Hearts, Heads & Hats and the Business of Criminal Ethics in The Coen Brothers Miller’s Crossing
Miller’s Crossing (1990) was The Coen Brother’s third film, following the noir thriller Blood Simple (1984) and comedy Raising Arizona (1987). Made for between 11 (according to the brothers) and 14 (according to Twentieth Century Fox) million, the film was shot in New Orleans by Barry Sonnefeld (in one of his last films as a cinematographer), recreating the look and feel of prohibition era late 20s/early 30s America. The score was done by Coen collaborator Carter Burwell (it was his first orchestral score), incorporating traditional Irish music (and songs based on them), Italian Opera, and period big band Jazz. Although no specific location is stated in the film, one can guess that the intent was for us to imagine a big city (Chicago? New York?) with an ethnic population, and all of the myriad social issues that would have beset any large metropolitan center of the period.
Numerous references and influences from film and literature can be found within the film. The most obvious of these sources is the work of Dashiell Hammett, specifically the novel The Glass Key, from which characters, plot, and dialogue were directly appropriated, and Red Harvest, which serves as a kind of inspiration for the corrupt urban setting in the film. Red Harvest was the source for films like Yojimbo (1961); A Fistful of Dollars (1964); and Last Man Standing (1997). The Glass Key was made twice – films starring George Raft (1935) and Alan Ladd (1942), with the latter being the more definitive version.
The Coens seem to have adopted a pet philosophy Hammett had about his own writing, which was to create characters and put them in messy situations and have things shake out. That same philosophy is actually voiced by the lead characters in both Hammett’s The Glass Key and in Miller’s Crossing, who speak of raising hell as a way to somehow get complicated situations straightened out (a sort of “everything will come out in the wash” mode of doing business). Like Hammett, The Coens have been accused of creating overly complicated plots that don’t make always make sense, but both classic screwball comedy and film noir often employ a series of interwoven entanglements to create tension within the plot. The influence of Raymond Chandler’s work can also be felt in Miller’s Crossing, a film that melds eras and genres to create it’s own unique fictional world.
The Coens/Sonnefeld use interiors to great effect, employing vast indoor spaces as the camera dollies toward and away from their characters. The over-sized spaces, with characters placed in the middle, or at the end of rooms, may suggest a certain isolation and personal vulnerability in this hard world of violent criminals. One particular office scene seems to recall a similar one from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), right down to the replication of Gordon Willis’s dim though rich and evocative lighting and the decor of dark, masculine woods. From a visual standpoint, the exteriors of the film are equally interesting, and the Coens play with depth of field in their recreation of the era. One outdoor location, the titular Miller’s Crossing, is a bleakly composed wooded area shot in monochromatic steely grays and blues that has, for some, recalled a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). The film’s languorous, sweeping titled sequence takes place here, as do several key scenes.
The Coens’ dialogue in Miller’s Crossing is peppered with a slang-filled language delivered in the style of gangster and noir classics, but imbued with a combination of invented and previously noted movie/book phraseology. Sayings like “What’s the rumpus?” (for, what’s new?); “Dangle” (for scram or take off); and “Pooped him” (for killed) form the basis of a snazzy patois that adds a certain panache to the film, differentiating it from anything seen before. Brick (2005) later took the same general approach, unveiling a meld of modern/invented slang and more traditional noir-inspired-speak to create it’s own mode of film discourse.
IT’S A MAN’S WORLD
Irishman Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, a surly wise-cracking right hand man to political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), owner of the Algonquin Club (serving banned hooch), and head of the city’s entrenched Irish criminal faction. Finney, a last minute replacement for actor Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona), who tragically died of an aneurysm several days before production began, plays middle-aged Leo with a kind of swaggering, sleeves rolled up, chest-forward style, full of blustery resolve and strength. We see him retreat from his loud, order-shouting, larger-than-life persona only in select moments alone with long-time confidante, Tom.
Leo and Tom are bound by a professional marriage marked by an intimacy neither shares with anyone else, a partnership further elucidated by Leo when he refers to Tom’s fickleness and temperamental nature, telling the police chief and mayor that Tom is like a “twist” (a woman). Much has been made of the homo-erotic undercurrent present in Tom and Leo’s connection, but theirs is a multi-layered bond evoking shades of several traditional male/male relationships, namely – mentor and acolyte, boss and employee, brother and brother, and father and son (Leo calls Tom kid), and the exact nature or depth of their interdependence is never fully revealed.
Given that no less than three of the main characters in Miller’s Crossing are gay men, homosexuality – or at least the interaction between men as opposed to male/female relationships, is a theme to be explored. Although undercurrents of this kind existed in a number of early American films of the type, cultural propriety and mores of the period (and by extension The Hays Code) suppressed any explicit sex-related content. Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and, later, HBO’S Deadwood (2004-06) and a host of other modern revisionist westerns, re-defined the genre in part by including explicit language and sex, in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965); Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973); and Rian Johnson’s aforementioned Brick (2005) re-imagine nineteen forties American film noir in a unique way. The Coen’s Miller’s Crossing, while devoid of nudity and not overly peppered with profanity, includes homosexual male characters who are identified in the film in a fairly unambiguous way, even if the relationships themselves are spoken of in couched terms like “friend,” “boy,” “sycophant,” or “amigo”. We also never see any of the gay characters together, a handy dues ex machina that helps the Coens avoid confronting what their interaction might be like behind closed doors. Still, within the film it is understood by the inside players inhabiting this criminal world that this gay subset exists. This in and of itself is novel in the same way that fifteen years later a film like Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) featured an openly gay private detective.
Furthering the idea of this being a story about men and their world, there is only one actual female character, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), in the entire film. While Caspar’s wife appears briefly (speaking Italian), and Joel Cohen’s real-life wife Frances McDormand has a three-line cameo as the mayor’s secretary, Verna is the only non-male with a role in the proceedings, and she is of dubious reputation – a grifter trading in the currency of sex. Her own brother Bernie (John Turturro) describes her as someone who will “sleep with anyone.” Although we don’t know specifically how Verna supports herself, one can assume that her looks and sexuality play a large part in it. It is further revealed that she even tried to teach her brother “bed artistry,” advancing the idea of her as a depraved, sexually voracious carnivore. While the nature of women is not a topic the film explores in-depth, Verna’s emotional make-up is significant, if only because she is the film’s one actual feminine representative. A rift will occur later between Leo and Tom, and the fact that a woman is at its vortex is meaningful for the same reason.
After Verna manages to escape from the grasp of Caspar’s right hand man Eddie Dane (J.C. Freeman), who has just killed the men assigned to protect her, he actually utters the words, “go ahead and run, sweetie – I’ll track down all you whores,” as he stares maniacally ahead, rubbing the barrel of his recently fired gun against his cheek. Even taking into account the film’s slightly off-kilter reality, it’s a strange comment that seems to have no direct tie to the through-line of the film (at least in terms of referencing anyone besides Verna herself), and is obviously part of Eddie Dane’s deep seated antipathy toward women in general. One can’t help but wonder how The Dane’s sexual preference and his obvious disdain for the female population are linked; and if they are, what this says about his character; how this fact would tie in to the ethos of the film; and finally, how it relates to the thematic content of The Coen’s oeuvre- particularly their cumulative view of women as expressed through their work.
