, we had two setups: the first was of a drinking glass with ice cubes, then a closeup of Polito. We did not intend to show right away who was holding the glass. You see someone walk off with the glass, you hear the tinkling of the ice cubes, but the character is not visible in the shot. Then you see Polito, you listen to his monologue, and the ice cubes are always part of the scene, but they escape view. Then you see Albert Finney, but you still do not know who is holding the glass, and finally, you get to Gabriel Byrne in the background. All that was set up and laid out in the storyboards. We intended to create an aura of mystery around the character who was going to become the hero in the film. Polito is important in this scene because he’s the one who provides the background information as he begins to tell the story. We held back Gabriels entrance into the conversation. He is the last one to talk, five minutes after the beginning of the film. —The Coen Brothers Interviewed

Gabriel Byrne on Miller’s Crossing.

When I read that script, I was just like anybody I think who read it, just really impressed by how visual and literate and how complex those relationships in the story actually were. When you unravel what that movie is about, it’s even more audacious that someone could base a storyline on that single conversation between Steve Buscemi’s character and mine at the bottom of the staircase. All the twists and turns, the betrayals… There were certainly Machiavellian traits in the character and as much as the film is about gangsters, it’s also a film about big business and about the nature of morality. I think when the film came out it was really underrated. There’s laugh out loud moments in that movie, whereas on paper, it didn’t necessarily read that way. When Albert Finney turns around says ‘They took his hair, Tommy. They took his hair!’ (laughs) And of course, we’d just seen the kid run off with the guy’s rug in the earlier scene. I asked the Coens what their inspiration was to write the film, and I forget whether it was Joel or Ethan who said to me: ‘You always see gangsters in the street, but you never see them in a forest.’ I just thought that was so brilliant. Plus, there’s so much amazing imagery: the hat floating by the camera through the forest, which is one of the most original images in film history. —Gabriel Byrne: Talk to me

John Turturro on Miller’s Crossing.

The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a  couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together  too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.

When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it,  but it was hard to do. —John Turturro

The Film Society of Lincoln Center held an hour-long discussion between Joel and Ethan Coen and fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Some of the topics covered include how the Coens open their movies, their use of voice-over, how they use misdirection, and how their films compare to Baumbach’s. The interview is also worth watching because the Coens rarely speak about the films and instead prefer to let them stand on their own. People continue to speculate on the symbolism of the hat in Miller’s Crossing.

The 2013 The Art of the Score discussion hosted by Alec Baldwin and featuring the Coen brothers plus their long time composer Carter Burwell. A great meeting of the minds which dares to examine film music from a psychological perspective. Highly entertaining and worth every minute.

Masterclass movie storyboarding with Coen Brothers’ storyboarder J. Todd Anderson.

Thanks to Will McCrabb for the photos. Production still photographer: Patti Perret © Circle Films, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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