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Movie Review: Miller’s Crossing

“Nothing more foolish than a man chasing after his hat.”

The Big Sleep is notorious for a plot hole so gaping that even author Raymond Chandler admitted he had no idea what the solution was. But we don’t watch film noirs for the plot, and we don’t read hard-boiled detective stories for the detection. Rather, these films—especially in the “neo-noir” iterations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—address crucial intersections of masculine identity and violence. And although the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing has a tightly-knitted plot, it portrays a big, gaping hole where the hero’s heart should be.

Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) is consigliere to Irish crime boss Leo (Albert Finney) in an unnamed city during Prohibition. Tom is the yegg who knows all the angles, but shies away from spilling any blood himself. After a falling out over a dame (what else?), Tom sells his services to the next-highest boss in town, the Italian Caspar (John Polito). Along the way he loses copious amount of money playing the ponies, connives to protect one useless guy (John Turturro) at the expense of another (Steve Buscemi), and nearly loses control of the entire situation—and himself—more than once.

Based loosely on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, Miller’s Crossing is an object lesson in defamiliarization—not of things or places, but sympathy and character. To call Tom an anti-hero is to give his actions too much meaning. To call him a hero, or even a protagonist, is to miss the point entirely.

At the beginning of the film, Tom reminds his boss Leo that there should always be a reason for doing something—and friendship doesn’t count as a reason. By the film’s end, when asked why he went to all the trouble of setting up the pins and letting others knock them down, he responds, “I don’t know. Do you always know why you do things?”

And that’s the question: why does Tom cheat, betray, lie, make a few mistakes, and let others take the fall? For the money? That’s a definite possibility. For the dame? Less likely. Because he’s sick of being treated as a second-in-command to a man who’s more bluster and bullets than brains? Or is he just sick of the eternal state of mankind—to be always chasing after our hats, our identities, and looking foolish while doing it?

After the critical acclaim of their first two pictures, the Coen brothers stalled out writing Miller’s Crossing, and took a break to pen Barton Fink, a difficult and ultimately unanswerable film about the use of art to make the mind’s interior understandable (and therefore external). Doing so got them back on track to finish Miller’s Crossing, which is about how the external (our actions) are all we have to go on for the internal (their meaning).

Tom Regan’s inability to account for himself speaks to the moral deadness at the center of the genre: some films portray the detective-hero’s valiant fight against it; Miller’s Crossing creates a Rube Goldberg series of angles to be played in order to show that knowing all the angles doesn’t give us purpose. It just gives us something to do. Or, to be more precise, it gives flawed heroes something to do, and us (the viewers) something to watch.

And watching this film is delightful: I have nothing but affection for the genre’s patois. Gabriel Byrne looks fabulous in a fedora, and the shooting location in New Orleans is well used. Does this movie leave me with an unsettled feeling? Yes. Is that on purpose? Absolutely. Any film as subtly meta as this one, that nonetheless lets us take pleasure in the trappings of a trouble amoral tale, should leave us unsettled. Miller’s Crossing does that while letting us enjoy the ride, too.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I have just one question, probably the most important question of them all: what's the deal with the hat? Is there a deeper meaning to the hat, one that will help us better understand the complexities of human existence? Or did Joel and Ethan just think it was a nice image to open the movie with?

  2. The hat is Tom's phallic object--his synecdochal representation of self. To run after a hat is to pursue meaning in one's life, to attempt to gain power and command over the vagaries of existence. Tom without his hat is like Robin Hood without his bow or Captain America without his shield.

    Tom feels that a quest for a hat would make him look foolish: man's quest for power, understanding, and selfhood should not be obvious to others. (There's the implicit emphasis on being observed in "nothing so foolish"--that is, "nothing looks so foolish.")

    Ironically--and what Tom perhaps does not realize--he spends the entire movie chasing after a metaphorical hat: flexing his intellectual muscles and familiarity with "all the angles" is simply one long quest to fill the empty hole in his existence.

    That's why Caspar is such a foolish character: he is persistent in chasing after his own metaphorical hat--respect. That's why he refers to being disrespected as being given "the high hat." Tom, above all, wants to avoid giving the impression of being foolish, even though his actions indicate that he, like everyone, is made a fool by life.

    Also, it's a pretty image, and the one that inspired the movie, from what I understand.

