September 5, 2002

Under the Radar

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This column is about those movies, independent or studio, which because they were released the same weekend as a huge franchise film or were ahead of their times or the critics just didn’t ‘get’ them, were never seen by as many people as they deserved to be.

What makes better use of music than Goodfellas, has more to say on the human condition than The Godfather (I and II), has a greater affinity for shootouts than Scarface, more humor than Analyze This and is shorter than Once Upon A Time In America? The greatest gangster flick ever made (by two boys from the Midwest): Miller’s Crossing. At heart, most gangster films come from the Greek tradition. Hero rises, triumphs and is brought down by tragic flaw. At its best, the hero’s goal, what Michael or Scarface really want, is nothing less than the realization of the American dream. The Godfather is a great film because it’s about how even as Michael gains the world he loses his soul. This, needless to say, is not exactly a new idea. The Coen brothers are telling an entirely different story.

The film is set in what appears to be prohibition-era Chicago where the Irish mob, led by Leo (Albert Finney in the best hair piece ever), is in charge. As the film opens, Leo’s Italian rival, Johnny Caspar ( Jon Polito sporting the funniest Napoleon complex this side of 18th century France) is there to ask Leo to allow him to rub out Bernie Bernbaum (John Tuturro). Unfortunately, Leo is involved with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden in the role she should have won the Oscar for). Leo’s right hand man, our hero, Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), advises him to let Caspar have his way. Tom does this even though he is also sleeping with Verna. Leo won’t listen to Tom. Bloody hijinks ensue. Got that? Don’t worry. No one else did either, so see the movie twice. It’s worth it. As in most Coen movies the plot is totally labyrinthine but strangely logical. The plot is also totally incidental to the characters. This movie is about how and why people say and do things, not who was bumped off in what order. There’s one scene in the film where you find out exactly who’s double crossing who and why (hint: it’s for the oldest reason in the world). Watch very carefully for a cameo by Steve Buscemi as Mink. In a two minute exchange between Mink and Tom the entire plot is unraveled.

The movie has much more to offer than just hairpin turns however. The cinematography is some of the best you’ll ever see. The story is set in an archetypal ‘dirty town’ and you can see the grit and grime that clings to every building and character. The titular location, by contrast, is bathed in filtered green light and dwarfs the gangsters in their dusty black coats. Everything is so beautifully shot that you want to reach out and touch this movie in spite of its gun metal gleam. The performances are equally good. You never get the sense that these characters learned how to be gangsters by watching old movies. Tuturro has what is probably the most famous scene in the film as he begs Tom for his life in a monologue that lasts so long beyond the point of possibility that it passes through camp and comes back full of dramatic tension on the other side. The film is truly an ensemble piece in that every character, all drawn with typical Coen quirkiness, adds to the richness of the film. There is a complete world in this movie, one that existed before we came in and exists independent of the film.

Crossing boasts the best rouges gallery outside of Casablanca’s usual suspects (another movie that centered on two men’s love for the same woman). The hilarious, Wilder-esque writing is also on par with the best. The Coen’s practically invent a language full of slang so clever you’ll want to use it yourself. There are great back-andforths between Harden’s moll and Byrne’s thug: “Do me a favor and mind your own business. Intimidating helpless women is my business. Then go find one and intimidate her.” Caspar’s lectures on ethics aren’t as far removed from some congressional rhetoric as we’d like them to be and the tough talk is tough (and raises questions. What do you do after you kill someone ‘for starters?’). But there is no doubt about who the center of the movie is. Byrne’s Tom is something more interesting than a good man who is corrupted by crime. Tom is quite possibly a very bad man who happens to be a gangster. Tom is watchful, ruthless, manipulative and smart. He’s spouting one-liners even as he gets turned into ‘little miss punching bag’ by just about every other character. He is unutterably cool. He’s also a killer. Tom knows himself by the end of the movie. And as much as he is afraid of what he sees, he can’t change.

Archived article by Erica Stein