By Ben Breen
The HBO series Boardwalk Empire may currently be winning laurels for its workmanlike depiction of Prohibition-era gangsters and corrupt politicos, but viewers interested in a more fully-realized work about the Golden Age of American organized crime would be wise to turn to the Coen Brother’s 1990 masterpiece Miller’s Crossing.
This film centers on the attempts of an Irish-American mob underboss in 1920s Chicago, played by Gabriel Byrne, to collect on a gambling debt from an unsavory bookie named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro, in a riveting and unnerving performance), while he navigates a love triangle between himself, Bernbaum’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and his mentor, an aging mob boss played with memorable vigor by Albert Finney. Yet the real appeal of Miller’s Crossing lies not in its convoluted plot, but in its evocative depiction of the distinctive visual style and underworld cant of 1920s Chicago. In a lesser film, the screenplay’s clutter of long-forgotten slang (“now take your flunky and dangle”) might come off as stilted or mannered, but here it seems natural: these are real characters, living real lives in a bygone urban America that is both foreign and familiar.
Miller’s Crossing was loosely based on Dashiell Hammet’s classic 1931 potboiler The Glass Key, but the Coens allow their spectacular ensemble cast to take what could have been a formulaic tale of double-crosses and gang warfare in a highly original direction
– despite nods to classic film noir like Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Gabriel Byrne, as the brilliant but self-defeating mob lieutenant Tom Reagan, is the anchor of Miller’s Crossing, and the ethical dilemmas he faces in the film function as stand-ins for the larger moral ambiguities embedded in the ambitious and individualistic mindset of America in the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. Byrne’s Tom is a cynical realist who prides himself on his ability to “know the angles” and avoid allowing his conscience to get in the way of business opportunities. Yet at the same time, it is Tom’s aversion to violence — at least when he is forced to perform it himself, at close quarters — that sets in motion the film’s main events. Can criminals maintain a moral compass? And what separates a criminal from a businessman or politician, if all three place rational self-interest above personal ethics?
The Coens, who both wrote and directed the film, are wise to leave the answers to these questions up to the viewer. But Gabriel Byrne and the brilliant ensemble cast that support him are much more than gangster-movie cliches: like Tony Soprano, they are unsettling precisely because they are so familiar, such typical products of an American society that mingles cold-blooded acquisitiveness and violence with a sincere streak of idealism and a desire to do right. The French novelist Stendahl wrote that “a novel is a mirror carried along the highway.” Miller’s Crossing causes us to see criminals not as clichés or villains, but as reflections in that mirror.