|Don't give Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) the "high hat!"|
One of the great things about this film is that all of this deep soul-searching stuff isn't the focus of what's taking place onscreen. Instead, MILLER'S CROSSING is a highly active story- pulling in characters (and I do mean "characters") from a very diverse collection of gangsters, politicians, thieves, cops, freaks and even the genre-requisite femme fatale. The story can get pretty dense in places only because so much is going on. Tom is into a large debt with a bookmaker, he's fooling around with Leo's girlfriend, he has to choose if this girl's brother, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) should live or die, he's being squired by a rival gangster, Johnny Caspar (the brilliant Jon Polito), and he's being scrutinized by Capsar's muscle guy, The Dane. I'll be honest, it took me two viewings to really soak up everything that's happening in Tom's world. But I think things are complicated on purpose, so that we emotionally identify with Tom's bewilderment, which is well-hidden by his very droll, placid demeanor. The more some people get overwhelmed, the more calm and whimsical they act- that's old-school tough-guy stuff that this movie examines both critically and with a little romantic appreciation.
What separates this movie from a lot of other gangster films is something that on its surface makes it the quintessential mob flick- its dialogue. The script is full of gangster slang- there are words in here that you've probably never heard of unless you lived during the 1920s. Compare this to a movie like 1987's THE UNTOUCHABLES, and you'll see what I mean about the dialogue. THE UNTOUCHABLES feels like an '80s movie, even though it is very much involved in its Prohibition-Era setting. MILLER'S CROSSING doesn't try to make itself modern. It is devoted to its period, so much so that some of its most brilliant lines can be lost on an audience that is not intently listening. But if you do pay attention, you will see the humor and complexity of these characters. That's what continues to draw me back to this film- each time I watch it, I find something new to consider.
This is a movie concerned with morality- not in the basic "good versus evil" sense but in terms of how people affect those around them through the choices they make. It's also a movie with some really memorable gangster violence. One of the film's highlights is a scene where men are sent to kill Leo at his home. Here's how Leo responds:
If you've seen MILLER'S CROSSING, jump in and comment on what you think of the film. If you haven't seen it yet, I think it would be the perfect movie to watch on St. Patrick's Day later this month. As the first film in this ongoing series of "Classics" I highly recommend it as one of my all-time favorites.