16 FEBRUARY 1991, Page 36


Miller's Crossing

('18', Canon Haymarket; Gate)

Big, black, classy joke

Galli-tele Annan Miller's Crossing is a big, sinister, gangster movie, with terrific aplomb, stun- ningly cast, acted and shot. It was directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen who made Blood Simple. People who couldn't bear the violence of that won't be able to bear the violence of this either, and that is a pity, because about two thirds of the way through the whole thing goes into overkill and turns into a big black joke — which defuses the horror to a certain extent. Still, by that time you've seen a great deal of blood and vomit, with a great deal more to come. Albert Finney, who plays one of the leads, said that the script 'seemed like a comic strip, when I first read it . . . The casualness of the violence amused me a great deal.' But reading isn't the same as seeing. The Coens and their director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld (who also worked on Blood Simple) have a particular line in close-ups of blood seeping through cloth, gently and viscously coating fibre after fibre. It makes an effective change from the more common slow drip.

Miller's Crossing is what the Coens call a 'dirty town movie'. It is set in the Twenties in an East Coast American city with a corrupt mayor and three gangs fighting each other for supremacy. The Irish gang is led by Leo (Finney) and the Italian gang by Johnny Caspar, played with dazzling comic verve by Jon Polito. The Jewish gang is only just getting its act together and consists of a possibly incestuous brother and sister, Bernie and Verna Bernbaum. Slimy Bernie (John Turturro) is 'just a grifter', he says, using the most useful word to have come out of the 1991 releases so far. Verna is a hardbitten hooker de luxe (a notch or two down from poule de luxe). Her appeal is being implacably disagree- able, but Leo is in love with her. When he finds out that she is having an affair with his younger friend and 'adviser', Tom Reagan, their friendship comes to an abrupt and vengeful end, and Tom joins Johnny Caspar's gang. Many set-ups, hold- ups, punch-ups, and horrific gang' tortures later, they come together again at Bernie's funeral which is also the prelude to Leo's wedding with Verna. All the double- and triple-crossings are sometimes hard to fol- low, but luckily the plot is not, according to the Coens, the most important thing in the movie.

Tom is the mystery ingredient. Played by Gabriel Byrne, he is broodily glamorous and knows how to pronounce je ne sais quoi' . The others regard him as an intellec- tual which is resented by Leo's terrifying hitman, the Dane (J.E. Freeman). But Tom makes all the wrong decisions and is at the receiving end of most of the vio- lence. He even gets taunted with being 'a punch-ball'. So why do Leo and Johnny choose him for an adviser? In Leo's case it might just be for homoerotic reasons; on the other hand it might not. Miller's Crossing fascinates because it is full of resonances that can be heard and inter- preted as one chooses, or even simply missed.

'Oh, we've got three passengers today.' The dialogue is brilliantly grim, tight- lipped and funny in the Dashiell Hammett manner. The whole film, with its belted coats and snap-brim fedoras, belongs to the self-reflecting genre of films about films. Each sequence is an assured, soph- isticated bravura set-piece, the most spec- tacular, perhaps, right at the start, when a street urchin in a Jackie Coogan peaked cap finds the body of a hoodlum shot dead in the gang war, and pulls off his wig: that goes right back to Fritz Lang's boy with the bouncing ball. Long blood-lines make for class, and this film has class and looks marvellous, even though it goes on just a bit too long.