Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Notes on Miller's Crossing

Some unshaped notes on a film that really deserves instead some sort of bravura, free-form, Greil Marcus-style essay on the complex levels/codes/plots within it, what it says about the gangster genre vs. the noir genre, and what it says about the gangster as tragic hero, all woven together with its place in the American psyche.
  • Tommy is obviously the smartest one in the movie from the start, and that stays true to the end.  As soon as he gives his opinion on Casper’s request, we believe him and look to him as the protagonist, both because of the force and charisma of the performance by Gabriel Byrne and the way Leo defers to his opinion.  Actual bosses are both a little dim, advisors and grifters the intelligent ones.
  • Tom is a man who sees all the angles, who always knows what ought to be done, but nonetheless is profoundly self-destructive.  He drinks all the time, more than any other character, gambles badly and is always in debt (he understands people but aparently can’t win at cards??), and he’s sleeping with his best friend’s girl.
  • Key themes:  “Nobody knows anyone.  Not that well.”  (we can never be sure of anyone’s motives, esp. Tom’s); . . . “I’m talking ‘bout ethics.” (what kind of ethics or codes govern behavior in this world where the cops serve whoever’s in power and deal out death indiscriminately, even to unarmed men waving white flags); . . . Double-crossing is the one morta sin--even going to the other side is allowed as long as it’s done honestly, everyone is obsessed w/ the possible deceitfulness of everyone else; . . . “That’s what separates us from the animals.” vs. “We’re not like those animals back there.” (when ethics--even a distorted criminal code--erode, people really do turn into animals, no mercy or kindness, chaos is under the surface ready to bubble up at the first sign of loss of order)
  • Tom is like many noir heroes: moves between several groups, plays them against each other, and gets beat up the whole time.  See Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick (film which owes much to Miller’s Crossing)
  • Violence is excessive, tommy guns have unlimited ammo and all of it is used, people killed in unique and brutal ways throughout (a Coen Bros. specialty), but Tom and Verna both hesitate to kill.  Don’t want to get their hands dirty of because of love?  Perhaps Tom has heart at beginning but loses it by end?
  • Tom makes choice to go forward w/ plan in apartment w/ Verna when she says they both double-crossed Leo and he was well rid of them.  Tom seems irritated by this, sits in chair thinking.  Perhaps he realizes how badly he’s treated Leo, or how bad things are going to get w/ Leo making calls on his own.  This is where he decides to make a play of his own.  Clearly he doesn’t have everything planned out, he takes each situation individually and tries to use them as they are, but he has a goal in mind from the start--help Leo, keep him on top.  It’s never about getting power for himself or actually siding w/ Casper, it’s always about Leo.  But is it about Verna as well?
  • Tom clearly cares for Verna or wouldn’t have let Bernie go, but by the end of it he doesn’t seem too upset that Verna is gone. ---Perhaps he realizes Verna is yet another self-destructive tendency on his part, perhaps decides true loyalty to Leo is ideal he has to uphold and that means letting Verna go?   ---There is theory that Tom in love with Leo himself, relationship with Verna just sublimated/displaced lust, attempt to get closer, and it is very defensible theory.  Makes things easier, in some ways.  Don’t really like/agree with it, though.
  • Random:  there are moments when budget limits show, particularly when have to show town, but it ends up making the film more strange/out-of-time/existential;  . . . one of the most evocative main scores a Coen movie’s ever had, and that’s saying something; . . .beautiful image of man chasing hat--hat a symbol of dignity, honor, respectability, being in control, but “There’s nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing a hat.”  Supposedly ridiculous, but with this image film achieves poetry, drama, power, far deeper than genre pastiche.
A masterful film.  In close competition for the Coens’ best.

(actually posted Jan 2015)

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