Miller's Crossing and the Critique of Genre
Copyright © Jim Loter, 1996
In the so-called "postmodern" age of cinema, the traditionally recognized rubric of "genre" has been problematized by the strategies of parody and pastiche found in films such as Blade Runner, Alien, Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles and many others. In these films, it is often difficult to separate the semantic elements of the "classic" genres to which they refer from the organic narrative they describe. Is Blade Runner, for example, a film noir, or is it a science-fiction film? Is Life of Brian a biblical epic or comedy? Could they be both? The very notion of genre itself is called into question by these hybrid texts which resist falling easily into yet another identifiable corpus (who would think to include Blazing Saddles and Alien under the same general cover-term?). Fredric Jameson interprets this "postmodern" tendency toward pastiche and parody as a dangerous trend which threatens to ignore or destroy the past while failing to confront the present. "Nostalgia films," he writes:
restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. (Jameson 19)
The seemingly uncritical and "desperate" new practice of allusion and reference to the genres of old indicates to Jameson that "we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experiences" (21). I will not attempt a thoroughgoing and rigorous critique of Jameson here; indeed, Linda Hutcheon in her article "An Epilogue: Postmodern Parody: History, Subjectivity, and Ideology," has argued that these films are virtually obsessed with history, and that the real problem for Jameson "is that they do not deal with Marxist history" (128). I will contend in this paper that genre parody films can offer a decided and powerful analysis of not only the genres they ostensibly emulate, but of the very cultural and social assumptions out of which the concept of genre arises. Specifically, I will focus on Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990) and demonstrate how this text carries out its dismissive parodic critique of the gangster film genre of the early 1930s to which it explicitly refers, and also how it undermines the concept of "genre" itself.
Any study of genre must begin with a few caveats and definitions. To begin with, I will note that I am limiting this study to the three films known popularly as The Great Gangster Trilogy: Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930), Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and Scarface--The Shame of a Nation (Howard Hawks, 1932). These three films set the standard semantic elements and syntactic structures of the gangster film genre into place, and they provided the strongest influence and inspiration for the style and setting of Miller's Crossing. Whereas the three archetypal gangster films each ended with their hero's respective demise, the following patterns were overwhelmingly single-focus and charted the rise and (inevitable but sudden) fall of their protagonists without much attention paid to family, the law, or the church except occasionally or implicitly. Paradoxically, these three films that the Hays Office claimed "offended" public tastes were very popular, even in decades to come. Historically, and from a contemporary standpoint, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface remain the three representative and most memorable films of the "classic" period of the gangster genre. Miller's Crossing, set in a vague era which resembles the late 1920s or early 1930s, more closely emulates in tone, attitude, and style these three films than any other entries into the genre. Also I will argue that it criticizes them with the understanding that this Trilogy was composed of movies which defined the semantic elements for all the other gangster films to come.
I will also not attempt to propose a general theory of Hollywood genre using the gangster film as a model. Rather, I argue that the filmmakers of Miller's Crossing recognize the three exemplary texts mentioned above as representative of a genre and, by extension, use their critique of that genre to call into question the effectiveness of genre in general. I will rely on Rick Altman's notions that both semantic and syntactic elements operate in tandem within genre films. Altman writes: "The semantic approach ... stresses the genre's building blocks, while the syntactic view privileges the structures in which they are arranged" (Altman 1, 10). The tension within genre studies, Altman explains, arises from the critical separation of the semantic and syntactic which fails to adequately grasp that it is their very indivisibility within the films that allows both "explanatory power" and "broad applicability" (Altman 1, 11). Thus, any approach to understanding generic texts should recognize their dual nature.
