Apropos of basically nothing, I started out the evening by presenting a Monty Python sketch, apparently called “Buying a Bed”.
OK, technically it wasn’t selected completely out of the blue. I was originally re-screening the Monty Python army base protection racket skit as a potential counterpart for our feature gangster film, but that carried into Buying a Bed, and I just like the latter sketch better. So I showed it. But I only showed it 10 times, with a bag over my head.
Zak followed that up with a more gangster-oriented comedy bit, this one a fake movie trailer from Saturday Night Live parodying a British gangster movie: “Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun to Re Ro”. Since NBC is aggressive about protecting its intellectual property, I can’t embed a YouTube copy, but I can link to the official site which will allow you to play a very nice HD version in full-screen:
Yes, that’s the real URL.
Which leads us to our feature presentation, Miller’s Crossing, the second Cinema 1544 feature to come from the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan. Just like Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun to Re Ro, Miller’s Crossing features some pretty quick and unintelligible speech, these from the ensemble cast of Irish and Italian mobsters in an unnamed Prohibition-era city. Couple the need for subtitles with a typically twisted Coen brothers plot, and you’ve got a movie that will keep you working just to stay in touch with the plot.
But how to start explaining this film? Here I believe our first short was less irrelevant than I would have thought to start, because perhaps the most appropriate quote to lead in this film comes from the Monty Python troupe from their “Meaning of Life”:
Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?
Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our film: Tom Reagan’s bowler hat. It’s a talisman of sorts – it opens the film in an American-Beauty-esque scene of windblown longing, and shortly thereafter becomes the plot device that leads us to learn of the affair between kingpin Leo’s right-hand man Tom Reagan and his boss’s moll, Verna.
Tom Reagan is a tough nut to crack. He’s Leo’s most trusted adviser, but he appears to have very little criminal ambition. He also appears to have inexplicably little clout with Leo, seeing as in our introductory mob scene, Leo gives no weight to Tom’s thoughts on a very important – if complicated – issue. You see, it seems that a not-quite-rival Italian gangster by the name of Johnny Caspar is upset with the Moll’s bookie brother Bernie (which sounds just like “Verna” in the Irish slur and leads to some failures to understand what’s going on in the earlygoing) due to suspicions that his fight fixes are being leaked around. Tom recommends satisfying Caspar by offing Bernie, but due to Verna’s affections, Leo refuses, essentially resulting in a full-fledged gang war between the two.
At the same time, Leo suspects that Verna’s getting around on him and sets a snoop on her on the night that she wins Reagan’s hat at a drunken game of poker. He eventually makes it over to her place to reclaim the headpiece and get a bit of (figurative) tail while the (other, figurative) tail is MIA.
Turns out the tail is dead in an alley, with his toupee stolen and a .22 slug in his chest. Or belly. I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter. Theories fly over who killed him (suspects include Verna) but in the end, I don’t remember who it was that actually did the deed. Nor does it really matter, either. It wasn’t Verna, it wasn’t Tom Reagan, and in a gangster movie everybody has an equally plausible motive to do anything. So that guy’s dead, and he can’t report on who it was that was getting nookie from Verna.
Of course Tom, with his ever-obscure motivation and his apparent abhorrence of violence of any type, ends up telling Leo that it was him sleeping with Verna. After taking a series of about 27 punches and culminating in the barman interceding to throw him out of the joint, Tom realizes that he’s just been fired. So he goes to work for Caspar.
Of course, Caspar isn’t inclined to immediately believe Tom’s sincerity despite the highly public falling-out he had with his old boss, so he gets Tom to sell out Bernie then instructs him to be his executioner out in the woods at We-Have-A-Title’s Crossing.
But of course, given Tom’s dislike of violence (you know, when exactly was it that you realized you might have chosen the wrong career?) he fires off two shots and lets Bernie go, but not before Bernie proves to be the yellerest coward this side of…well…I can’t think of a more pathetic plea for one’s own life in movie history. Send in those hat tips!
Of course, this ends up causing a lot of trouble. First off, Bernie returns to town despite Reagan’s insistence that he leave and never come back, and begins to essentially blackmail Reagan under the threat of exposing that he wasn’t actually killed. On top of that, when The Dane – Caspar’s humorless right-hand man – finds out that the other henchmen didn’t actually witness Bernie’s killing, he suspects that Reagan isn’t really on their side.
I don’t think Reagan was. But I’m really not sure whose side he thought he was on, either. Reagan does get a corpus ex machina when The Dane, pushing him at the point of a gun, makes Reagan lead him to Bernie’s corpse – and there’s actually a corpse there, with its face eaten off by the birds. Turns out that Bernie planted that one (another bookie, it wasn’t really even worth a side plot).
From this point on, Reagan plays everybody, leading to the not-exactly-satisfying conclusion that Walter Sobchek would definitely not have approved of. Too many moving parts, too much can go wrong. There’s the Dane’s tragic Cassandra death (he’s always loyal, he’s always right, and when he finally discovers the truth that the body wasn’t Bernie, he ends up getting offed by a Reagan-charmed Caspar). There’s the set-up where Bernie kills Caspar at Reagan’s place thinking he’s Reagan. And finally, there’s Tom’s cold-blooded murder of Bernie. Which, if he’d just done it the first time, would have saved a lot of trouble.
Anyway, in the end Leo gets the girl, and seeing as Reagan has singlehandedly taken out essentially all of his mob rivals, he offers him his right-hand-man position back. Reagan refuses. After all, he’s got his hat. What else does he need?
I’m pretty mixed about this movie. It has some great moments, and like all Coen brothers films it has outstanding dialogue, at least from time to time (and yes, some of it really is unintelligible). But the plot is overly complicated, with messy side plots that don’t really move the story forward. And I’m not really sure what the story is. The Coens have a history of weaving complicated plots together into a coherent whole, but in this film I don’t see it coming together. The Coens have a history of creating unique and nuanced characters whom you can love despite their flaws, but here the parts come off pretty flat. You know, I think I would have liked it better if it wasn’t Coen brothers. They can do so much better.