Criticism has long been levied at The Coens regarding the misogynistic tendencies awash in their art, although one might also say that their films reflect a kind of malevolent take on human-kind as a whole, a misanthropic world view perhaps common to most successful writers of meaningful social commentary. The Coens are not satirists, at least not in a traditional sense; however, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding, there is a wealth of socio-political comment buried in the jokes, unlikable characters, madcap scenes, and knotted plotlines that characterize their films.
Regardless, it’s hard to dismiss the notion that The Coens seem more at ease exploring the world of men, particularly with films like The Big Lebowski (1998); Barton Fink (1991), and to a lesser extent Raising Arizona; The Ladykillers (2004); and Brother Where Art Thou (2000) being largely devoted to that very theme. There also seems to be a string threaded through their films of manipulating, double-dealing female leads. Blood Simple; Hudsucker Proxy (1994); The Big Lebowski; The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); Intolerable Cruelty (2003); and Burn After Reading (2008) all contain similarly shrewish female types, and it’s virtually impossible to ignore this as a Coen staple. While The Coens’smale leads are usually dumb, arrogant, or both, their women are just as often heartless bitches who cheat, dominate, demand, double cross, and dig for money, and sometimes all of the above. In Miller’s Crossing, the tie-in between the representative gay male roles in the story and The Coens’ history of writing nefarious females seems at best unclear as there is no obvious direct correlation and perhaps even a contradiction at play (gay men and heterosexual women having a history of friendship and perhaps even kinship) between the two ideas. More evident are notions pertaining to relationships between men (friendship, loyalty, brotherhood), as well as the idea that men can express certain thoughts and feelings (albeit with difficulty) with one another that they cannot with members of the opposite sex.
One sometimes wonders if the Coens are provocateurs of the highest order, leaving us flailing while trying to neatly categorize a trail of recurring themes, simile, and metaphor. Could it be that they really do simply “throw things in there” as they would often have us believe, and that there is no definitive purpose and/or connective significance to any of it? Could it be that the films merely exist as part of some ongoing stream of consciousness, with their writing representing an artistic exorcising of unresolved thoughts and ideas residing within their individual and collective psyche? Could the cryptic nature of some of the more nebulous motifs be the result of this delving? After all, don’t unique obsessions often mark the output of great artists?
Since the brothers, as interview subjects, are usually as stoic and unresponsive about the vagaries of their art as Tom Reagan is about himself, it is left to others to attempt to determine what exactly the case might be. Tom Reagan says, “no one knows anyone – not that well”. It seems naive, however, to think that these particular writer/director/editors, blessed with the kind of enormous talent and intellect they possess, would be unaware of even the slightest derivative of meaning in each and every moment contained within their own films. Their public posture includes a kind of simplistic, uncomplicated view of their own work – a far cry from the intricately plotted, keenly written, and technically superior films that they consistently make. Influenced by a wealth of film and literature, producers of films that demonstrate a keenly attuned ironic wit, The Coens are anything but unconscious artists. Their attitude toward the press, in fact, hints at a kind of lifelong performance art – two brothers sitting in the corner of the room giggling, with no one else allowed in on the joke.
GANGSTERS BATHED IN FILM NOIR
The character of Leo O’Bannon is molded in the tradition of those leading men in the classic gangster films of the 1930s. In one scene, bathed in shadows as he stands in a door-frame, and then moving inside Tom’s apartment, Finney flirts with straight imitation of Humphrey Bogart’s on-screen persona, evoking an actor synonymous with both the gangster films of the decade, as well as the noir/detective films that would follow during the next one. In a number of readily identifiable instances, Finney affects mannerisms and voice inflections that are unmistakably Bogart-like. Byrne’s character too is a stock type, the world-weary, tart-tongued rebel lead (usually a detective or cop or reporter) of classic noir. His performance too seems influenced by Bogart, and is certainly at least informed by the characterizations and screen personas of him and the other men who played these roles. Leo and Tom deliver their lines in that clipped staccato meter spoken by movie characters of the day (and perhaps their real-life counterparts) or, at least those of an ilk accustomed to dealing with a bevy of rough and tumble characters. Their comebacks and wisecracks are integral elements of the patois of the world they inhabit, where everyone is a wise-guy (both in a criminal and smart-aleck sense). Like Leo, the characters played by Bogie, George Raft, John Garfield, and James Cagney in thirties gangster films were hard men who rarely (at least outwardly) troubled themselves with the implications and morality of their actions, focused only on their next move and/or reacting to opposing forces or circumstances. Concerned with the code of the street, and ultimately their own survival, the theoretical ramifications of their oft-immoral actions do not enter the equation. Might makes right, and the evidence of the “rightness” of their deeds is simply that they remain alive. Like Tom Reagan, the protagonists of forties noir, most famously the ones based on the writing of Raymond Chandler, are, most often, mysterious men who clearly carry the weight of some burden of conscience/demons from their haunted pasts, are often hampered by alcoholism, bad at relationships, agitated, perpetually broke, short-tempered, fast-talking, quick with a joke, liked by women but ruthless and unfeeling, and possessing an aversion to anyone telling them what to do or say.
Tom and Leo fit these archetypal profiles to a tee. The Coens thrive on taking stock plots and characters, remaining true to their basic cinematic/literary origins, while infusing humor and a slightly-askance modern view of the world into the proceedings. The result is usually a gentle subversion of conventional construction, and to some extent a re-imagining of genre(s). In reinterpreting films they clearly adore, The Coens aim is not to skewer the films themselves, or the period, location, subject matter, ideas, or characters contained within – rather, they utilize well-known, accepted story constructions as a launching pad, taking what we already know and expect from genre films, grounding theirs in familiar region/location/settings, populating them with recognizable character types, and then using an audience’s familiarity against them to create something new. In the same way that directors like Godard and Francois Truffaut used the constraint of established formats tied to conventional genre films as intellectual parameters in which to experiment, The Coens lean on classic motifs, characters and plots, and then combine and mix genres, tinker with language and plot line, essentially re-structuring and re-imagining what is possible. Their riffs on these archetypes are not unlike a jazz musician turning a standard inside out – reinvigorating tired motifs by infusing them with a confluence of influences, layering of text, reference, symbolism, language, and music that can ultimately be appreciated on a variety of levels – in effect, building on the basics to invent new, richer film language.