This important critical strategy becomes even more crucial to understanding how Miller's Crossing represents its critique of genre. The semantic elements of the Coens' film are directly lifted, in an overly stylized way, from the classic gangster films of the early 1930s. The settings, suits, tough dialogue, characterizations (caricatures?), and plot elements (gambling, bootlegging, tommy-gunning, shakedowns, fight-fixing, etc.) are clear references to the semantic components of Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface. On its surface, Miller's Crossing appears to be a hyper-generic text demonstrating the sort of uncritical pastiche which particularly disturbs Jameson. On the syntactic level, however, everything changes. The narrative organization of the film works counter to any pre-existing generic syntax; the very "building blocks" of the genre are structurally employed to undermine the genre itself. This goes beyond the mere semantic blurring that occurs in the "postmodern" parody films which I mentioned earlier. Hence, though I am not claiming the ambitious project of a total genre study to be my goal in these short pages, I will argue that the Coen Brothers DO have that project as their agenda and in Miller's Crossing they are able to repeat and question the foundational elements of the Hollywood genre tradition through the semantic replication and syntactic destruction of the gangster film.
genres arise in one of two fundamental ways: either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation into a coherent and durable syntax, or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements. (1, 12)
The gangster film clearly fits into the former category: the familiar formal elements of the genre coalesced into a previously unfamiliar syntactic arrangement. The specificity of the cultural situation in the early 1930s and the evolution which the industry of cinema itself was undergoing combined to allow this distinctive genre to develop quickly and solidify within the span of a few years. Over the course of three films made within two years of one another the entire generic codification process--the very birth, evolution, transformation, and canonization--can be witnessed. The adaptability and flexibility of both semantic and syntactic aspects of the genre attest to its suitability as an exemplar of the Hollywood genre system. In Dreams and Dead Ends, Jack Shadoian remarks of the gangster film:
its structure, which manifests distinctions between insider and outsider ... survived and is still highly serviceable. This structure makes it possible to handle virtually anything the culture is concerned or distressed about. (4)
The gangster genre, then, is a veritable microcosm of the process of creating and maintaining a genre. The foundational components which define the genre are integral to understanding Miller's Crossing in relation to the gangster film and to the concept of genre in general.
It is important, at this point, to explore the cultural and industrial conditions into which the gangster genre was first born, and to describe the narratives and formal elements developed by the three films under investigation. The period immediately after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was a tumultuous one for both American culture and cinema. The economic condition of the United States was plunged into a devastating depression and millions of Americans lost the security and confidence they had come to take for granted during the more illustrious "Roaring Twenties". Cinema at this time also faced several crises: the emergence of sound, and the powerful moral regulation threatened by the Hays Office. In an article from The Velvet Light Trap in 1975, Joyce Nelson argues that the widespread disillusionment and poverty at this time primed the pumps for political revolt, but that "Hollywood cinema played a major role in deflecting revolution" by demonstrating the dangers of emulating the previous decade's almost-mythological prototypes: Horatio Alger's heroes (among others--Nelson 7). The gangster genre, with its negative depiction of radical individual achievement at the expense of the law-abiding society, was one of the main vehicles that Hollywood employed to restore the notion of trust in lawful institutions and discourage criminal or otherwise deviant behavior. In a more persuasive Yale Review article by Lawrence W. Levine in 1985, he argues that nearly all forms of popular culture--radio, advertising, newspapers, as well as cinema--worked in coincidence to maintain a sense of security in the populous, even if it was security in General Foods' Postum, Phillips' Milk of Magnesia, or the sterility of Johnson & Johnson bandages. He, too, offers the gangster genre as an example of Hollywood's attempt to reassert the dominance and stability of American institutions and work ethic while demonstrating the dangers of the successful individual. Gangster films, according to Levine, "were about more than the death of a gangster. They were, on a number of levels, concerned with the demise of a tradition now surrounded in ambivalence and doubt ..." (218)--the tradition of the 1920s which saw its heroes pursuing the idea of unlimited wealth and opportunity in the post-War boom.
The diegetic world represented by the gangster film corresponds to the conception of society George M. Foster describes in his 1965 article "Peasant Society and the Image of the Limited Good." The notion of a closed system, he argues, produces a subjectivity in which inhabitants "see their universe as one in which the good things in life are limited and unexpandable quantities, and hence personal gain must be at the expense of others..." (Foster 301). Thus, in these closed systems, narratives emerge which reflect this ideology and depict the punishment of individuality in the service of the collective. These texts are constructed as dual-focus narratives which contrast representatives of either side of a given paradigm--e.g. good/evil, law/lawlessness, virtue/vice. The narrative is set in motion by an individual's crossing of the rigid line and ends when that rupture is cauterized and society is reordered. This dual-focus model can be contrasted to the typical structure of the gangster film, the single-focus narrative. In single-focus stories, the protagonist is an outsider who has left the closed society of the dual-focus world (sometimes depicted as an individual's journey from his or her rural home to the big city). The single-focus model generally corresponds to a belief in linear progression, personal growth, the ability to succeed, and a "sky's the limit" ethos of unlimited resources and potential. The paradox in which the gangster film of the early 1930s found itself, I maintain, is that of attempting to send the kind of message usually suited to the dual-focus model but in a single-focus, recognizable, popular narrative form. Both modes are employed--the single-focus depicts the perceived "problem" in society (individual gain at the expense of all else); the dual-focus ideal arrives at the end to restore order and re-establish familiar paradigms (the family, the law, the couple, etc.).
