“Look in your heart!” pleads Bernie Bernbaum (a wonderful, weaselly turn from John Turturro), as he sinks to his knees and begs Gabriel Byrne’s protagonist not to execute him.

“I’m praying to you… look in your heart!”

It’s a stunning scene from a film with about four or five of them, but it has a lot more resonance than perhaps even the filmmakers intended. After their first film Blood Simple became a modest arthouse success, and they dipped a toe into the mainstream with Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers got burned for the first time when Miller’s Crossing flopped at the box office. At first glance, it’s difficult to see why – it’s a masterful film in many respects, full of brilliant writing, inspired directorial choices and a richly conveyed sense of genre and period, embraced with a level of detail that’s almost unparalleled.

Yet for all this fine work, and like a lot of other Coen films, it’s a little too clever for its own good. On the one hand, its cultural heritage is fascinating. It draws very heavily from the crime fiction work of American writer Dashiell Hammett – there are specific scenes, characters and even dialogue that seem to be lifted directly from his novel The Glass Key (itself made into a decent film in 1942), and the plot device of a gangster-for-hire playing two warring factions against each other is taken from another Hammett novel called Red Harvest (and was also the inspiration for the Akira Kurosawa samurai classic Yojimbo, as well as Sergio Leone’s excellent Western quasi-remake A Fistful of Dollars). So there’s an enormous amount of literary and cinematic influence to sift through and appreciate.

On the other hand, if you don’t have much interest in such allusions and just take Miller’s Crossing at face value, it’s an easy film to admire but a difficult one to love. There are no sympathetic characters, there’s little humanity, and there’s a sense that the Coens are constantly sneering at everyone in it. For all its virtuoso filmmaking and outstanding individual sequences, it’s a film that seems oddly cold and distant, a charge levelled at the Coen brothers for some time until a pregnant police chief gave them a little more heart. And that’s what’s missing here – a heart. Which makes that scene at Miller’s Crossing (the actual place in the woods around which the film’s plot hinges) all the more telling – it’s a point where the film seems to be looking at itself. Which is kind of brilliant, and also kind of hollow.

The Coen brothers at the top of their game10
The mixture of literary and cinematic genre influences9
Not giving Dashiell Hammett any credit4
Carter Burwell's score, and the use of "Danny Boy" in a key sequence10
Not having any heart, but seeming to be aware of this5
Bechdel Test Passes
  • n/a
Bechdel Test Failures
  • I can only think of one named female character
8Overall Score

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