It's weird how my thought process works. Twitter is the main receptacle for me when I articulate minor things that are going on with me, and the more I post on it the more things get clarified in my own mind. I guess writing things out helps me think things through a bit. Anyway, I was bemoaning the fact that I really don't have the time to take in comfort movies anymore, and that I do it entirely too much. It's just easier to put in the tried-and-true these days instead of something new, and I desperately want to get out of that habit, especially since Fantastic Fest is starting in a few weeks. Comfort movies help relieve the tension and stress of the week, and I want to do more writing than I have been this past month. I haven't done a YOU KNOW FOR KIDS! column lately, and I'm kicking myself for that, believe me.
So I decided this morning that I would give myself just one comfort movie a week until the end of the year. Otherwise, if I'm sitting down to a movie, it's got to be a fresh one. Whether it's Netflix or purchased, or a screener, I have to sit down to a new film (at least new for me, there are vast amounts of movies that I haven't seen yet, and I'd be embarrassed to say what they are) instead of one I've seen already. Otherwise I'm just as guilty of living in that nostalgia world as everyone else, and I can't grow as a movie fan or a writer if I close myself off to new experiences and films. So of course, this gave me an idea for a column, one that I'll need to make sure I keep up with, especially for later in the year when we'll be inundated with new product and I'll be bitching about how I don't have any time. But I thought that I'd review one film, one movie that puts me in that happy place where everything is great and for two hours I'm just not on this world. I'm spending it with my friends. And that's the Comfort Movie Of The Week. No cheats, I don't get to pop in favorite after favorite. I just don't have that kind of time anymore - but I get one gimme a week. And then I'd write about it here.
They don't have to be in the Top 10 All-Times or anything, they can just be movies you've always enjoyed and put in to unwind. It's like comfort food - you know a cheeseburger every day just isn't good for you, but people do it anyway. But you limit it to once-a-week, and it becomes a treat, something to look forward to. That's my goal for this column, and maybe writing about a film I love will spark the homefires a bit and get me writing more. If you're in, you can happily read, and if not, no worries. So are you ready?
This week's Comfort Movie (and the first one for the column) is a film that I picked up this week on Blu-Ray. It came in a box set with three other films, and these directors are just gods of cinema, in my opinion. I couldn't let the week pass without getting MILLER'S CROSSING on Blu-Ray.
Gonna make a bold statement here. Of all the gangster movies out there, MILLER'S CROSSING is my favorite. Yeah, over THE GODFATHER, over GOODFELLAS, even over my favorite Cagney movie, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. MILLER'S CROSSING has great, conflicted characters, a labyrinthine plot that sucks you in regardless of how complicated it gets, and of course the rich dialogue, which just seems to get so much better with age. I could spend this entire review quoting it. In its way, for me, MILLER'S CROSSING is more quotable than THE BIG LEBOWSKI, a movie I also love but never understood why out of all the Coen Brothers movies out there that it's the one that got so universally embraced. MILLER'S CROSSING deals with darker stuff, while THE BIG LEBOWSKI is light for the Coens (only one person dies in it!). But through the years, of all their films, it's the one I return to the most. Mind the spoiler tag, by the way, I'm going in deep.
Johnny Caspar (the incredible Jon Polito) breaks down his version of ethics and morality in his corrupt world - there's nothing worse than a guy who squeals. In this case, it's "the Shmatta" Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) who is selling out Caspar's bets to the general public. Caspar fixes fights, with the help of his henchman the Dane (the frightening J. E. Freeman), and when the fix is in, people get paid. But when Johnny bets with Bernie, "out of town money comes pouring in. The odds go straight to hell." This is all explained in an opening monologue that's one of my favorites in film. Johnny Caspar, in his way, is an honorable man. He didn't make the rules, but he does his best to follow them, even if those rules aren't exactly the prim and proper rules of normal society. So when someone like Bernie comes along and breaks them, well, you have to kill the son-of-a-bitch. It's only fair.
But Leo (Albert Finney) isn't interested in fair. What he's interested in is Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and staying in her good graces, and since Bernie's her brother, that means, in the parlance of the film, giving Caspar the high hat. Leo refuses to give Caspar permission to kill Bernie, since he pays for protection. But Caspar won't be assuaged so easily - he leaves with the Dane, letting Leo know in no uncertain terms that this isn't over: "You think I'm some guinea fresh off the boat, and you can kick me. But I'm too big for that now!" With a tossed-off "Youse fancypants, all a yous" (I love how in the antiquated world of MILLER'S CROSSING it's perfectly fine to be gay - "I know Mink is Eddie Dane's boy, but I don't make it that way" - but if you're weak, you're despised) Caspar ends the conversation.
When Leo's right-hand man Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne in his finest performance, and one for the books) suggests that sparing Bernie was a bad play, and not good for business, Leo brushes him aside. Tom's in debt to some bookies himself, but it's not honorable for Tom not to square his own debts, and so refuses Leo's offer to make it good. With a final admonishment to Leo to think about the ramifications of letting Bernie live, he leaves, and we're off and running.
