Prohibition-era gangster film “Miller’s Crossing” shines in The Criterion Collection


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

(1&2) Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Reagan the trusted advisor to the Irish Gang Leader, Leo O’Bannon played English actor Albert Finney.


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“MILLER’S CROSSING” – THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Blu-ray; 1990; R for violence and gore; sex and nudity; profanity; alcohol, drugs, and smoking; frightening and intense scenes.


Best extra: A featurette titled “The Actors,” where mystery author Megan Abbott interviews stars Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro





AS FILM CRITIC Glenn Kenny points out in a detailed essay enclosed in Criterion’s “Miller’s Crossing” package, and as Byrne and Turturro reiterate, the release of “Miller’s Crossing” was “nearly buried under the buzz” of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “King of New York” with Christopher Walken – “all of which opened on the same weekend.”

The darker, more contemplative period piece that “Miller’s” was, (though every bit as much a classic as the other two,) did not fare well financially in its opening week. And classic it was and is, neo-noir at its finest from the costumes and sets, Barry Sonnenfeld’s luscious long shot photography; Carter Burwell’s soundtrack that seems to have come from a John Ford Irish epic; a plot inspired by at least two Dashiell Hammett novels, to the great performances from Byrne, Turturro, Albert Finney, John Polito and Marcia Gay Harden.

“Miller’s Crossing” was the third film for Joel and Ethan Coen after “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona.” Those two earlier examples would not have clued the movie-going public what to expect in “Miller’s Crossing.”


(1) The opening credits for “Miller’s Crossing” was filmed in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. (2&3) Italian Mob boss Johnny Caspar (John Polito) comes to Leo O’Bannon to find out why someone has been revealing his fixed fights and killing his gambling profits. “If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?” (4) Along a back alley a little boy takes the rug off the head of murder victim Rug Daniels (Salvatore H. Tornabene). (5) Steve Buscemi (Mink) has acted in seven Coen Brother films. (6) Reagan in a meeting with O’Bannon, the mayor, and the chief of police.





A cold opening has Italian Mob boss Johnny Caspar (John Polito) listing his grievances against one Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro) for chiseling in on his “fix” – personal gambling profits. Polito gives Caspar a near comic touch as he waxes eloquently about character and ethics, while making his case for murdering the duplicitous Birnbaum.

Caspar is making his pitch to town boss and A-Number One Irish Gang Leader, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who is having none of it. Leo is in love with Bernie's sister, Verna, a tough as nails Marcia Gay Hardin, making Bernie essentially untouchable.

Leo’s fixer and right-hand man Tom Reagan (Byrne) counsels his friend and boss that letting Caspar have Bernie's head would head-off a lot of trouble, but the man won’t go for it.

In a plot that owes a little to Hammett’s “The Glass Key” and “Red Harvest,” Caspar goes to war with Leo while Tom Reagan sets in motion a convoluted series of double and triple crosses to protect his friend. Blood flows, bullets fly, the patter is gaudy, and the guys (and dolls) are tough.

And if you look very, VERY carefully, you’ll see Albert Finney in drag – check out the homely attendant/lady's maid for the Women's Dressing Room at The Shenandoah Club when Tom busts in to confront Verna.

My gift to you.


(1&2) Reagan has a secret relationship with O’Bannons girlfriend, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who’s the sister of double-crossing bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). (3) The streets of New Orleans were the perfect backdrop for the Prohibition-era story.





VIDEO

Surprisingly it’s only mastered in 2K (1.85:1 aspect ratio) while still looking sumptuous and saturated. Color, texture, fine detail, and shadow come through exquisitely. The fictional “Miller’s Crossing” was shot in 35mm during a New Orleans winter by Barry Sonnenfeld, who also filmed “Raising Arizona.” The town setting is pure 1920s, with surrounding woods reminiscent of the haunting “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos,” directed by Steve Buscemi in 2001.

Blacks are solid against a period-sepia-like tone. Occasional brights pop up, and complexions and costume detail is bold and natural.

AUDIO

A new 5.1 surround mix created by supervising sound editor and recording mixer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell is a tiny bit glitchy. Overall, good and crisp, but there was an odd drop for just a second or so about three times.


(1) After an assassination attempt at his home, O’Bannon blasts off what seems to be a thousand rounds from his Tommy gun. (2-4) Reagan is given the gun to kill Bernie Bernbaum in the forest. (5) Johnny Caspar’s henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) threatens Verna.





EXTRAS

A segment called “The Actors” with the current interviews featuring Byrne and Turturro, about their memories of working with the Coens and fellow cast members. A scene of motor-mouth Steve Buscemi's character ripping off about five minutes of dialogue in 35 seconds as Byrne does his best to maintain a straight face is nearly worth the price of admission.

“The Music” with Carter Burwell. The scene in Leo’s house where the assassination attempt is made to the tune of "Danny Boy” is one of the most iconic in the film. The late Irish tenor Frank Patterson was prevailed upon to stretch out his version of “Danny Boy" to accommodate the action sequence and, national treasure that he was, agreed enthusiastically.

“The Look” is where cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld explains how the Coens' "storyboard within an inch of their lives” their projects (very like a certain celebrated Englishman of portly stature – initials A.H.) He tells of marrying his fiancé at the wrap party for “Miller’s” and the wonderful toast he got from Albert Finney – who then set off a barge-load of fireworks he’d personally paid for. Years later, Finney ran into the cinematographer and asked, “Are you still married?” Sonnenfeld replied that, yes, indeed he was, to which Finney replied, “Great! Those fireworks cost me a fortune!”


(1) Director Sam Raimi makes a brief but memorable appearance as the snickering gunman at the siege of the Sons of Erin social club. (2) One of the victims of the police raid.





“From the Archives” has interviews and publicity blurbs from Byrne, Hardin, Turturro and Polito from when the film was originally released in 1990.

A printed essay by critic Glenn Kenny is tucked into the case like liner notes from a classic LP.

I wasn't able to bring up the subtitles in the menu, no matter what I tried. Eventually, I hit the "subtitles" button on the remote and they came up.

“Miller’s Crossing” won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. It was nominated for Best Picture; Best Director (Joel Coen); Best Supporting Actor (John Turturro); Best Film Editing (Michael R. Miller); Best Original Score (Carter Burwell); Best Art Direction (Dennis Gassner); Best Cinematography (Barry Sonnenfeld), and Best Costume Design (Richard Hornung).

In spite of minor annoyances, fans of this film, fans of the Coen brothers, and people who just love good stories about filmmaking will find a feast in the Criterion Collection disc of “Miller’s Crossing.”

— Mike Reynolds


(1) As many times as Tom Reagan gets socked in the kisser, he needs a little self-medication. (2) Who can you trust, as Verna points a gun at Reagan.

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