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Miller's Crossing (Criterion Collection)
While I still call Blood Simple, Fargo and True Grit my favorite films by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Miller's Crossing is nipping at their tails. This excellent noir features an A-list cast in Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, J.E. Freeman and Albert Finney, and feels like a tribute to both the classic Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and noir fiction from writers like James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler. Set during Prohibition in the 1920s, Miller's Crossing sees Tom Reagan (Byrne) serving as the close confidant to Irish gangster Leo O'Bannon (Finney), who denies his rival, Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the right to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro), who is suspected of skimming from Johnny's books. Leaving in a huff, Johnny promises retribution, and a mob war ignites.
Things get tricky quick for Tom, who is sleeping with Verna Bernbaum (Harden), Bernie's sister. Verna is also with Leo, which accounts for his hesitation to turn the man over to Johnny. Tom feuds with Leo over the situation and reveals his relationship with Verna, causing him to lose his friendship and employment. Tom looks to Johnny for work, and Johnny tests his loyalty by commanding him to kill Bernie. Tom's next moves seal his fate and drive the story, and he begins working with an increasingly powerful Johnny. Verna is devastated and increasingly curious about who killed her brother, and Johnny's guys increasingly distrust outsider Tom. When Johnny's men step in to challenge Tom over a deception, he hits back with lethal force to protect his own skin.rn
Loyalty is a theme thick in Miller's Crossing's blood, and every character has a breaking point when they are willing or forced to betray those close to them. Tom is a complex character and commands the screen throughout; it is never clear exactly where his allegiances lie as he slithers between houses, beds and paychecks. Verna is in the middle of a love triangle. Leo gets sloppy and carless because of her, and Tom fights actually giving in to his feelings for Verna. Bernie appeals to Tom's humanity, which is something is struggles to regain as the film moves forward. His struggle to indulge traitors recalls the Mario Puzo quote from "The Godfather:" "I have have no such powers. If I did I would be more merciful than God, believe me."
The writing and directing from the Coen Brothers is typically excellent, as are the cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld and Carter Burwell score. The symbolic hat relayed by Tom as part of a dream is a focus throughout, though, in true Coen fashion, the end result is less romantic than predicted. The film does not ask these characters to change, it simply observes them as they overcome obstacles that arise. There is plenty of irony and many glances back at the film's inspirations, and Miller's Crossing weaves an interesting morality play for Tom. Is love, success or loyalty more important? Byrne is the standout here, but Turturro and Harden offer strong performances in this very entertaining noir.
Criterion creates a new 2K transfer from the original 35 mm camera negative, which unspools at 1.85:1 and was supervised by Sonnenfeld. This is a workmanlike image and certainly no slouch, offering strong fine-object detail, texture and depth. Close-ups reveal abundant detail in facial features and set dressings. Wide shots are crisp and clear, black crush is minimal and colors are nicely saturated. The image is stable and grain structure filmic, and I noticed no issues with sharpening or edge enhancement.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also new, and provides a strong replication of the theatrical experience. Dialogue is crisp and clear, ambient and action effects make good use of the surrounds, and the score is weighty and effective. This is a robust mix with plenty of LFE response and heft for all elements. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release comes in the expected clear Criterion case with two-sided artwork and includes a multi-page booklet with an essay and liner notes. The newly created bonus material really caught my attention, and presented background on the story and production in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Hard-Boiled: The Coen Brothers and Megan Abbott (28:44/HD) is an excellent discussion about film noir and its inclusion in the Brothers' films; The Actors (32:23/HD) offers new insights from Byrne and Turturro; The Music (16:51/HD) is a conversation with composer Burwell and music editor Todd Kasow; The Look (15:12/HD) is an interview with Sonnenfeld about the movie and his long career working with the Coen Brothers; and The Design (10:12/HD) offers remarks from production designer Dennis Gassner. These interviews are just well done, and another example of Criterion going well below the surface for worthwhile content. You also get Archival Interviews (14:22/SD) from the principal cast.
Most Coen Brothers films are excellent, and Miller's Crossing is among their best. This Prohibition-set noir offers top-notch performances, cinematography, score and plenty of moral dilemmas. Newly released as a part of the Criterion Collection, this new Blu-ray release offers excellent picture and sound and very worthwhile bonus content. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.