Filmic mythology

If the daft comedy Raising Arizona was a film made of style, with Miller’s Crossing the Coen Brothers showed that the same basic material could still be used to construct something dark and serious, much as it had been in the Classical Hollywood era. Every shot, every line of dialogue, is crafted in homage to the movies of that time, and other than the presence of some (nearly) out gay characters, and some fairly graphic violence, it could almost be a classic film noir. Those were commercial movies, though, made in a mainstream idiom that was known to sell theatre tickets; Miller’s Crossing was a box-office bomb, an art movie made to serve the creative imperatives of its writer-directors, at a time when cinema-going audiences weren’t falling over themselves to watch crime dramas set in the Prohibition era, and probably saw such a film as weirdly old-fashioned.

The star of this film is its razor-sharp dialogue, often delivered at breakneck speed, written in a dramatic idiom to which plausibility is a peripheral concern, and charisma is everything. Albert Finney is magnificent, channeling John Wayne in his portrayal of Irish mob boss and political fixer Leo O’Bannon, while the laconic cynicism of Gabriel Byrne’s cold-hearted fixer is a perfect foil to Finney’s ardency. Marcia Gay Harden plays an archetypal gangster’s moll, smouldering or crackling as the occasion demands, but always on fire. Despite the generic constraints of their roles, or perhaps because of them, these three actors give stunning, nuanced performances—relating the socially defined imperatives of their roles to the tragic experience of being required to inhabit them. This is perhaps key to the emotional power of classic, as well as neo-noir: we spend much of our lives acting parts and following a script, and the things that happen to us sometimes have the same grim inevitability as they do in a film like Miller’s Crossing.

The other roles, some of them quite juicy, are less three-dimensional, although they are no less well-realised. John Turturro’s performance in particular is chilling and wretched, and Jon Polito is mesmerising as Johnny Caspar, a caricature of an Italian-American mobster often played for laughs. In fact, a surprising amount of this film is played for laughs, although sometimes the comedy simply emerges from the historical irony of including certain parts exactly as they might have appeared in the 1940s, Johnny Caspar’s young son, for instance, or the rotund and supine mayor and police chief. Any time somebody is shot with a tommy gun they do a ludicrously extended Spandau ballet, and the infinite magazine capacity established as a convention of classic noir is gleefully reproduced here.

Accounts of this film don’t seem to acknowledge its comedy elements, but for me the humour is an essential part of the package. The Coens set out to build a complex work of art from a lexicon of stylistic gestures so long-established that in most hands they would simply read as clichés: the strength of their construction is never so clear as when it is bearing the weight of cheap gags without showing the slightest sign of buckling under the strain. None of the silliness distracts the viewer from the dark tragedy of cynicism and violence at the movie’s core, and in fact it probably serves to dissemble some of the silliness that is built into film noir’s basic assumptions. I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack or the cinematography, but both are pitched perfectly to the generic requirements of this almost unfeasibly stylish flick.

This is a formally near-perfect film, for me, and by making a movie that is, in large part, about other movies, Joel and Ethan Coen mobilised the entire mythological power of cinema, to produce something with the depth and resonance of a Norse saga or a Shakespeare play. I was grinning almost continually as I watched Miller’s Crossing, not because it’s a funny, light-hearted sort of affair, but because every shot and every line was a delight, an unabashed homage turned around on itself to produce irreducible meanings that are entirely the Coen Brothers’s own.

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