In Little Caesar, the distinction between the outside and the inside is especially explicit. In the opening scene, a static camera records an anonymous gas station holdup: a car speeds up, two men emerge, shots are heard, the car pulls away. Later, we discover at a nearby diner that the eponymous protagonist and his sidekick Joe were the perpetrators of this crime. As Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello reads the newspaper he notes a headline that announces "Underworld Pays Respect to Diamond Pete Montana." Rico is clearly frustrated by the pettiness of the local crime action and the relatively static and claustrophobic nature of the small time scene. He laments that Diamond Pete is "in the Big Town, doin' things in a big way." Rico understands that his options in the "Small Town" are limited. He is part of a never-ending cycle in which the money taken from a local gas station is then simply spent in a local diner--a continual redistribution of wealth instead of the endless consumption promised by the city. Upon entering into the "Big Town", Rico is no longer just spatially dispossessed, but is an anachronism as well. The underworld into which he gains access is, for the most part, a large scale duplicate of the small town scene he has left.
The first major job in which Rico takes part is the robbery of a nightclub where Joe works as a dancer. Importantly, the nightclub is also mob-owned and operated. The criminal element thus stays within its own dual-focus, closed system--a system which the ambitious Rico cannot comprehend. As the gangsters make off with the dough, Rico shoots and kills the incorruptible representative of the Law, Commissioner McClure who is heading a special force against organized crime. This breach of code--this crossing of the paradigmatic line--opens the gate to the real outside: the Law.
Back at the hideout, Rico's boss Sam Vettori laments "The head of the Crime Commission! The Big Boy can't do us no good...!" Sam comprehends that the carefully constructed family of crime hitherto insulated from alien lawful intervention now has been punctured. Rico, however, views Sam's attitude as evidence that he is "slipping". Rico's willful, speculative ventures eventually topple Sam from his perch as leader; his tenure as boss is spent carousing, consuming, and crushing rival gang members. He fails, however, to recognize the delicate balance within the gangland. His rise to the command post of the North Side is at the expense of Sam, rival Little Arnie, and even Diamond Pete himself. His bravado even compels him to exclaim "... the Big Boy himself ... he ain't what he used to be neither. Pretty soon he won't be able to take it and then watch me!"
The radical individualism and untamed, uncontrolled ambition for success is the "tragic flaw" of Rico and the other gangsters of the genre. Rico's best friend Joe, who has remained loyal to his art (dancing) and his woman throughout the film and who is the only character able to straddle the fence between the inside and outside, finally blows the whistle on his pal. The agency of the artist is thus needed to pierce the hermetically sealed world of Rico's gangsterism before it bursts on its own. Driven into hiding, Rico's pride is ignited again when he is lambasted and branded a coward by the newspapers. Rico emerges from his hole for one final encounter with the Law which leads to his death. Machine gun bullets riddle his body behind a billboard which proclaims the "All Singing, All Dancing" musical starring Joe and his partner, Olga. The crumpled form of the extreme single-focus deviant lay dead in the shadows of the consummate dual-focus musical and its agenda to reinscribe and promote the values of moderation and stable community.
Public Enemy has a similar syntactic structure to Little Caesar but is far more cynical in its outlook. Still, the family is valued (problematically, as we shall see) and the self-serving nature of the protagonist Tom Powers is ultimately punished by his ritualistic murder at the hands of rival gang members. The films opens in 1909 where the seeds of discontent are sown for the young Tom. Set in a crowded working-class Chicago neighborhood, this segment establishes Tom's character as sadistic, misogynistic, and cold--he gives a pair of roller skates to a friend's sister, for example, and then trips her as she skates by. He responds to his friend's objection by snapping, "What do you care? It's only a girl." Whereas Rico suffered from trigger-happiness born of naïvete and hyper-ambition, Tom Powers is painted as calculating, deeply corrupt, and purely immoral.
The society into which he is born is likewise harsh and oppressive. In Public Enemy, the critique is made of the very environment produced under Prohibition that gave rise to the deviant figure of Tom Powers who is its victim. The dual-focus society is represented not as that of two opposing forces currently clashing for dominance. Instead, the current world is shown in comparison to the one which preceded it--the "dry" but dangerously deviant era of the 1920s. The Eighteenth Amendment is seen as the catalyst for gangland violence; Prohibition creates a need which only the black-market shake-down techniques of organized crime can satisfy. Tom Powers, introduced to the viewer through segments set in 1909 and 1915, steps into this role easily and is propelled out of the run-down, Depression-struck community of his childhood into the glitzy, swanky, and reckless life-style of the Chicago gangland. The film frames Tom within the hypocritical and upset sociological system of the 1920s, and is the first of the genre to imply that the political atmosphere of this decade actually produced the figure of the gangster. His personal road to success still must end with his eradication--the single-focus narrative halts with the resounding thud of Tom's bandaged corpse which is dumped at the threshold of his mother's house. His kind of deviance--a deviance paradoxically instigated, inspired, and encouraged by the same system which condemns it--can only hurt and upset the already-troubled family unit.
Tom's relationship with his family is deeply problematic and the representation of his brother Mike serves to strengthen the film's social critique. Mike and Tom are the prototypical good and bad sons. Mike, the prodigal, enlists in the Army and is wounded and decorated in World War I. His heroic return, however, is tainted when Tom turns his brother's moral indignation around on him. "You didn't get those medals for holding hands with them Germans!" Tom sneers, implying that the sanctioned violence of the European conflict is just as suspect as his own brand of violence in Chicago. Mike sinks, dejected, into a chair and realizes that though he has held a steady job, served his country, and remained loyal to family values, it is for Tom that the fatted calf is being killed. Tom's tragic flaw, however, is ultimately the same as Rico's in Little Caesar: an overarching ambition that exceeds both the limits of the underworld and the world of the Law or the Family. After Tom obsessively hunts down and destroys most of his gangland rivals and threatens to plunge the balance of the society into chaos, his radicality is quashed and he is executed. Tom's mother and Mike witness his mummified body drop to the floor of their foyer and react with horrified shock. The dual-focus world which has been preserved by this act locates total corruption on one side and disillusionment on the other. The free-radical Tom Powers attempted to break from this unattractive dichotomy and escape from both. For this crime alone he paid; the ordered society that is re-established at the end of the film is as troubled and volatile as the one described in the opening segments.
The third, and most important, entry into the genre is Scarface. This film follows the same single-focus narrative construction as the other two, but more closely resembles Little Caesar in that the radical individual Tony Carmonte obsessively and selfishly violates both the rules of the underworld and the established law. The action mainly occurs in the hermetically sealed world of the gangland. Tony begins the film as a henchman to the crime boss, Johnny Lovo, but quickly is seduced by the wealth, opulence, and finery his employer displays. Just as Rico in Little Caesar felt that the mob was getting increasingly "soft" in the hands of leadership intent on maintaining the dual-focus balance between Law and Lawlessness, Tony revolts against Johnny Lovo and utters the ultimate credo of the over-ambitiously motivated single-focus free-radical: "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep doing it!"