FILMS ABOUT FILMS
Like fellow American writer/directors Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, The Coens are referential filmmakers. Arising in the American independent movement of the 1980s along with Spike Lee, Steven Soderberg, Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, et al., their post-modern approach marked a modular shift in the way directors expressed their influences on film. Members of the French New Wave were perhaps responsible for the practice of re-inventing format by first extolling genre film-making through their Cahiers du Cinema criticism, shifting the very paradigm for intellectual film debate in the process, and then actively using these same standard constructs to subvert convention in their own film work. Later, the maverick American directors of the 1970s (Robert Altman, Martin Scorcese, Coppola, Hal Ashby) were directly influenced by these same European auteur directors (as well as other filmmakers around the world) to create their own brand of cinema. Still, never before had directors so closely and overtly patterned their work on specific classic films and genres that they loved and admired. All of the aforementioned American independent directors of the 80s evoked very specific film influences derived from an exposure to cinema through video rental and film school, having gotten formal and non-traditional educations on cinema history. What’s more, directors like Tarantino talked openly about mimicking and paying homage to the specific style and content of previous films – in effect, creating films from other films as opposed to utilizing real life stories, situations, and experiences as one’s base.
Perhaps this development was a natural progression in the history of filmmakers and film-making. As a generation of children came of age having had television as their companion, and the art of cinema continued to develop and evolve, it is likely a natural outgrowth that the form itself became rife for artists to re-interpret and subvert the very tenets that had come to define the form itself. The movie audiences were also influenced by what they watched, benefiting from years of exposure to film and television, and from other media resources that allowed them increased ease of access to films of various types and origins. Audience and directors alike were now privy to the same shorthand knowledge that, in turn, assisted directors in assuming a certain baseline or safety net from where to begin. The films that resulted don’t necessarily depend on their audiences possessing a sophisticated background knowledge, but a working familiarity with influences culled by these directors, and a burgeoning shared film language, allowed audiences the ability to be “in on the joke.” This idea of there being “a joke” in the first place, however, is the very aspect of ironic, referential film-making that has, at times, inspired cries of elitism from those who feel cut off from the origins of the work, regardless of how populist the source(s) may be. It is less the content, and more the distance that raises the ire in critics partial to demonstrable sincerity in film. Films identified with labels like “slasher,” “exploitation,” “art,” “martial arts,” or “thriller” are more easily categorized than those whose origins may include a meld of several genre types and whose pastiche or homage-like qualities can make them difficult to discern from satire or parody.
The most prevalent criticism levied at referential filmmakers is that their characters do not reflect real human beings displaying believable human emotion. Filmmakers like The Coens, Tarantino, and Wes Anderson have all faced charges that they only make films about films, and rather than showing real people behaving in real life situations, their characters are movie constructs, characters based on other movie characters. Therefore, or so the argument goes, though their films may be artfully written, acted, scored, designed, and shot; though they may be inventive, and in some cases even technically virtuosic, they’re also lacking humanity, a readily identifiable emotional connection between characters – distance, in turn, felt by audiences. It is, some might imagine, their steadfast ironic pose, their very coolness, style, and concentration on technique at the expense of emotional truth that leads to their failure to touch audiences at a gut level. For The Coens, their adherence to their own scripts, and inflexibility (as some have charged) in collaborating with actors are perhaps factors contributing to an inability to delve into deeper emotional waters. It is likely not a coincidence that The Coens often portray characters who cannot easily express their feelings, a shortcoming that they might identify with as artists, and potentially as human beings as well. Certainly, their unwillingness or inability to discuss their art to any great extent may speak to that limitation, or at least the potentiality of it.
BIG BRAINS AND BIG HEARTS
Tom Reagan thinks in terms of both the theoretical and the practical, which makes him at once similar and dissimilar from the men around him. What separates him from his peers is that what he deems to be practical is usually based on multi-layered strategic thinking, as opposed to the others, who mostly think in far more simplistic terms. Throughout the film, Tom utters the phrase, “I’ll think about it” in response to a variety of questions and proposals coming from multiple sources. He is a “thinker” who always sees all the angles, but the vigilance required to stay one step ahead of everyone else does not come without a price. On multiple occasions we see Tom immersed in deep thought, smoking, troubled by the multitudinous options available and myriad complications accompanying them. Verna wonders at one point if Tom ever sleeps. The only time we see him in a state of repose is when he’s passed out from drinking, an indication that the alcohol intake and gambling are means by which he attempts to quiet his nerves and dispel racing thoughts, an effort to quell the conflict and worry within him. Tom portrays a cool demeanor to the outside world, but inside he’s a maelstrom of contradiction and worry. In a bit of ironic dialogue Tom says to Caspar at one point, “I’d worry less if I thought you were worrying more”. Caspar replies earnestly, “But I am, kid.”
In the 1942 version of Hammett’s The Glass Key, Alan Ladd’s character Ed Beaumont (Ned in the book) is called “Big Brain” by political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy). Originally, Miller’s Crossing was entitled The Bighead, likely in reference to Beaumont’s surrogate, the Tom Reagan character, although Bernie Despain, a minor character in the novel, is also described as literally having a “head too large for his body”. One of the prominent sub-textual themes present in the film is the idea of using one’s head instead of acting on heart/emotion. Tom is so adept at subterfuge, masking his motives and desires, keeping his own council, he is repeatedly accused by those around him of lacking basic human characteristics. Leo calls him a prickly pear. Johnny Caspar comments more than once about how quiet Tom is, sarcastically referring to him as a “real yapper”. Tom never (or, at least until he faces death) wavers from the stoic, non-forthcoming front he puts forth, never overplaying or showing his hand. Caspar finds Tom’s lack of forthrightness off-putting and distracting because he can’t decipher his intentions. Moll Verna says to Tom sarcastically, “don’t let on more than you have to”. She also continuously charges him with not having a heart, wondering if he possesses any emotions at all – something that both repels her and draws her in. As she says, “I never met anyone who made being a sonovabitch such a point of pride”. Tom is more like Verna than she would care to admit, though, and she eventually reaches the conclusion that they are exactly alike. “We’re both a couple of heels,” she says in reference to them going behind Leo’s back, “Maybe we about deserve each other”. Verna tries to get Tom to admit that he has a heart, “even if it’s small, feeble, and you can’t remember the last time you used it.” In typically acerbic fashion, he replies, “If I had known we were going to cast our feelings into words I’d have memorized the song of Solomon.” In comparing Leo to Tom, Verna says of Leo at separate times, “at least he’s got a heart; and “he has a big heart”. Of Tom, only, “that’s you all over – a lie and no heart.”
Leo is a cigar-chomping, whiskey guzzling old-school thug easily as comfortable with a Tommy Gun as he is barking orders behind his expansive desk. Having been through the wars, rising through the ranks, he’s a pragmatist, someone who sees things simply and straightforwardly and responds to threats intrepidly when they arise. Tom strategizes, ceaselessly poking holes in proposed scenarios, peering to the future to discern what the opposition is scheming – in effect, doing the thinking for Leo. At one point Leo even says to Tom, “C’mon Tommy, you know I don’t like to think.” Like Ladd’s Ed Beaumont’s concern for his bull-headed boss, Madvig, Tom is willing to protect Leo even when Leo doesn’t know, or knows but won’t admit, he needs protecting. A gambler, Tom plays at the rackets as he would a poker game. He thinks about people as pieces to be manipulated, and like Leo, is seemingly unconcerned (or at least not overly so) about the collateral fall-out, or the moral ramifications of his actions. The difference between Tom and Leo, though, is that Leo knows who and what he is, while Tom, “the man behind the man,” the man next to Leo who “whispers in his ear,” continues to hold onto the pretext that his hands are clean. Remaining in place, dictating plays by calling out advice from the proverbial sidelines, Tom avoids getting messy or troubling his conscience about having done anyone direct harm, distinctions that allows him to maintain residence in the safe-house of the theoretical, like a child playing gangster.
