The Set of 400: #12 – My Favorite Artist With a Thompson

Today! Because, hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word. I’m talkin’ about ethics –

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (x6)

Starring Gabriel Byrne (x2), Albert Finney (x5), John Turturro (x5), Marcia Gay Harden, J. E. Freeman (x3), Jon Polito (x2), Steve Buscemi (x4), Mike Starr (x3), Al Mancini, Tom Toner, Michael Jeter (x4), Mario Todisco, Richard Woods, Michael Badalucco (x4), Sam Raimi, Frances McDormand (x4)

My favorite Coen brothers movie, their earliest effort on this list, with one of the best screenplays ever written, Miller’s Crossing is a gangster movie, unquestionably, but it is really so much more. Its twisty plot of continually shifting loyalties and multi-directional romances can be a bit bewildering at first, as the whole thing is given a very light touch and seems the breeziest of crime chronicles. It adopts a comical old-timey vernacular right from the jump, and showcases character quirks and extremes so rapidly and immediately that you might suspect you’re in for a decidedly light-hearted movie. At first.

Back when the main topic of the film appears to be Ethics

But quickly the story drills down into the group’s complex, internecine strife and we’re off to the races. It’s a film I saw too young to fully comprehend, to be sure, to the point that it literally took decades of sporadic rewatching for me to pick up on everything. Not that it’s all that complicated, but to a ten-year-old it seemed just a lot of hokey turns of phrase, over-the-top shouting, and operatic violence – entertaining, but not necessarily in depth. Thanks for the early primer, early ’90s HBO! Like many of the top, top films on my list, Miller’s Crossing is something I can rewatch endlessly, but it is the rare one that fits the old saw often floated about great works of art – every time I see it I find something new.

Are we all actually Tom’s hat??

I also have a huge blindspot when it comes to this movie, in that I have no idea if it has any wide awareness or not. As should be evident from the last fifteen or so films on this list – with the likes of Star Wars, Batman, E.T., It’s a Wonderful Life, Ghostbusters, etc. – a lot of my favorite films are also insanely popular. However, Miller’s Crossing had no box office to speak of, and only found whatever audience it did later – on TV and video. Even as the Coens made more popular films, you didn’t seem to hear this movie get mentioned – it kept being “From the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski” or maybe Raising Arizona would get included. But this, with few awards worth mentioning and no movie theater dough to prop it up? How popular really is this film?

I assume people have eventually come around to discovering it. Not the greatest indicator, I know, but IMDB does have 117,000+ ratings for Miller’s Crossing – which puts it in the same basic neighborhood as fellow 1990 releases Kindergarten Cop, Awakenings, and Predator 2, so that’s something, right? Again, no perspective on this, as I’ve literally seen it dozens of times over the last thirty years, and it is as well known to me as virtually any film. I can also say with some confidence that this is the last even remotely lesser known movie remaining on this list. There are three left with fewer IMDB votes, but one is almost 90 years old, one is basically a children’s movie, and one…I have no excuse for in this regard. Meh, IMDB votes are meaningless.

How are people living without these wonderful characters in their lives? 117,000 IMDB users are avowedly familiar with the likes of Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss Leo and Jon Polito’s Italian counterpart Johnny Casper, with Marcia Gay Harden’s flinty moll Verna and her brother Bernie Bernbaum, John Turturro, “the Schmatta Kid,” with J.E. Freeman’s grim, towering enforcer Eddie Dane and his boy Mink, Steve Buscemi. And tying it all together is the perennially underrated Gabriel Byrne as fixer Tom Reagan, playing all sides against each other and getting his ass repeatedly kicked by virtually every character in the film.

Not pictured: Tom sprawled out across the floor

For MVP, with near-limitless options, I was inclined to go with Al Mancini and Mike Starr as the brutally comic goons Tic-Tac and Frankie, but instead I’m picking Mario Todisco’s boxer Drop Johnson, caught unwittingly in the middle of all the mob goings-on.

He doesn’t have the easiest time of things, either

I know I haven’t given out goofy, made up awards in some time – dropping this idea I want to say like a hundred films ago – but it’s high time it comes roaring back here, with Best Use of Rumpus, as a word, frequently and borderline magically. Also, Best Which Hand Game, with Johnny Casper’s thick kid, later instructed “A little less you talk, a little more you think!”

This is the Coens’ sixth and final film, after #197 Inside Llewyn Davis, #128 Fargo, #91 The Big Lebowski, #367 A Serious Man, and #117 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, becoming the sixth directors in the guild, alongside Spielberg, Allen, Kubrick, Burton, and Brooks, while no actor advances further than the Fives here – Finney (#374 Murder on the Orient Express, #129 Bourne Ultimatum, #113 Skyfall, #58 Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother) and Turturro (Big Lebowski, #368 Anger Management, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, #180 Hannah and Her Sisters).

Coming tomorrow! Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it –

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