It is time to talk about one of my favorite all time movies. One of the things that the Escape Pod is for, I am learning, is taking a microscopic look at something in one of these works and just slice the pastrami so thin you can see through it. Fatty, of course, but sliced thin! Anyway, here is my chat about just one scene in the great 1990 Coen brothers film Miller’s Crossing.
In another life I worked with attorneys who had represented real live mobsters. For better or worse, that was never my job,. But I got to enjoy a few very memorable dinners with these elite defense attorneys of the Philadelphia Bar and I got to hear some of their war stories from representing organized crime lieutenants and kingpins during Philadelphia’s violent 1980’s. At one of these dinners, the discussion turned to mob movies, and there was a lot of love for The Godfather and Goodfellas, of course.
But one of these attorneys, Robert Simone, who had been disbarred in state court, prosecuted and convicted on suspicion that he himself was an active member of Philadelphia’s organized crime syndicate, who kept on representing defendants in Philadelphia’s Federal Courts, who eschewed the exquisite custom tailored suits favored by most of the assembled, THE Bobby Simone said that his favorite mob movie was Miller’s Crossing. Most of the others at the table had never even heard of it.
Needless to say, this endeared me to Simone in a way I cannot begin to describe. Me, a young civil litigator, petrified of anything having to do with criminal court, could bond with this GIANT of the defense bar over one of the greatest movies ever made. Simone has long since passed, but I will never forget that moment and it made me love one of my favorite films all the more.
There is vast amount of scholarship available about the Coen brothers and certainly about this film in particular. I don’t know what any of that stuff says. I do know that my experience of this film is that it is perfectly constructed, an entire universe of script, edits, performances, lighting, wardrobe, music and camera angle where everything fits perfectly like a complex and decorative watch or an insanely detailed ship in a bottle. There is so much here, but nothing is wasted. All the gags work, the violence is brutally disturbing. The protagonist’s opacity, especially to himself is perfectly fine for the only partially resolved ending. John Torturro’s over-the-top whining and pleading for his life is no easier to watch today than it was when the film was first released three decades ago.
You could literally have a field day breaking down every scene and describing the details which make it special. I don’t have the energy for that. But I do want to delve pretty deeply into one particular scene, and it is not one of the many set over-the-top set pieces, like Albert Finney’s Tommy gun skills as mob boss Leo, or the aforementioned Turturro pleading with Gabriel Byrne to spare his life, or ANY of the scenes featuring Philadelphia’s own John Polito as rival gangster Johnny Casper. Polito, by the way, should have gotten an Oscar for this movie. He absolutely controls every scene he is in with such wit, timing and an amazing physical presence.
Judging from what you can find on YouTube, the scene described above are more popular than the one that is the subject of my discussion. Yet, when I knew I wanted to write something about Miller’s Crossing, the only thing I could think of was this relatively early scene between Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, the consigliere, and a young Marcia Gay Harden’, who is Albert Finney’s mob mol Verna. And by the way, Verna and Tom are carrying on a relationship behind but is also sleeping with Tom on the sly.
Tom is drunk and has mounting gambling debts. He is trying to avoid Leo going to war with Johnny Casper’s gang over Verna’s brother. Tom wants Verna to stop using Leo to protect her brother. We pick up the action at 21:37. Tom has had a bad meeting with Leo at the club and goes looking for Verna. This whole sequence is bookmarked with a literal ‘whoosh,’ as the camera pans through the club to the bar and Tom masculinely says “get me a stiff one.” The bartender, who is also Tom’s bookie, tells him Verna is in the Ladies Lounge.
The music rises as Tom steps away from the bar (without paying for his drink) and it sounds like a bit of period jazz orchestra.
As Tom enters the ladies room, camera movement and position continue to be essential. We see through his eyes as he comes in all ready for a tussle with Verna. All the pretty ladies in pastel rise and fly from the room as this predator invades their space. They regard him with annoyance, but they accept that he’s in charge. There is one shot of Tom walking in with the camera moving at the same rate, keeping a constant distance as Tom advances. The other shot is from Tom’s point of view, you see what he sees. Motion is constant and at the same speed for both cameras. The effect is kinetic. I know you can’t see the action on a podcast, but even just hearing the ‘whoosh’, the conversation with the bartender, the rising of the music and the bravado as Tom gets into the ladies room is worth it. Here it goes.
(BREAK to show the scene up to this point)
Now that Tom has reached Verna, the next chapter of this sequence can begin. Verna who is calmly applying makeup while seated in front of a large mirror. The camera settles behind Verna’s right shoulder with Tom sitting behind her left shoulder. We see her back, we see her front in the mirror, and we can see Tom’s front also reflected in the mirror. Plus, there is ANOTHER mirror that is behind them both. Funhouse, right? It seems complicated when you break it down, but the result is that they appear right next to each other in the frame. Because Tom is drunk and a little bit behind where Verna is seated, he comes across as somewhat out of focus.
The rat-a-tat dialog increases as Tom gets up to talk about intimidating Verna while trying to maximize his physical presence. She’s not impressed. Now we’re vacillating from a camera over Verna’s left shoulder, showing her front in the mirror and camera at approximately the same location, but aimed up at Tom who is now looming over Verna. Drunk Tom is getting more and more frustrated as Verna continues to blow him off (while also confirming his suspicions). But Verna can use Tom’s obvious attraction to her as leverage and he doesn’t want to admit that she has that leverage. So he puts his hands on her and yanks her out of the chair.
This is some old-school, hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart type stuff. While he is basically assaulting her, Tom comes in for a kiss. Despite their having been lovers the night before, Verna hauls off at Tom with a substantial right hook to the jaw. He is thrown back and stumbles into a rolling makeup cart, spilling some of the contents. He then takes his whiskey glass and hurls it at Verna’s head, smashing the mirror as she ducks out of the way. She straightens up, grabs her mink and calmly walks toward Tom:
I suppose you think you’ve raised hell.
Tom drunkenly rotates his body to watch her leave. He is defeated in this encounter, but he has the style and audacity to try and claim victory anyway. The camera is now moving, following Verna out from a very low angle, putting her butt, well silhouetted by her slinky green dress, in the center of the frame. As she approaches the door, you can start to hear the party music again.
Tom steadies himself against a chair and the camera pulls away at the same speed it was moving to show Verna’s departure. I guess the view from her butt. Tom says:
Sister. When I’ve raised hell you’ll know it.
And he rubs his chin where she decked him.
What has this scene had such a profound effect on me? Is it my love of strong women? Is it the snappy dialog that is so close to being a parody without going too far? Is it the fact that Verna is Jewish? I don’t think I worried too much about who was Jewish in movies back then, but maybe. Like, I didn’t know that the Start Trek guys (Shatner and Nimoy) were both Jewish back in 1990.
Well, I think the moving cameras are a big part of the attraction. The way we have multiple angles following characters at the same speed may be filmmaking 101, but it really strikes me in its use here.
The whole thing is over in about three minutes.