Coen Bros: Miller’s Crossing












THE LITTLE GUY: For one of the few times in their movies, the Coens tell a story not about a poor man. Tom Reagan is the right-hand man (I think) of Leo, the Irish mob boss who controls whatever vaguely-east-coast city this story takes place in. So although he is not the top dog, he’s close enough to the top to make a difference in his world.

Social mobility is again the issue. This time, it’s the social mobility of gangsters — if you’re on your way up you get everything you could possibly desire, if you’re on your way down you get beaten and shot and killed. Tom is close to the top, but he also owes thousands of dollars to big-time bookie Lazar.(Now that I think of it, gunshots in Miller’s Crossing have the opposite narrative function as they do in Blood Simple: in the earlier movie, shooting Marty accomplishes nothing at all, but the gunshots in Miller’s Crossing are all straight and true. Rug Daniels, whose death is pictured above, is a large man brought down with a single shot from a .22 — something that never could have happened in the world of Blood Simple.)Tom Reagan wants — um, well, let’s think about this for a moment. What does Tom Reagan want? Here’s the basic layout: Tom works for Leo and is also in love with Verna, who is pretending to be Leo’s girlfriend in order to protect her rotten-apple brother Bernie. Okay, mob underling in love with boss’s moll — classic set-up, the oldest one in the book. That much is clear. But wait — is Tom in love with Verna? He seems to enjoy getting drunk and having sex with her — that’s one of the few things he seems to pursue to any degree at all in this movie. Is he in love with her, or is he just using her affections toward some other end?Most Coen Bros’ movies feature a narrator of some kind, but Miller’s Crossing does not, in spite of having a ridiculously complicated plot and the opportunity to use Gabriel Byrne’s lush Irish baritone. What a different movie this would be if Tom was guiding us through this complex world of shifting alliances and betrayals — and yet, nothing doing. Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There is a character who barely speaks at all in the narrative but won’t shut his yap for a second in the narration — what’s Tom’s problem?

Obviously, Tom’s got secrets. He gets through life alive by not telling people what he’s thinking. His silence gives him the illusion of wisdom (an illusion Eddie the Dane sees through). The Coens need Tom to keep his secrets, even from the audience. So we watch Tom’s actions, but often their meanings are withheld from us. This withholding is, in my opinion, the root of the movie’s coldness, the reason people love The Godfather but scratch their heads in puzzlement over Miller’s Crossing. We know exactly what Michael Corleone wants, and it breaks our hearts to see him corrupted and lost. We have no idea what Tom Reagan really wants, and it keeps us outside the movie.

(The Coens’ coldness is, I think, the think that keeps me linking their careers with that of Kubrick. Absent a warm central figure to identify with, Kubrick’s movies become about systems and conditions instead of about individuals. Likewise, the Coens’ movies often are about communities and moments in time, and how individuals cannot hope to assert themselves against larger societal realities. And, with God’s help, that last sentence will be the most pretentious thing you’ll read in my analysis of the Coens’ movies.)

Tom’s problem is Verna’s brother Bernie. Bernie is causing trouble for everyone, he’s broken the rules, and he needs to be dead. Tom wants Bernie dead and Caspar wants Bernie dead. Leo doesn’t care one way or the other about Bernie but he’s keeping Bernie alive because that’s what Verna wants. So Tom wants Bernie dead, but he can’t kill Bernie himself because then he would lose Verna. So instead of killing Bernie himself he orchestrates Bernie’s capture and murder by Caspar’s men — or so he thinks, anyway.

So Tom is no saint. In a way, he’s worse than Caspar — he’ll woo Verna while plotting to murder her brother, all the while getting other people to do his dirty work for him, while getting Caspar to murder his closest allies and setting up Bernie to murder Caspar.

TOM’S HEART AND HAT: Then there’s the Bernie question. As Bernie logically points out, once Caspar and Eddie and Mink are all dead, there’s no longer any reason to kill Bernie. Then why does Tom do so? Bernie says “Look into your heart” and Tom replies “What heart?” as he puts a bullet through Bernie’s head. Verna doubts the existence of Tom’s heart as well — and maybe that’s what the movie’s about, the gradual death of Tom’s soul. Engineering Leo’s return to the throne seems to have killed something inside of Tom and he can’t live in this world any more.

