David Thomson, British film critic, has become something of a go-to guy for me throughout this series when I wanted to find an intelligent contemporary comment on a film. He calls Miller’s Crossing “a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing,” and says he has learned “to love (its) crammed texture and its nearly constant inventiveness”, while admitting that he is not, generally, a Coen brothers fan.
The plot, Thomson says, does derive elements from the Dashiell Hammett mystery The Glass Key, also a study of how corrupt city politics works. Above all he likes the performances, including Gabriel Byrne as the hero, who, he says “recognizes the curse of intelligence that hangs over him and the duty it imposes – of always being driven to nose out the cons of others, while hoping his own subterfuges are going unnoticed.” His friend is played by the British actor Albert Finney, who got the part when the Coens’ first choice, the admirable Trey Wilson, who played Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona, suddenly died. Thomson says Finney “is charged with energy and booze in equal parts as the thick-headed crime boss who can’t see a con if it’s a cat curled up in his lap.” And he likes the girl, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who he calls “never better and so sexy”, and John Turturro, whose character he says is “as brave as any coward who takes terrible risks. This could be the finest work of one of our best supporting actors.” We’ll have the opportunity to see more of Turturro throughout this season, including as the title character in the next film, Barton Fink. Other reviewers have liked it too. Richard Corliss, in his review in Time, called it “noir with a touch so light, the film seems to float on the breeze like the Frisbee of a fedora sailing through the forest.” Mike Clark in USA Today wrote, “Cold and cut to the bone, the film is a primer in screen virtuosity. Standard action film clichés, like a face getting hit with a chair, get turned inside out; both film and actors somehow manage to seem realistic and stylized at the same time.”
Music was by Carter Burwell, with period music such as “King Porter Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton and the Irish tenor’s favorite ballad, “Danny Boy”. Barry Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer. Production design was by Dennis Gassner, with art direction by Leslie McDonald and set decoration by Nancy Haigh. It was filmed in 1989, with some location shooting in New Orleans, and it was released in September, 1990. It did disappointing business, grossing $5 million on its initial release on a budget of $10-$14 million. I hope you enjoy watching Miller’s Crossing with me tonight.