  3. I should've realised it was a penis substitute.

  4. The coldness at the heart of this movie reminded of Hammett's early mystery stories staring an unnamed narrator. That world is cold and meaningless and so is the world inhabited by Bryne and company.

    I did not get that the hat was a phallic symbol. In any case, Bryne wears it well.

  5. A phallic symbol, really? I would have interpreted "chasing the hat" to be a gender independent symbol for people, in general, who pursue unattainable goals. After all, the shape of a hat doesn't really scream "phallic symbol!" Or were you just funning with us?

  6. Brain-Dead Blogger, isn't one of the many euphemisms a helmet?

  7. Well yeah, but that's only part of the phallus ;-) Is something cigar-shaped too much for me to ask of an author, just for the sake of absolute clarity?

  8. In a more serious vein: I don't think "chasing the hat" is an attempt to gain power or pursue meaning in one's life as much as it is an attempt to hold on to the trappings that enable one to convince oneself of one's own significance.

  9. Brain-Dead Blogger, I think we're using the term "phallic object" in two different way. I'm not talking about penises or masculinity. (Although I do think this is a masculine film, and that's not a criticism.)

    Mondern gender theorists (and theories of the cyborg) have take the idea of the phallic object and tweaked it. Freud associated the phallus with power (and, for women, envy). For critics like Donna Haraway, the phallus doesn't equal a body part; it a symbolic object of power linked to identity (that has its cultural roots in notions of masculinity--but we can discard those Freudian notions, because why not?).

    Robin Hood's bow and arrow is his phallic object. I assume he has a separate penis under those pants; that penis doesn't make him who he is--the bow and arrow do.

    Merida (female heroine) from the excellent movie Brave--her phallic object is also the bow and arrow. And her mother's phallic object is a crown.

    You probably have a phallic object that has nothing to do with whether or not you have a penis (I don't know your biological sex): do you have an object that, if you lost, you would feel like you were missing a part of yourself? For many people in their twenties and younger, their phallic object--the prosthetic extension of their identity and power--is a cellphone.

    More importantly, you said, "It is an attempt to hold on to the trappings that enable one to convince oneself of one's own significance." Yeah, that makes sense. And "the trappings that enable one to convince oneself of one's own significance is, I'd say, a lovely definition of the phallic object as I'm talking about it.

    So I think we actually disagree only about my vocabulary choice, not the meaning of the film, the hat, or a cigar. :-)

  10. Josie,

    With your (excellent) thesis, you should add the car with the cell. The extension by excellence of the human ego, especially on this continent...

    Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. (Why do I suddenly see Freud analyzing Data in the Holodeck ???)

  11. A ps :

    The problem with symbolism is that you can give 100 different significations to the same symbol. Headache.

  12. Josie--I thought I left my phone in a friend's car this morning and I had no idea what to do. My first impulse was to text her and let her know. Then I remembered I didn't have my phone. Then I decided to call her. Then I remembered I didn't have my phone. Then I found it in my hand. It wouldn't be that embarrassing except things like this happen regularly. At least once a week. I've occasionally cried. Okay, I've more than occasionally cried.

    Never seen this movie. I've heard it's crazy violent. True? False? True for way back in the nineties but untrue now?

  13. C-Marc, it's funny you say that. I'm not too attached to my phone, but my car is my phallic object. Also my computer. Apparently I need two objects to feel complete. :-)

    Sunbunny, it's not crazy-violent by my standards, which are admittedly very low. It's not Tarantino-violent. I don't even recall much blood. Some of the scenes where people get hit are disturbing because it looks painful.

    There is an epic Tommy-gun shoot-out, but that's more about lots of bullets than lots of gore.

  14. In the meantime, I have rewatched this movie. Given the circumstances under which Tom made that statement about men who chase their hats, I think classifying that hat as a phallic object -- no matter which definition one uses -- might be a bit of a stretch. As Tom says it in the bedroom, apparently after having slept with Verna, I think it's more likely that he simply meant that men who allow themselves to grow attached to anything -- whether it's a hat or a woman -- usually wind up looking foolish. I don't think his hat meant more to him than it did to any man of that era. His statement is a rejection of emotional involvement. But Josie, you are right: In that regard, this movie can truly be classified as a masculine film.


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