All of this is done in the first five or so minutes. It's one of the greatest set-ups in film history. Instantly we know the stakes, the combatants, and the man caught in the middle, Tom Reagan, who the story centers around. It's efficient, direct, and every word coming out of the characters' mouths is a jewel. There's a rhythm to the dialogue that, even if you don't get the meanings of the specific words and phrases, puts you so deep into the language of the film that you understand completely the intentions behind the words. It's one of my favorite opening scenes, and any writer out there worth a damn has to look at it in abject admiration. It's four guys in a room, talking over drinks, and it's intense as well as informative. I'm still in awe of it.
I'm not going to break down the entire film. But Tom definitely has his own motives outside of working for Leo - he's also seeing Verna on the side, and he's not quite sure how he feels about her. Not sure enough to let Leo know the score, of course. Leo is Tom's closest friend in the world, but Tom is not an open book - those blue eyes are the only windows into a deep, quiet, complicated man. "No one knows anybody. Not that well." He hides his true feelings, and we the audience aren't even quite sure what Tom is thinking or what his motivations are. It's one of those iconic performances that chases an actor throughout their entire career - one of the reasons why I don't think Gabriel Byrne ever really broke out big is because it's so hard to top. It's also the reason why Bryan Singer picked him for THE USUAL SUSPECTS, I'm sure - in a film that holds its cards as close as that one, you don't want to give anything away but you want to show as much as you can, and Byrne knows how to do that better than practically any other actor.
But MILLER'S CROSSING is full of great actors. Steve Buscemi, as Mink, makes an impression with just one scene, and his character is integral to the plot; he's something of a sad person, used by everyone who knows him. The only person who cares for him is the Dane - and J. E. Freeman, as the Dane, creates a villain so multi-layered and scary that he's up there with Darth Vader as an iconic bad guy for me. The Dane may not be able to out-think Tom, but he can sure out-tough him when it matters, and he's frightening to behold when he's in his element - "Go ahead and run, sweetie. I'll track down all of you whores." - but even the Dane seems sympathetic as Tom outplays him. No one can outplay Tom when it comes to manipulating people and events to suit his purposes. Marcia Gay Harden isn't simply the dame - she's deep herself and her motives are always what's best for her brother Bernie - and John Turturro is amazing as Bernie Bernbaum. He sees the angles and plays them to his advantage; since he's not a tough guy he has to if he wants to stay alive. The way he manipulates Tom is genius. Finally, Albert Finney gives a sad, strong performance - greatly wounded by Tom, and genuinely in love with Verna despite knowing that she's using him as well; Finney is resolute and powerful.
MILLER'S CROSSING came about through two films - YOJIMBO and THE GLASS KEY. The former is one of Akira Kurosawa's greats, as a wandering samurai comes to a small village plagued by two rival crime families, and sets out to make things right by manipulating each side. THE GLASS KEY is based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, and has a very similar plot (although it's about the political world as opposed to the crime world, but you could say they're the same thing) even down to several lines of dialogue. The film THE GLASS KEY has a rhythm and cadence to the dialogue that's very similar to MILLER'S CROSSING. It's a terrific little film in its own right and I hope it comes back into print. It's also fascinating to see the parallels between the two, but what MILLER'S has over it is the sense of foreboding and a looming sadness over it all, as each character plays their roles, leading them down their predestined paths.
It's a life that Tom desperately wants to get out of - he knows the road he is on ends only in sadness and death. The final shot of MILLER'S CROSSING, as Tom looks out from under the brim of his newly-retrieved hat, is one of my favorite final shots in film. It's a look of true freedom, of a man who now has no ties to the world he was once a part of, and how scary and liberating that must feel. Are we truly meant to be free? No one to hold you back, but no one to love, or be friends with, or share in your life with in any way? What does that mean, to be truly free? The film doesn't answer it, and so we have to contemplate what life for Tom means at the end of the film. It's a road that leads away from Miller's Crossing, and from the life he once led. To truly live without debts is a scary thing, MILLER'S CROSSING suggests, as it's the debts we build in life that keep us grounded and among our friends. With those debts gone, who knows what a man is capable of?
Why is a dark, complicated film like MILLER'S CROSSING a comfort film? Much of it is the dialogue, which is so rhythmic and beautiful that I could just put it on to listen to. It's also very, very funny - some of the snappy repartee between characters makes me laugh out loud even now. Like I said, I could have just quoted the film all day. There's amazing direction in it - Leo's tommy gun shootout, set to the music of "Danny Boy" sung by Frank Patterson, is one of the most iconic action sequences the Coens have ever done - amazing cinematography, with rich greens and browns. For me, MILLER'S CROSSING is a flawless film, and probably not one completely understood on release. What I think the Coens were trying to make with MILLER'S was a film that they loved in their youth - the gangster movie that is so much more than the genre. MILLER'S CROSSING is about the ties we make with our fellow human beings and how tenuous and fragile those ties are. It's also about the death of a man's soul and what it costs him. "Look in your heart!" the movie asks, and the answer is "What heart?" and a gun shot. It's a true classic, and I'm glad to have made it the first of this (hopefully ongoing) column. Thanks, as always, for reading. MILLER'S CROSSING is available on Amazon by itself or as part of the Coen Brothers Box Set (along with BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, and FARGO).