The arena where Tom literally does take chances is with his gambling, which subsequently leads to him living with the constant threat of injury resulting from his failure to pay his losses in a timely fashion. The gambling, and the fact that he endures repeated physical beatings with a kind of studied indifference, indicate Tom’s masochistic streak. As victim, he enjoys the advantage of maintaining the illusion he’s involved in the nefarious actions of violent men who hurt others only in the sense that the world happens to him, a kind of passive participant in his own life. An abiding sense pervades that Tom doesn’t take the threats of the people he owes money to completely seriously. Like a dilettantish trust fund kid who enjoys dabbling in bad boy behavior, Tom holds a trump card – the insurance and assurance that if his situation gets untenable enough he always has Leo to extricate him from danger. The fact remains that it is simply unlikely Leo would allow Tom, his prized advisor, to be seriously hurt. Being rich and powerful, Leo always has an ear to the street, providing him with access to the information about Tom’s dealings, and obviously the resources to bail him out if need be.
Tom is strictly on the receiving end of violence for most of the film. Until the film’s conclusion, the one time he does decide to act is when he smashes enormous Johnny Caspar thug Frankie (Mike Starr) in the face with a chair. Even having done that, he stops short of continuing the attack and simply stands in place, waiting for what’s obviously to come. When Tic Tac (Al Mancini) charges back into the room to resume the scheduled beating, Tom again picks up the chair and tries to use it as a weapon (this time, ineffectually), but it’s a perfunctory action at best, as if his “heart” isn’t in it. Even this “stand,” as it were, seems to derive more from Tom’s sense of duty than from rage or even fear of being attacked. It’s as if some sense of propriety informs him that he should make some gesture to say that he’s not a punching bag. When Tom is awoken from unconsciousness by the cops who have arrived at Caspar’s warehouse, he watches them administering their own beatings to Tic Tac and Frankie, but he couldn’t be bothered “skinning his knuckles” on their faces. Even when punched in the face solidly by Verna, Tom throws a glass at her in response – something a woman might do, and here too we get the sense that he isn’t actually all that upset. Though Tom talks about raising hell he seems more amused at getting a rise out of Verna than anything else.
Tom is dedicated to maintaining his icy cool demeanor, both because doing so is part of the bravado expected within the circles he frequents, and because the pose he has adopted has simply become who he is (and thusly the manner in which he views himself). We don’t know where and from what circumstances Tom arrived into this life, although we can surmise a certain studied quality to his demeanor. As a watcher and a thinker, he is too much of an expert on human nature and behavior not to have some concept of the way he presents himself to the world. His persona has a quality of calculated un-knowableness and inaccessibility, an impenetrable front that benefits him as he moves among dangerous and powerful people who exploit weakness as a matter of course. Metaphorically, this Teflon-like quality is demonstrated by the fact that all of Tom’s wounds heal amazingly quickly – in fact, though he endures several vicious physical beatings, he, impossibly, bears little visible damage. In the realm of the film he is somewhat untouchable, both physically and emotionally.
Seemingly, on some level and to some extent, Tom revels in his own misery, and the ongoing self-destruction he perpetrates likely speaks to his possessing some degree of self-loathing, and perhaps even a kind of death wish. Operating within the world in which he moves is dangerous enough, but he pushes the limits by getting involved with his boss’s paramour, knowing who and what she is, and also the likely consequences of Leo’s wrath. He is a degenerate gambler who continues to lose, facing threats from dangerous and violent people, and not allowing anyone who offers (Leo; Casper) to pay them off, or heeding the sound advice proffered to him. Leo says, “you haven’t picked a winner in three weeks.” Adolph, the diminutive bookie, tells him he’d hate to be the horse he bets on. Lazar’s collector says, “You really should stop playing the ponies, Tom”. Tad says, “Lay off, Tom. You shouldn’t go deeper in the hole” and “you oughta lay off the ponies, Tom.”
Tom drinks and gambles to excess, and seems to take little overt pleasure in life. For Tom, the booze, gambling, and women are ultimately merely diversions; pulling the strings behind the scenes is the juice he craves, the drug he needs to mainline. One wonders if protagonist Tom Reagan might be a stand-in for the Coens themselves, who have often been thought of as technical geniuses who either have no interest in, or have difficulty with, writing characters displaying real emotion. Their position of artistic control acting as directors/writers/editors/producers allows them to remain behind the scenes, strategizing and constructing film worlds in their collective head and then seeing their stories played out – a puppet master role not entirely unlike that of Tom’s, who shapes events and affects change from the comfort of an office or a public phone, a position allowing him to remain emotionally disconnected.
HATS AND MINDS
The film opens cold with Coen regular Jon Polito (as Giovanni Gasparo aka Johnny Caspar), sitting bald, red-faced, and perspiration-soaked across from Leo’s desk asking for a favor, a scene reminiscent of The Godfather with a man sitting, literally, “hat in hand” in the office of a more powerful figure. To further the hat metaphor that repeats throughout, Caspar actually talks about being given the “high hat” – for him the ultimate sign of disrespect. Hats occupy a prominent role in the film. Imagery and discussion having to do with hats of various kinds are present throughout. Tom is forever looking for, dreaming about, removing, fiddling with, talking about, and staring at his fedora. In multiple instances we get shots of hats that give us information about its owner. In that same first scene in Leo’s office, we see a brief but telling shot of brutal Caspar flunky Eddie Dane, who looks at Leo from under a hat, brim pulled low over his eyes – a style only a gangster or killer would adopt. In a rare moment of forthrightness, Tom actually discusses his hat with Verna, telling her he dreamed of being out in the woods and seeing it blowing in the wind. When she opines that the hat turned into something meaningful in the dream, he says flatly, “No, it stayed a hat.” The literal image of the hat blowing in the wind could mean several things in the world of the film, but the most obvious reason for it being separated from its owner’s head is that he is injured or dead. Tom tells Verna, “Nothing’s more foolish than a man chasing his hat,” an expression of how seriously Tom considers maintaining his image of composure and/or keeping his self-respect to be. Whether what he’s clinging to is his true self, a deluded self-image, merely a closely constructed public-image (or perhaps a combination thereof) is hard to determine. Regardless, Tom is struggling with the impending and rather pressing matter of discovering the nature of the man he will become. To those ends, holding on to one’s hat serves as a metaphor for keeping one’s head, following common sense, and holding on to one’s dignity during stressful times. Tom is engaged in an internal battle of his heart, head, and perhaps even his eternal soul, which might explain his rather neurotic need to keep his hat close. A part of him must know that a very real threat arises from within, which is easily as dangerous as potential outside attack.
