Miller's Crossing and The Nasty Girl. plus Green Card, Buddy '5 Song, Fear and Meet TheApplegates
INDEX: 19 LISTINGS WEEK ONE 25 WEEK TWO 27
Raising a rumpus
Bona fide movie mavericks Joel and Ethan Coen have surpassed themselves with their latest offering Miller’s Crossing, a devilishly-plotted 20$ gangster thriller whose slangy vocabulary makes Damon Runyon seem plain-spoken. With a cast headed by Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney, it’s already been described as ‘an instant classic’. Nodding in agreement is your man with the disposish, Trevor Johnston.
That‘s ‘disposish‘ as in ‘disposition‘. by the way. As in ‘what‘s the disposition?‘ As in ‘what the hell is going on?‘. It's a question even the most alert of viewers will be asking themselves at some point
. during the course ofJoel and Ethan Coen‘s
' Miller’s Crossing. First off. the dialogue in itself, part pulp noir lingo, part freewheeling invention from the irrepressible brothers. is expressed in a patois so delirious the UK distributors have drawn up a handy glossary to guide the British car through such unfamilair terms as ‘Guinea‘ (meaning Italian) and ‘Schmatta‘ (meaning rag. or wothless person). Secondly, so Machiavellian are the ins and outs of the narrative, the web of shifting motivations. betrayal, duplicity and revenge so complex that you‘ll be hard pushed to fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together the first time you see the movie.
So what, in the catchphrase of Gabriel Byrne‘s protagonist Tom Reagan, is the rumpus? Well. however exasperating it might seem at times, Miller’s Crossing is a remarkable achievement that works as a refracted version of the old Warner Brothers gangster‘shoot-em-ups while offering some insights into how integrity can cope in a world ofviolent expediency. Don‘t let it put you off, but like the doomy bewildered odyssey of Arthur Penn‘s 1975 take on the modern detective in Night Moves, we‘re talking post-modern inversion of a familiar form.
'Friendship, character, ethics‘ runs the litany of the opening line. and the rest of the running time goes to show just how spectral those can sometimes be. It‘s 1929 and we’re in an unnamed city in the eastern USA (the picture was actually
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shot in New Orleans), pitched into the middle ofa conflict between two warring mob factions. Irishman and town kingpin Leo (Albert Finney), who‘s currently got the Mayor‘s office and the local Police force in his pocket, and the Italian aspirant to the throne in the ample shape ofJon Polito‘s Johnny Caspar. The main focus however is on Leo‘s right-hand man Tom. an excellent Gabriel Byrne. and his illicit relationship with his boss‘s girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), a liaison further complicated by the fact that her brother Bernie (John Turtuqo) is wanted by Caspar for his alleged part in muscling in on a fight-rigging scheme. With the bond between Tom and Leo broken by news ofthe affair. Reagan joins the other side to help the Italian in his drive to oust power from the Irishman.
In typical Coen manner, the battle between the two enemies is marked by a relish for comic-strip violence and here the bravura action setpieces, most notably a bullet-riddled night attack on Finney‘s mansion to the yearning strains of ‘Danny Boy‘. top anything alreadyseen in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Retaining regular collaborators, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who achieves a wondrous richness of tone from the deep mahogany and burgundy leather interiors. and composer Carter Burwell, who contributes his best work to date in the memorable main theme. the imposing look and sound of the piece. inhabiting an intriguing area somewhere between wilful artifice and gloomy expressionism. are integral to a film whose concentrated attack of double and triple cross almost mask the very dark themes lurking
Albert Finney (left) and Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing
‘lfyou can‘t trust a fix. what can you trust‘ is a key line mapping the film‘s landscape of mistrust and deception. the half-explained recurring image of a hat blowing in the wind through a forest a tantalising indication that objective truth will always keep moving just when you think you‘ve grasped it. Amidst the seething panorama of corruption, Byrne‘s Tom Reagan seems the one character whose smart machinations are just a realist‘s cover for the honest soul beneath. but the variations of the plotting in his relationship with Verna and her manipulative sibling continually test whether his integrity can indeed remain intact while all around him morality has been replaced by murderous improvisation.
In the end, we work towards a downbeat conclusion that‘s perhaps best appreciated at a second or third viewing. when the work ofsorting out the whys and wherefores of the story have become ofsecondary interest to the reflective and troubling vein of despondency beneath. At a time when all too few Hollywood movies are worth sitting through at all. Miller's Crossing has so many rewards to offer that once through is simply not enough. Probably too bitter and densely-textured to win the attention of the American Academy. the Coens‘ film is having to fight for attention amidst the annual ()scar hype. but it's a rare treat all right. for a true work of art from the American mainstream is something that any filmgoer should be ready to celebrate.
Miller's Crossing (18) plays the U ( 'I Clydebank. Edinburgh Cameo and A llanpark Stirling from Fri 15 Mar.
The List 8—21 March 1991 17