Miller’s Crossing (1990)
a 1930’s Prohibition-period gangster film by Joel and Ethan Coen, loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key.
“Now if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”
The talented cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld shot this for the Coens, and his use of long lenses and rich lighting gives the film a distinctive, deep look.
This is not a film with positive portrayals of gender and relational representations. You could say it’s a misogynist film, a man’s movie, certainly a study in manly love. There’s a considerable amount of cartoonish violence, and only one lead female character (Verna), while the rest of the women are depicted as floozies, neurotics, and throw-always. Verna is fortunately as strong as any of the male characters and she’s certainly as sharp as any man in keeping up, getting what she needs, and exerting her strengths.
The story’s set in an anonymous town run by Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster with the Mayor and Chief of Police in his pocket. Nothing happens in the town that Leo doesn’t know about and that doesn’t make Leo money. And much in the town is centered on betting, bars, fights, bootlegging, and maintaining Leo’s position in the fraternity of Jewish, Italian and Irish mobsters. When one of Leo’s rivals feels he’s being cheated, it sets up a cascading array of lies, betrayals, double-crosses and violent power-plays. As Gabriel Byrne’s character repeats throughout the film: “Nobody knows anybody.” And this confirms that we’ll be constantly surprised at how far most of these characters will veer from our expectations.
Leo’s double-cross introduces the narrative’s central theme: honor, among thieves and gangsters — ‘ethics’ in a crooked underworld. It’s about people’s loyalties conflicting with their need to control others, exert muscle and power, feel friendship and trust, and be in love. Characters get upset when others don’t play by the unspoken rules. They want business to continue as usual, but a series of schemes, confrontations and love interests spark a mob war. As the characters fumble and struggle for power, they’re all revealed as flawed, corrupted, and vulnerable.