Caspar says, “If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?” Despite his raging, psycho-pathic temper, he is something of a street philosopher, prone to pondering the nature of his chosen profession, vocalizing his overriding preoccupations – namely, an ongoing consternation over those who double-cross one another and betray time-tested operational practices - “ethics” as he so succinctly puts it. He longs for his fellow criminals to play by the rules rather than being motivated by self-interest and greed. His lament is basically that ethics is what “separates us from the animals, beasts of burden, beasts of prey.” Seemingly untroubled by the abhorrent immorality of stealing, cheating, and killing – actions that simply constitute regular business practices, Caspar feels the weight of the world upon him when it comes to navigating waters teeming with those possessing multiple agendas. A square fix is one thing, but a fix that involves scamming other criminals isn’t “ethical,” especially when he’s getting the short end of the deal. When Caspar sighs, saying to Tom, “runnin things; it ain’t all gravy,” he is speaking not of the moral dilemmas resulting from the commission of heinous crimes, but, rather, the stress induced from deciphering who is cheating whom, as well as holding himself and others accountable to the code to which he ascribes. In this way, Caspar and Leo are not far from one another philosophically – both are fearsome men of, likely average intelligence (at best), who feel more comfortable with the black and white of reactionary violence than with the intricate plotting of backroom negotiation and assignation.
Much to Tom’s chagrin, Leo reads Caspar the riot act about who is actually in charge – “As far as what I know, what I don’t know in this town ain’t worth knowin… You haven’t bought any licenses to kill bookies today and I ain’t sellin any – so take your flunky and dangle… You’re exactly as big as I let you be, and don’t forget it, ever.” His refusal to allow Casper to kill small-time Jewish bookie Bernie Bernbaum (“The Schmatte”; “The Schmatte Kid”; “The Sheeny”) infuriates the already agitated Italian. It seems Bernie has been selling out Caspar’s bets on fixed races to make money on his own, thus altering the odds with “out of town money” and costing Caspar profit. As Leo rightly points out, Caspar has no actual proof it’s Bernie who is placing the bets, but he is Caspar’s primary bookie and seems the most obvious candidate. As Caspar says, “Bernie is a horse of a different color, ethics-wise; as in, he don’t got any.” After being turned down, Caspar tells Leo that he “doesn’t need permission” and that he only asked as a “courtesy”. He tells Leo, “I pay every month like some green grocer. I’m tired of marching into this goddamn office to kiss your Irish ass… I’m too big for that now.” Tom will later confirm Caspar’s assertion when he tells Leo “he’s gotten too strong to get into a war with”. Caspar says, sarcastically, “That’s right Leo, you’re the big shot around here — I’m just some schnook who likes to get slapped around.” Finally, holding back his venom, Caspar utters one last comical, anti-climactic line before departing: “Yez fancy pants; all of yez.” This notion of people putting on airs or thinking they are better than others is a theme that will be revisited, particularly with uneducated Caspar, who is so sensitive about ethnicity and class that he takes even minor slights extremely seriously. As a member of a newer ethnic group, Caspar feels the prejudice of the Irish, people who have already gone down the difficult assimilation road, but who are still fighting for their “place at the table”. Caspar (sporting an Americanized name to make it easier to do business) knows he and his countrymen are resented and thought of in derogatory terms; he is attuned to all slights and insults, real or perceived.
Leo seems to take Caspar’s statement about being a schnook literally, or if he doesn’t he certainly appears unconcerned over his threats. As Leo says to Tom following Caspar’s office exit, “twist a pig’s ear, watch him squeal.” When Tom tells him it was a “bad play,” Leo claims, “I reckon I can still trade body blows with any man in this town”. While no one, especially Tom, doubts Leo’s prowess, the tide has shifted, and Leo no longer has the overwhelmingly dominant muscle advantage he once enjoyed. Tom is upset with Leo, not because he fears personal reprisals (he is too disaffected to think in those terms), but because Leo is exercising bad business judgment. Later, he will tell Leo, “Caspar didn’t break the rules; Bernie has, and you too by helping him.” Tom knows, of course, that the real reason Leo won’t accede to Caspar’s wishes is that Verna is Bernie’s sister and the two have entered into some sort of tacit quid pro quo arrangement. Nevertheless, Leo has always listened to him before, and, for Tom, ego is involved in Leo’s breach. When Tom says, “my opinion used to count for something around here,” he is both offended that he can’t manipulate Leo, angry because Leo is not doing the right thing from a business standpoint, and blunted in his attempt to simplify his own relationship with Verna by tactically eliminating her other suitor.
Like Ed Beaumont’s devotion to his boss Madvig, Tom is willing to protect Leo at all costs, even when Leo is unable to see that he needs protecting. Tom is used to being heard, but despite his best efforts Leo won’t be swayed by reason. Tom understands that Verna is an opportunist and grifter who has partnered with Leo for her brother’s protection. As Tom says to Leo, “if she’s such a good girl, what are you doing looking for her at four in the morning?” Tom has a hidden agenda – he himself has unresolved feelings for Verna, to say nothing of their ongoing sexual relationship, which complicates and compromises his position. Tom compartmentalizes his loyalties and priorities, though the conflict begins to weigh on him. He has spent a lifetime avoiding personal entanglements and much to his dismay finds himself unwittingly and unwillingly entangled.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
In true nourish fashion, the plot gets more complicated as we follow Tom’s journey, and we are never completely sure what he is thinking or exactly where his loyalties lie. The film is nominally about Tom Reagan, but unlike Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, or The Man Who Wasn’t There we get no voiceover/internal dialogue to aid us in mapping out Tom’s motivations. As Tom moves within his sphere, he is so reticent when it comes to expressing his thoughts and feelings, that we are never completely certain as to who is double-crossing whom, and whether we as audience members are in on it or being set up ourselves. Tom is a “straight shooter”, “a square G”, but he goes to great lengths (including lying) to achieve his means. Caspar is a vicious killer, but he is honest in his own way, a man who believes there is, or should be, honor among thieves, and that double-crosses only lead to a breakdown in the system. Further, from Caspar’s perspective, the more he can control the way criminals operate, the better chance he has to stay alive. Tom believes in a cause, or at least in picking a side and sticking to it, endorsing the concept that all is fair as long as one is loyal to said cause – a very Irish trait to be sure. For Leo, a tough nut who has been through it all, life is about survival. He says at one point, “If I back down from a fight Caspar’s welcome to the rackets, this town, and my place at the table.” Understanding the truth of Tom’s words about the nature of power being about perception, Leo knows the eyes of the city are always upon him, and so he lives by the street ethic of the now, the idea that might equals right. Later, Tom asks Leo, “You always know why you do things?” Leo answers simply, “Sure I do”. When Leo reminds Tom that they’ve “faced worst odds before,” Tom retorts, “but never without reason – it helps to have one.” Leo always knows why he does things, but he is not introspective enough to look beyond the surface at his true motivations. Like Leo, Tom is dedicated the ethos he ascribes to, but he is not always sure about the exact reasons for his individual actions. He is so immersed in the complicated machinations of his mission that he relies on his guts to help serve the master to whom he remains true. Tom plots an intricate path, but there are times when he is forced to simply go with his instincts. Still, while he doesn’t always know why he makes specific moves, he never loses sight of the end goal.
