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Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) is an Irish mobster and political boss in an unnamed northeastern city in the United States, a tough, well-protected man with a long reach and a lot of enemies. Top of that list is Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a less-than-connected man but powerful nonetheless and when he comes by to declare his intention to kill local sleaze and bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), he does so not to ask for permission but as a courtesy. Problem is, Leo’s not having it, seeing as how Bernie is Verna Bernbaum’s (Marcia Gay Harden) brother and Leo is getting it on with Verna. Leo puts the kibosh on the killing, which doesn’t make Caspar very happy. He doesn’t want the high hat.
Then there’s Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). He’s Leo’s right-hand man and chief advisor who thinks letting Bernie live is a bad idea. But he’s also having an affair with Verna and well, you know that can’t go well. He’s a man of means and few words but with a lot of influence. But he not always makes the smartest choices in his own life, and this is what will cause him the biggest trouble in a small pond with two big fishes.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, in their third outing, this highly under-rated film is nothing short of a masterpiece with the now usual sharp dialogue and clever and imaginative camera work that has come to define this innovate and award-winning directing team. The movie pays homage to the styles and themes of many classic gangster films of generations past while finding its own place in the genre, supporting by some of the best work any of these actors have ever done, most especially Turturro. And it is his performance that deserves a closer look, most particularly his plea for life in the woods outside of town.
Bernie Bernbaum is not a nice guy but he’s not a strong man either, caught in the cogs of those more powerful who run the machine. Slippery and on the take, he is a weasel with few friends, but is still connected, mostly thanks to his sultry sister. And it’s his sister that puts things into a rumpus when she starts having an affair with Tom behind Leo’s back. When that becomes known to Leo, he turns his back on both Tom and his woman, shunning them from the business.
Looking for work, Tom heads straight to Johnny Caspar, who is eager to have Leo’s former advisor on his side. To have Tom prove his loyalty, he demands he kill Bernie in betrayal of Leo’s order, and Tom accepts with little choice, escorted himself in the woods by Casper’s own dimwitted thugs. Once in the trees at titular Miller’s Crossing, Tom takes the whimpering Bernie alone into the forest, a kind of dead man walking to the executioner’s lair.
As they walk, Bernie talks. Beaten already, his clothes tattered, he is pressed forward by the aim of Tom’s pistol, but shouts back at his silent stalker that he can’t do this, that Tom is no animal, he doesn’t “bump guys.” He cries that he doesn’t deserve this and sure, he’s made a mistake but he’s never crossed a friend. That’s important. All the while, Tom remains stoic, seemingly unmoved by the miserable pleas of his soon-to-be victim and keeps his head down so his eyes stay in the shadow of his brimmed hat. Bernie is beside himself with fear and at last collapses to his knees, facing his would-be killer. With wails of misery, he cries out to Tom to “look in your heart“, praying to him to not let him die like an animal in the woods. Tom considers and the camera draws close. He then raises his pistol and fires.
The Coen Brothers have always been masters at creating tension, in drawing us into their worlds and misdirecting our perceptions and expectations. With this early film, they reveal a skill for storytelling that will set the standard for all their work to come, letting characters and setting speak as eloquently as the dialogue in the script. Tom is a true antihero, a quiet, passive creature who takes a beating from men and women, but is resilient just the same, a player who knows no loyalty, only survival. Like many of Coen’s characters, he is not easy to get behind, but one we instinctively follow.
But it is Bernie Bernbaum that is the real star of this film, at least by how his influence on Tom steers the story. A man with little to offer, he feels he holds more in his hands than he does, and yet, like anyone, wants his piece of the pie, believing it his right. A shifty character, he makes a play at something bigger than he is, trying to make a setup that will put him in a better position. But he’s playing with low cards and worse, with men who have no hearts.
Turturro is simply mesmerizing. A true talent and one of the finest supporting actors ever to find work in film, he is a marvel here and gives the seedy character the perfect sense of desperation and vulnerability. His long slow walk from the car to the clearing at Miller’s Crossing is a harrowing few minutes of film, made more so by Turturro’s torturous performance as he truly pulls us into this impossible situation. It is not a coward facing his own death but a man stripped of options, doing the only thing he knows best, selling his fate with humility. It’s a great performance.
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden