The first two movies made by the Coen brothers, Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987), were elaborate cinematic jungle gyms, fun to climb around on because of how wildly they jutted off from reality. With Miller’s Crossing, the Coens have created another stylized play world — only this time they’ve rooted themselves in familiar terrain. Set in 1929, and detailing an urban gang war between Irish and Italian mobsters, the movie is a loving homage to the Hollywood gangster thrillers of the ’40s, and to the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels that inspired them.

Working with breathtaking flair, director Joel Coen (his brother, Ethan, produces, and the two collaborate on scripts) has captured and heightened the labyrinthine plot twists, the poetically tough dialogue, the fatalism and stark pop beauty that made movies such as The Big Sleep and books like Hammett’s The Glass Key such compulsive, whirlpool entertainments. This is easily the Coens’ straightest movie; it’s the one in which they’re trying to prove they have ”heart.” Yet they haven’t eased up on their gamesmanship. Miller’s Crossing treats the conventions of Hollywood underworld movies as though they were Tinkertoy parts. The fun of the picture is that, like the previous Coen films, it’s fundamentally a contraption, a narrative gizmo built by whiz-kid control freaks. And so even its heart feels a little calculated.

The plot centers on the volatile friendship between two Irish gangsters: Leo (Albert Finney), a political boss whose control of the city is starting to slip away, and Tom (Gabriel Byrne), his shrewd and melancholy right-hand man. Both characters are in love with the tough-talking beauty Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) — but Leo has no idea that Tom has been sleeping with her. The situation is set to explode, and it does when Verna’s brother, a chiseler named Bernie (John Turturro), is accused by Leo’s rival, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), of messing around with Caspar’s gambling fix. Caspar wants Bernie dead — and when Leo refuses to make the hit, a war breaks out, with Tom going over to the other side.

Is Tom a hero or a cad? Byrne plays him as a fallen idealist, a man who knowingly betrays those closest to him when they don’t live up to his love. It’s a fascinating idea for a character, yet Tom, who seems to spend most of his waking hours lost in the black Irish mist, may be a little too morose and ambiguous for a criminal pulp hero.

Miller’s Crossing is most fun when the actors bite into their roles. Polito is superb as the gravel-voiced vulgarian Johnny. John Turturro plays Bernie with a giggly hysteria that recalls some of Richard Widmark’s desperate weasels. And Finney has an amazing scene in which he mows down half a dozen hit men with a tommy gun (as ”Danny Boy” plays in the background), his gang lord’s ease tightening into fearless resolve. The movie gets a little complicated for its own good — but then so did The Big Sleep. At its best, Miller’s Crossing works just like the films it’s imitating, as a showcase for characters who are colorful enough to shine through the murk. B+

Miller's Crossing
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