Tom awakes on the sofa of a gambling parlor. Severely hung-over, he stumbles to his feet to vomit off camera. He finds out from Algonquin Club bartender/bookie Tad that he lost more money gambling, that his hat is missing, and that it was taken by Verna and Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi), a gay bookie with sexual ties to both Eddie Dane and Bernie Bernbaum. Later, Tom arrives at Verna’s apartment, telling her, “I want me hat”. Verna responds in deadpan delivery that “she won it,” and refuses to give it back. In classic noir/gangster film tradition, we learn then that Tom and Verna have been having an affair behind Leo’s back.
Later that night, Leo shows up unexpectedly at Tom’s apartment, and (unaware that Verna is asleep in Tom’s bedroom) talks to Tom about Verna and the Bernie situation. Leo tells Tom Verna is missing, that he was having her followed, but that the tail he hired, Rug Daniels, has disappeared (we later learn he’s been shot dead; and it is assumed by Leo that Caspar has done it). Tom again tries to convince Leo to stop seeing Verna (or at least protecting Bernie), calling her a “grifter” and a “tramp”. Leo concedes that he is “a sap”, and that he deserves the needling Tom gives him about being emasculated by his relationship with Verna, but his refusal to do what is expedient and savvy propels the film forward. The elephant in the room is that Leo does have a reason for doing what he’s doing, although it’s not a business reason, and not something he can speak out loud – he’s in love.
As Leo and Caspar engage in all out war, and the bodies begin to pile up (with Leo surviving a major assassination attempt), Leo informs Tom that he plans to marry Verna. He also tells Tom “I trust Verna as much as you”. Tom tries again, begging Leo to simply trust him as he’s historically done, but Leo won’t listen. He says, “this is too important”. Finally deeming that he has been left no other choice, Tom confesses his relationship with Verna to Leo. After uttering an audible groan like he’s just been dealt a blow to the solar plexus, Leo collects himself. He follows Tom out the door of his office and proceeds, with his men in tow, and in a very public way (and of course calmly and deliberately), to punch out Tom (who plays his role by not fighting back at all) across the club, and then throws him out, telling Tom they are finished. Later, we hear that Leo has given Verna the “kiss-off” as well.
Tom sets up a meeting with Caspar, Leo’s Italian enemy, who tells Tom that he needs a smart guy like him around, and that he had a feeling all along that Tom and Leo would go “busto”. Eddie Dane disbelieves that Tom is on the up and up, and so, to assuage any doubts, Caspar has Tom give up Bernie. Here we get our first definitive evidence that Tom is, in his own way, ruthless. Caspar has Bernie snatched from his hotel room. Tic Tac and Frankie then drive Tom and Bernie to Miller’s Crossing. Knowing Tom is not a killer, Tic Tac tells Tom to walk Bernie into the woods and make sure to “put one in his brain,” something Caspar teaches “all his boys.”
As Tom and Bernie take the long walk into the woods – Burwell’s haunting music accompanying them – Tom tries to affect the look of a killer, his hat pulled down some, obscuring his eyes, but when it comes time to do the actual deed Bernie (in the film’s most emotional moment) issues plaintive cries, pleading desperately as he repeats over and over, “I’m praying to you, look into your heart.” For the film itself, it’s a jarring change in tone, and the scene includes a very bare performance from the talented Turturro, who unabashedly conveys cowardice, panic, and desperation with limited dialogue. Bernie has the look and sound of a wounded beast himself as he pleads for mercy, crying, “I can’t die out here in the woods like a dumb animal.” It’s an ugly and pathetic sight that both moves and revolts Tom.
“Tommy, you don’t bump guys. You’re not like those animals back there. It’s not right, Tom. They can’t make us do this. They can’t make us different people than we are.” Bernie’s words are probably not that far from the thoughts Tom is having about himself. How can he take this step? How can he go from being entrenched in the machinations of backroom politics (as unseemly as they might be) to pulling the trigger and ending a man’s life – a man he knows is the brother of the woman he is sleeping with, a man who kneels in front of him crying tears as he pleads for his life? “I’m praying to you. Look into your heart?” Tom fires a shot, but we immediately learn he has only pretended to kill Bernie. Shocked to be alive, Bernie tries to express his gratitude, but the weight of what he is doing begins to hit Tom, so he orders Bernie to shut up before he changes his mind, commanding him to disappear and never return. Firing another shot in the air, Tom warns Bernie that if he does show his face again he really will be dead.
Having finally been confronted with a concrete choice about how far he is willing to go, Tom’s lack of action amounts to a decision of sorts – at least temporarily, about who and what he is. By not killing Bernie he has managed to retain an important part of himself, and is therefore allowed to continue without blood on his hands in a literal sense, but while free from the emotional burden such an act would likely carry, he has placed himself in further jeopardy, and also demonstrated weakness, an inability to live up to the unwavering resolve of men like his boss Leo. While his posture indicates he thinks himself better than the unschooled thugs who surround him, Tom is also, in no uncertain terms, inferior, because he is not a man of action. It is a circle where empathy is a weakness that can get you killed.
GUINEAS, POTATO EATERS, & YIDS
The Coen’s/Turturro’s characterization of Bernie Bernbaum is an interesting portrait. Based on the Bernie Despain character from The Glass Key, who, though not explicitly labeled a Jew, was described by Hammett in stereotypical fashion, indicating he was. The Coens chose to write an equally stereotypically Jewish character, and to cast an actor who, despite his Italian ancestry, embodies many of the physical stereotypes historically assigned to Jews – large nose, beady eyes, nasal voice pattern, curly/wiry black hair. The characters in the film are all very much aware of one another’s ethnicity, and slurs like guinea; potato eater; yid; hymie, and sheeny abound. Perhaps by creating a very broad portrayal of one of their own, The Coens were attampting to inure themselves against potential criticism from other groups? It may also be possible that The Coens were subverting a long history of insulting portrayals of Jews in books and movies by playing the stereotype to the hilt.
The Coen’s play fast, loose and fancy free with era, costume, and language. They also include a number of ethnicities as part of their criminal mix. The focus though, is on Italians, Irish, and Jews (the groups most prevalent during the period in large cities like, New York, for example), and in a number of respects their representation of these characters along ethnic lines is historically accurate. As America reached the late nineteen twenties, the Irish had already established themselves politically. Through ward politics they found their way to elected office, using this newly acquired influence to obtain police and fire jobs, as well as other municipal positions. In Miller’s Crossing, both the mayor and the chief of police, as well as most of the cops we see and hear about, are Irishmen.
While no one would surmise that The Coens intended Bernie Bernbaum to represent Jewish people as a whole, it is true that a number of urban Jews were involved in criminal activities, and many of these men were bookies and/or involved in the numbers game. Certainly hard-core Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, and Benny Siegel - men who were feared killers throughout the underworld, existed as well, but Jews were deeply involved with gambling, and Jewish criminal bosses from Arnold Rothstein on down, had reputations as men who were good with numbers and odds. It is also the case that slurs against Jews included labels like cheap, shifty, money hungry, calculating, and un-trustworthy, and Bernie may in fact be something of a caricature, or at least an embodiment of those prejudices.