The movie famously begins with a shot of Tom’s hat blowing through the woods, and so we keep careful track of Tom’s hat’s movements throughout the movie. The hat seems to be some sort of symbol of control for Tom — he’s terribly anxious without it, and every time he loses it, or even takes it off his head, it’s an indicator that he’s lost some measure of control in that scene. So when he says goodbye to Leo in the forest at the end of the movie, he takes a moment to affix his hat before looking dolefully after Leo (who is, at that moment, removing his yarmulke and putting back on his Homburg). Tom’s heart may be dead but his hat is firmly in place. Maybe the movie is really only that, a drama about the battle for control between Tom’s heart and hat.

NOW THEN: I have read analysis saying that Tom Reagan is gay, that Tom only seems to be interested in having sex with Verna, but in fact he’s really interested in having sex with Leo. He can’t have sex with Leo, so instead he has sex with Verna, Leo’s moll, in order to be closer to Leo. I don’t see a great deal of evidence to support this theory, but I will say this:

1. There are an abnormally large number of gay gangsters already outed in Miller’s Crossing. Eddie the Dane, Bernie Bernbaum and Mink Larouie are all out, and even married-with-children Johnny Caspar hints at dalliances with men in the past (it’s hard to tell sometimes in the world of Miller’s Crossing if, when someone says something about their relationship with another man, whether they talking about a friend, a lover or a business associate — the terms are often transposed and interchangeable, which makes the sexual waters of Miller’s Crossing that much more muddy). If three of the ten main characters of this gangster movie are openly gay, who’s to say that they aren’t all gay on some level? Tom and Leo certainly trade a number of meaningful looks full of big eyes and pregnant pauses — are they discussing business or dancing around the love that dare not speak its name?

2. It appears that Tom goes to extraordinarily great lengths to restore order to the universe of Miller’s Crossing — he finally kills Bernie Bernbaum (even though he doesn’t have to), gets Johnny Caspar and Eddie the Dane out of the way and single-handedly ends the gang war. Then he goes trotting over to Bernie’s funeral and is surprised to learn that Verna and Leo are going to get married — even though Verna no longer needs Leo to protect Bernie. This news, apparently, changes everything for Tom. When Leo tells him he’s marrying Verna, Tom tells Leo that they’re quits, even though Tom has moved heaven and earth to restore Leo to his throne. Is he that upset about not getting Verna, or is he upset about not getting Leo?


points out in my Raising Arizona post that the Nathan Arizona Jr. is not merely a baby born to the only Jew in the movie, but also his father is a Jew who sells wooden furniture. Jesus is mentioned a number of times in Miller’s Crossing, mainly by people staring at Gabriel (!) Byrne, looking hurt and saying “Jesus, Tom.” Is Tom meant to be a Christ figure? Does he do all he does as a sacrifice to amend for his world’s sins? Is that why he turns his back on his world?

There’s also a good deal of talk in Miller’s Crossing about the nature of civilization. The gangsters constantly worry about civilization — that is, organized crime — falling apart and mere anarchy reigning in the city. (Interestingly, the gangsters all operate casinos — games of chance — while reserving their highest anxieties for the notion of chaos; that’s why all the games are fixed.) “I can’t die out here in the woods, like a dumb animal!” is part of Bernie’s extensive plea to Tom, and Caspar’s opening monologue about “etics” warns against a return to the jungle. That’s why the Hades of Miller’s Crossing is the woods — that’s what the gangsters fear the most. Not the death, necessarily, but the woods — brute animal nature.  (Is this why Caspar always tells his men to “put one in the brain,” to show how the gangster’s desire for orderly civilization is constantly doing battle with his need to destroy that civilization?)

(The trees are important in Miller’s Crossing — almost as important as Tom’s hat.  Even when the gangsters are not literally out in the woods, there are always pillars or balusters or some kind of strong vertical lines to indicate a metaphorical woods.  And when Johnny Caspar is killed in Tom’s stairwell, we hear the same creaking-trees sound effect that we hear out in the woods.)

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: The law enforcement agencies of Miller’s Crossing are bought and paid-for accessories — probably the bleakest view of the police in the Coen world.

