Miller's Crossing | Critical Review by Tim Pulleine

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Miller's Crossing.
This section contains 756 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Tim Pulleine

SOURCE: "Neo-Classic Hammett," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 64-65.

In the following review, Pulleine praises Miller's Crossing for its unity of plot and structure.

Blood Simple, the first feature of Joel Coen (writer-director) and his brother Ethan (writer-producer), was widely seen as updating the protocols of the school of writing most readily associated with James M. Cain. Now, after the high-pitched comic detour of Raising Arizona, the Coens have turned for inspiration to a different area of crime writing, the novels of Dashiell Hammett. This time they have adhered to the period of the originals: the milieu of Miller's Crossing is an unspecified American city during Prohibition. The makers have spoken of echoing the 'dirty town' premise of Red Harvest, though in fact the narrative bears a more particular resemblance to The Glass Key.

The plot is of a complexity that would defy any brief synopsis, but turns in outline on the attempted overthrow of the city's Irish 'boss' (Albert Finney) by his Italian arch-rival—the former's Achilles heel being his infatuation with the sister (Marcia Gay Harden) of a double-dealing petty criminal (John Turturro)—and on the thwarting of this design by Finney's chief lieutenant (Gabriel Byrne), who has also been Harden's lover and who feigns desertion to the opposition in order to repair his mentor's fortunes.

The manner in which the densely packed storyline is negotiated, moreover, is not the delirious modernism of Blood Simple, but rather that of neo-classicism. Restraint is the keynote, whether in the preponderance of frequently near-static medium and close shots, the 'invisible' editing, or the restricted palette of Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography, with its emphasis on browns and greys. This restraint might, to begin with, risk seeming artificial. But as the movie progresses, its scale gradually opens out and violent action intermittently intrudes, most astonishingly so in the set-piece in which the strains of 'Danny Boy' from Finney's horn gramophone majestically counterpoint his bloody turning of tables on the would-be assassins who have infiltrated his mansion retreat.

Despite such interventions, however, and the pattern of repetitions (only properly discernible at a second viewing) which underpins its structure, Miller's Crossing is elucidated pre-eminently through interchange between characters. In the manner of a Howard Hawks movie—though thankfully there is no suggestion of direct reference—it erects an exact yet invisible dramatic scaffolding, around which the participants, no matter how far removed from 'real' life, can create an illusion of independent existence.

Here Gabriel Byrne's hard-bitten insouciance, admirably offset by the bluffness of Finney, easily transcends anything this actor has previously done on the screen. And although it might be invidious to single out anyone else from an exactly balanced ensemble, J.E. Freeman, as the rival's granitic enforcer, contrives a figure from the realms of nightmare: asked whether he wants to kill a potential victim, he replies, 'For starters.'

Throughout, indeed, the pungently idiomatic dialogue invites quotation, whether it be Byrne's dismissal of a third party as 'not a bad guy if looks, brains and personality don't count', or a bookie's comment on Byrne's lack of gambler's luck: 'If I were a horse, I'd be down on my fetlocks praying you don't bet on me'.

Yet for all its humor, Miller's Crossing contains a heart of darkness. The intimations of sado-masochistic emotion which insinuated themselves into Blood Simple, and were even perceptible (in a farcically distanced vein) in the no-hoper couple of Raising Arizona, here tend to hold sway. The punishment to which Byrne submits with something like complicity, in the cause of preserving Finney, becomes an expiation of his guilt at having been the older man's amorous betrayer, but also an expurgation of his feelings toward this ambiguously paternal protector. At the end, the grateful Finney's almost priest-like utterance of 'I forgive you' is met by his erstwhile protégé with, 'I didn't ask for that and I don't want it': the two men's mutual dependence is at an end. (Thematically, too, the film could be said to contain indirect echoes of Hawks.)

By this time, the explication of the intrigue behind the conspiracy, however gripping in itself, has assumed a kind of irrelevance, so that the perversity of motivation is, as it were, absorbed into the very fabric of the narrative. In consequence, Miller's Crossing assumes a precision of correspondence between content and form which is all too rare in the cinema today; and the resolute effacement of any authorial 'signature', such as would detract from the telling of the tale, renders the film all the more clearly the product of a (double-headed) auteur.

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This section contains 756 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tim Pulleine
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