The Italians, represented in the film by Giovanni “Johnny Caspar” Gasparo, were still very much struggling to immerse themselves in mainstream society. Hampered by a WASP establishment, and trailing the more established Irish who also looked down on them, their situation was made more difficult by the barrier of language. Many Italians began to make inroads in state and local government by working laborer jobs in Public Works Departments (“pick and shovel” men), and they would come to dominate this sector in many cities in the decades that followed. This fact is referenced when the mayor complains to Caspar (who has assumed power) that he cannot give his twin cousins the co-head assessor jobs he desires for them. “I can give them jobs,” the mayor says. “I can even give them good jobs…. in Public Works; where their lack of English won’t be a problem.”
The Italian Mafia had been in The United States in a number of different forms for many years, but its national organization was in its infancy at this point. For example, La Cosa Nostra/The Commission wasn’t officially established in New York until 1931. It is therefore plausible that Caspar would have men of other ethnicities working for him (i.e. The Dane, a character originally called The Swede (intended for Peter Stormare, and a possible reference to the noir classic The Killers (1946). The other Caspar soldiers we encounter – Tic Tac; Frankie; and Caspar’s driver (Michael Badalucco) are all presumably of Italian heritage, and so this depiction of an Italian faction on the make, trying to usurp power held by the Irish, is very much in line with historic facts.
HEART AND SOUL
In a classic bit of understatement, Caspar tells Tom he has been “a good sport to bump the Schmatte,” and his belief that Tom has committed the act aids Tom’s ongoing effort to win Caspar’s loyalty. Eddie Dane remains suspicious, however, and learning that Tic Tac and Frankie never even witnessed Bernie’s murder take place, The Dane pulls Tom into a car, calling him “Mr. Inside-Outski” and “straight as a corkscrew”. With the two jammed in the back seat of the car next to one another – a far cry from the spatially expansive interiors we see throughout most of the film – The Dane tells Tom he thinks he’d rather “join the ladies league than rub out a guy”. Tom initially responds with his usual wisecracking banter, but as The Dane continues to talk it becomes clear to him that he has been found out and is probably going to die. Ironically, it’s the very humanity he located within himself (along with his fear and weakness) that will seemingly lead to his death.
Accompanied by Frankie and Tic Tac, Eddie Dane takes Tom back to Miller’s Crossing and marches him out to the site of the purported execution. Dwarfed by the tall trees in the middle of this bleak forest, Tom is faced with the harsh reality of the life he has chosen. The psychotic gangsters laugh and joke as they walk (Frankie stops to urinate at one point), but it’s all Tom can do to keep putting one foot in front of the other as he makes what will almost certainly turn out to be his death march. To the sounds of Italian Opera, we see that for Tom the theoretical has turned into reality, and it is certainly a lot less poetic than the fantasy of going out in a hale of bullets from a Tommy Gun. The reality is a lonely and scary trip to what Tom knows will be a violent and ugly death. Having been through situations like this many times before, the gangsters are immune, although they are well aware of the effect it is having has on Tom. The Dane calls to Tic Tac as they walk, “notice how the snappy dialogue dries up once a guy starts soiling his union suit?” Tom makes every effort to play it cool and hold onto his dignity, but when they reach the spot where Bernie’s corpse is supposed to be located he is overcome with fear and throws up. Seeing this as confirmation, The Dane tosses away Tom’s hat (recalling Tom’s dream?), and is about to shoot him in the head when Tic Tac and Frankie find a body (which will later be identified as Mink’s, whose death will be revealed as Bernie’s handiwork) with it’s face blown off and the “birds having gotten to him”. As the gangsters cover their noses with handkerchiefs (Tic Tac giggling at the sight), Tom knows he has barely escaped death, albeit through no doing of his own.
Despite the impending doom that seems to hang over the events of the film, Miller’s Crossing contains a definite nod to the style and sangfroid of those living the gangster life (and, by extension, those characters in films of and about the era), and the life itself – or, at least, the way it has been depicted on film. The gallows humor, the fact that even when faced with extreme circumstances the characters rarely hurry; the stoic, stone-faced way they deal with these same situations. French directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Becker, and Godard made classics like Bob Le Flambuer (1955), Le Trou (1960), and Breathless (1960) that seemed to revel in the kind of cool these gangster and film noir classics embodied, using them as templates for their own take on the criminal life. The hard-boiled characters populating these early American films share a certain carriage – a way of walking and talking, a style of dress, of smoking even, that exudes cool. There is, in every action and word, a devotion (from the characters as opposed to the actors) to embodying the image of gangster or cop or moll, and with this an inherent acceptance by the participants that they lead a life outside the bounds of acceptable society, a knowledge that comes through in their blunt manner and risk taking actions.
With the exception of Bernie Bernbaum, who famously falls apart at Miller’s Crossing (and is later deeply embarrassed about this), and Tom, who vomits as he is about to be shot in the same location, few obvious displays of emotions other than anger are in evidence, and even that is more often expressed in a muted way. For most of these characters, intense emotional reaction is a luxury they cannot afford. The idea is very much that this is a business and that they are all simply doing their jobs. When one of Caspar’s men, Frankie, prepares to work Tom over because he has been rude to Caspar after he’s offered to clear Tom’s gambling debts to Lazar, Tom motions for Frankie to stop so he can remove his coat, and comically the thug accedes, halting his progress. When Tom then hits Frankie in the face with a chair, the thug seems genuinely upset over the breach of manners, and, face full of blood, responds by saying, “Aw, Tom”. The thug’s job is to work Tom over, and it is only right that Tom accedes to the natural progression of events by taking the beating he has coming to him. When multiple gunmen attack Leo at his home, engaging him in a prolonged gun battle, Leo moves at a deliberate pace the entire time he is fighting them off. Even outside, his house on fire behind him, he walks as he gives chase to the moving car, holding his gun steady, never deviating from his aim despite the machine gun bullets whizzing past him.
The one time we do see Tom moving quickly he winds up tripping and falling and dropping his gun, screwing up monumentally as he attempts to head off Bernie. Like trained soldiers, the real warriors like Leo know that they are better off keeping calm during extreme situations, and that their fates are out of their hands anyway. Whether physically accosted by Leo, Caspar’s thugs, Leo’s men, Lazar’s men, or any of the number of people who come to see him, Tom accepts each assault with aplomb. “At one point he says to one of Lazar’s men over the phone, “if he isn’t happy, tell Lazar he can send someone over to break my legs and I won’t even squawk.” Another time he says to Lazar’s collector after being beaten up, “Tell him there’s no hard feelings.” “Christ Tom,” the collector replies, “he knows that.” When pug Tug Johnson comically screams in horror at the gruesome site of Caspar hitting Eddie Dane with a blunt instrument, Caspar orders Tom to shut him up before he does the same to him. Despite the grizzly murder, the loud display of fear from Tug is much more unseemly to Caspar than the sight of the bloodied corpse of the long-time friend and associate he has just viciously murdered.