THE MELTING POT: The world of Miller’s Crossing is, I’m willing to bet, the most ethnically diverse in the Coen universe. The main factions are Irish and Italian, but Eddie the Dane is, obviously, Danish (the part was originally written for Peter Stormare and called Eddie the Swede, fyi), Bernie and Verna are Jewish, as is, I’d bet, Tom’s shylock Lazar. Idiotic boxer Drop Johnson is most likely Scandinavian. I’m not sure what kind of name Mink Larouie is, it sounds like a corruption of LeRoi, which would make him French, but Steve Buscemi sounds very much like a guy from Jersey. The bartender at the Shenandoah Club sounds Scandinavian too, but I couldn’t place his accent — is he German, or even Jewish (he is close, after all, with all the Jewish bookies)? Then there is Tom’s downstairs neighbor at the Barton Arms, who seems to be German. Where, however, are the African-Americans who are playing all the jazz music? Are there none in this anonymous east-coast American city?

Is there a political allegory at work in Miller’s Crossing? The protagonist is, after all, named Reagan. Is this a movie about the US’s place in the world? If so, how to read the plot? Is this a movie about how difficult it is to be a leader in this dangerous world where protecting a Jew starts an all-out war that leads to untold deaths and non-stop political upheaval? If so, why would the Coens be making that movie?

Once again, there are two dominant musical worlds presented, with a third musical world representing the “outside.” Here, it’s Irish Traditional vs. Italian Opera, with Jazz Standards being the music of that symbolizes the world of people who aren’t part of the story.

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7 Responses to “Coen Bros: Miller’s Crossing”
  1. r_sikoryak says:

    Oddly, I haven’t seen this yet… but I just saw No Country.


    It’s really good.

    Will you speak of it once you’ve made it through all the rest?

  2. Anonymous says:


    I always thought the movie took place in Chicago. Something about all of the scandinavians and Irish and Italian mobs.

    • Todd says:

      Re: chicago

      It seems like a very Chicago story, doesn’t it? But the city goes unnamed. It was shot in New Orleans, and there’s something East Coast about the dominance of Irish gangs. But I think it just takes place in Big American City, USA.

  3. ogier30 says:

    Millers Crossing is one of my favorite films. A wonderful pastiche of The Glass Key and Red Harvest.

    The entire film is truly summed up by Gaspar at the start – the opening line of the film: “I’m talking about friendship. I’m talking about character. I’m talking about — hell Leo, I ain’t embarassed to use the word — I’m talking about ethics.” Everything that happens afterwards illustrates that.

    I’ve always thought, to some degree, the speech Sam Spade makes at the end of The Maltese Falcon (novel also by Dashiel Hammett) in some way sums up Tom Reagan and his motivations:

    “Listen… This won’t do any good. You’ll never understand me but I’ll try once and then give it up. Listen… When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it — bad all around — bad for every detective everywhere.”

    And that’s what drives Tom. He’s Leo’s right hand man, he’s supposed to give advice and protect Leo – his friend and partner. When Leo’s making a bad decision, Tom does something about it – not because it’s convenient or easy, but because it’s the right thing for him to do. Tom is a man of character and ethics.

    Eddie the Dane is the counter-part to Tom, and momentarily thinks he’s ahead of the game… but Eddie lacks Tom’s ethics and character; Eddie is motivated by advantage, rather than what is right. Thus, when it comes down to it, Gaspar choose Tom over Eddie (wrongly, it proves, but only because Tom is no friend of Gaspar).

    Tom also kills Bernie because what Bernie did, he can’t let go unpunished – no the just the chiseling on bets , but reneging on his deal with Tom and his murder of Mink. It’s bad for Tom’s business, bad for everyone’s business. Bernie has to go, because he’s proven himself to be a man without character, friendships, or ethics.

    The reason Tom walks away at the end is that Leo, by opting to marry Verna, has revealed that in the end, he isn’t willing to do the “something” a man is supposed to do. He choose Vera over Tom, and so Tom, having done all he can do for Leo, must walk away. Leo has failed the test of friendship, character and ethics as well.

    In the entire film, Tom Reagan is the only one who holds to friendship, character and ethics. All around him, everyone else fails in some or all of those areas.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Jesus, Tom!

    You’re on to something with the repetition of “Jesus, Tom” or “Tom! Jesus!” throughout the movie. Tom does play a Christ figure, who is sacrificing the only life he knows in order to restore balance to the world for his “Father”, Leo (as in lion, the king of the forest). The Holy Trinity is completed when you consider Caspar, the friendly (Holy) ghost. I’m not completely sure where the Trinity metaphor as a whole takes you, but it’s interesting.