TOM’S INEXORABLE PATH
Tom continues to think on his feet, cracking wise, and figuring out his plays as he goes. He runs down Bernie’s fix (and the connection to Mink) and plots ways to set up everyone else, double-crossing all around him except, ultimately, Leo. Tom is smart, as everyone knows, but this is also a world where smart can get you killed. In fact, throughout the film ideas about class and education are prevalent. Caspar jokes, “we only like yeggs what’s been to college”. Leo too, in classic Irish self-deprecation, continually refers to how smart Tom is, and, by extension, how dumb he is. Bernie Bernbaum at one juncture says to Tom, “I want to see you squirm; and when you smart me it roons it”. It’s The Dane, however, who is the most overtly disdainful of Tom and of “smart mouthed” people in general, exhorting, “I open my mouth and the whole world turns wise”. His idea is that Tom is much too “smart” for his own good, and that “smart” equates both with being “a smart guy” as in a wiseacre, and also with not being trustworthy. The Dane is convinced Tom is rotten and says to him, “up is down with you; black is white. You’re so goddamn smart. Except you ain’t”. The ironic part is Eddie Dane is right all along, and if it weren’t for several lucky breaks Tom would’ve found himself dead. Tom lives by his wits and guesses right a lot of the time, but in this game all it takes is one mistake. In the end, it is not enough that Tom is smart – he must also have heart. In this case, the “heart” being a reference to “courage” or “balls” as opposed to feeling or emotion. Ultimately, Tom must decide if he is to be a doer instead of just a thinker. When Verna approaches him on the street, convinced he has killed her brother, she threatens him with a gun. When she is unable to pull the trigger, Tom says, “It isn’t easy, is it?” For all his well-practiced emotional callousness, Tom is well aware of the ramifications of pulling the trigger, and it is clearly not something he takes lightly.
In theory, Tom has every opportunity to get away from the mess that surrounds him. At one point, Verna even offers to take off with him, pointing out that nothing is keeping either one of them there. Tom, however, is committed to the ideas he has about loyalty, and for him this supersedes all else. In many ways he is as limited as the people around him, unable to escape the world he has chosen, or at least opted into. He tells Verna, “I don’t hate anyone” and she retorts with “or like anyone”. Tom remains aloof, inextricably tied to Leo, as well as to his own code of responsibility. Verna tries to pierce his veneer, telling him “you want me to stop seeing Leo? Why don’t you just say so?” She presses him about not articulating what it is he really wants, intimating that she knows. “What is that?” he asks her. “Me” she says, simply. Tom can’t admit to himself, let alone Verna, that he has a horse in any race, and his actual governing principle may be as much about his rigid concept of loyalty than any affection he might have for Leo. Confessing to this, or more than this (affection for another human being; endorsement of an ethical philosophy), though, to himself, to anyone else, would mean abandoning his ironic pose and demonstrating sincerity, and this would leave him exposed - a Coen surrogate if ever there was one.
Leo is, no doubt, a manipulating, crafty political animal, who has done any number of horribly violent and ruthless things to get to the top, but despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, he feels foolish confessing to Tom his feelings for Verna. Despite his age and status (or again, because of it) he hems and haws like a teenager as he explains how “complicated” it is. Leo knows on some level that it’s absurd, that his ramblings represent the delusion of an aging man chasing a much younger woman, but he still feels it necessary to state his true feelings to Tom, even if this makes him vulnerable. Leo knows very well that, from a business perspective, he is making an error, and because Tom always represents logic, he tries to justify his actions to him. As twisted as she might be, Verna cares for her brother and is not afraid to state it, or to cop to having entered into a de facto contract with Leo in order to protect him. The closest Tom comes to admitting any feelings for Leo or Verna arrives when Verna says to him, “I thought you didn’t care about Leo anymore?” Tom replies, “I said we were through; it’s not the same thing.”
Tom sells out Bernie, using information unwittingly supplied by Verna about his whereabouts. This one act all but assures that his relationship with Verna is over. Ultimately, he sacrifices whatever feelings he has for her and chooses Leo (or at least his own code of loyalty). He also sets up The Dane and Johnny Caspar, and finally, in an act that marks a major step (or regression depending on one’s perspective) for him, kills Bernie. In the moments preceding the shooting Tom fools Bernie into handing over the gun Bernie has used to kill Caspar, because Tom convinces him that there is no play in it for him to hurt Bernie and that they will “pin it on the Dane” (who unbeknownst to Bernie is already dead).
Tom still has an opportunity to turn back, but the dye has been cast, he has made his decision. In pleading his case, Bernie repeats Tom’s own words, quite rightly pointing out that there really is no real reason to kill him now that Caspar, The Dane, and Mink are all dead, but whether the need to pin Caspar’s murder on Bernie is a necessity or not Bernie has burned him before, and Tom has set himself on an inexorable path. Bernie starts the scene cocky and thinking about killing Tom, then tries to negotiate a split on Caspar’s money. After being fooled into handing over the gun, and then realizing what Tom is about to do, Bernie weakly attempts to recreate their experience at Miller’s Crossing, by crying, “look into your heart,” but Tom replies, “what heart?” before shooting him.
By murdering Bernie, Tom has made a calculated decision to go over to the other side as it were, to fully commit to something, and his immoral, though tactfully prudent act forever seals him to a fate that includes being something other than what he was before – a killer, with all that implies. As soon as the deed is done, Tom goes to the phone, calls Lazar, and tells him he has the money for his debts. He looks as cold and calculating as one would expect from any seasoned triggerman. Perhaps this is not all that surprising, because Tom truly is no longer the same person he was before the act. In a sense, it is even likely that some of the unrest within him has, at least temporarily, been calmed; his conscience can relax – the internal battle for his eternal soul is over.
When Leo approaches Tom at Bernie’s funeral, flush with the news of his and Verna’s impending nuptials, and wanting Tom to come back to work for him, Tom cannot. He has remained loyal to Leo for as long as he was obligated, followed his own code of loyalty despite being cast out (did he plan it all along?), but he is now too big to be the man who walks behind the man whispering in his ear. He has become his own man. Leo tries to convince Tom that things will be like they were before, and tells him he forgives him for his dalliance with Verna. To Leo’s surprise, Tom responds coldly, “I didn’t ask for that. And I don’t want it.” Tom then says to him, simply, “goodbye”. The two men glare into one another’s eyes, with Tom looking every bit as steely and unyielding as Leo. He has become Leo’s equal, and is now unafraid to look him in the eye. Many have supposed that this goodbye means that Tom is out of the rackets, but his countenance gives every indication that this is only the beginning for him.
Our final clue as to where Tom is headed is indicated in a chilling last shot. As Leo walks away without either of them having said another word, the older man removes his yarmulke and affixes his hat. We then close in on Tom adjusting his own hat, and then slowly peering out from under its brim, a killer with a slightly demonic look, a man who now walks the same path as the other killers, intelligent and crafty and destined for power and a future not unlike Leo’s. In fact, the two might even be in for a showdown – perhaps even sooner rather than later, although this of course has yet to be determined.