Tony's destructiveness, however, soon makes enemies of the police and his fellow gang members. When a rival gang attempts to assassinate Tony in a restaurant, the gangster cannot help but be impressed by the efficiency and force of the machine guns they use to riddle the joint with bullets. Despite the lead-filled chaos ensuing all around him, Tony remarks that he must get ahold of one of the tommy guns. His reliance on destructive firepower mirrors that of Rico's insistence on using his gun despite the non-violent policies of his boss; his graduation from pistol to Thompson indicates that Scarface Tony is an exponentially more dangerous and uncontrollable figure than Little Caesar. With his new weapons, Tony is unstoppable and begins a reign of terror that includes the St. Valentine's Day massacre, the bowling alley murders of his gangland competitors, and, eventually, the overthrow of Johnny Lovo. Like his filmic compatriots in crime, Tony celebrates by buying extravagant material goods: new clothes, hats, and a custom-built fortress-like apartment. He indulges in the expensive and ostentatious trappings with an over-determined glee that effectively conveys the lack of rational thought he gives to his conspicuous consumption and destruction. Tony is entirely self-possessed. His apartment overlooks a flashing sign declaring "The World is Yours"; the sign blinks like a beacon inspiring Tony to push onward in his attempt to rise out of the closed system of the opposing forces Law and Order. This entirely self-driven, personal quest for individual glory and success meets with the same consequences we have seen in the previous films: Tony is brutally gunned-down into a pathetic, crumpled mess.
In Scarface, as in Little Caesar and Public Enemy before it, both sides of the fence are challenged, threatened, and wounded by the fanatical presence of the determined individual. Tony Carmonte, Tom Powers and Rico Bandello infest the family (both nuclear and mob families) with their viral need to consume everything in sight and rise to the highest pinnacle of human achievement. All three of these radicals are thwarted by the institutional powers they have attempted to supersede. "In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness," Robert Warshow writes of the gangster genre, "all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression ... one is punished for success" (qtd. in Nelson, 7). The films of the gangster genre each represents a hyper-driven character climbing the ladder of social (or anti-social) success through illicit means with the hopes and ambitions to rise above and escape the desolate and stagnant conditions pervading the lawful and just communities from which they begin. This radical individual is ultimately eradicated to preserve the admittedly troubled and threatened community values of the status quo. In the cultural context of the early-1930s, these films represented the perceived threat to the rebuilding of social stability: the deviant individual striving for personal success. The particular arrangement of both semantic and syntactic elements of the genre allows the gangster film to exist in virtually any period to comment on and attempt to contain any perceived threat from the radical individual. Additionally, the uniquely rapid creation and encoding of the gangster genre, as well as the easily discernible social and moral correspondence and commentary it purported to facilitate, allows one to view this genre as a veritable microcosm of the Hollywood genre machine itself. As it will become clear from the following exegesis of the contemporary gangster flick Miller's Crossing, the Coen Brothers subtly critique the Hollywood notion of genre through the semantic elements of the gangster film. A careful study of the narrative structure of Miller's Crossing will reveal the syntactic strategy employed to demonstrate the inability of genre to deal with the figure of the individual within the community.
The world of Miller's Crossing occupies no specific place or time. The typical dichotomies of good/evil, law/criminality, etc. are not present on the stable macro level of the society as they were in the early gangster films. Rather, this world is entirely corrupt--the cops, elected officials, and all bastions of law and order are in the pocket of the mob. Whereas the earlier gangster films depicted the traditional world of law and the family troubled and threatened by economic hardship, the answer to the dilemma always lay in the strength and hard work of the community to collectively struggle for a way out. The radical individual signified a danger. In this contemporary piece, however, the law and family have already collapsed. Miller's Crossing illustrates the dystopian destination of the two-way road out of the Depression--the path not taken by the gangster films of old, but a path that just as easily could have been the one well-travelled. If the films of the 1930s sought to imply that a stable society waited around the corner, this is definitely not the particular stable society that had envisaged.
Miller's Crossing resembles the single-focus narratives we have seen in films such as those of the Trilogy. Indeed, the film is constructed entirely through the point-of-view of the protagonist, Tommy Reagan, with only one short scene outside of Tommy's knowledge disclosed to the spectator. Tommy seems to command space with his near omniscience, his often uncanny instinctive power that places him in the role of Cassandra who watches in frustration as unheeded predictions become tragic reality. Tommy Reagan resists becoming a single-focus hero despite appearances to the contrary; rather, he tries to occupy the position of the reader, the critic, the anonymous spectator elevated upon a bluff overlooking the panorama of a multiple-focus display. Hence, the film does not establish a dual-focus diegetic world to demonstrate the destructiveness of a single-focus perpetrator within that realm. Miller's Crossing constructs a multiple-focus diegesis into which the single-focus actant initially resists or is denied entry. As the narrative progresses, however, Tommy Reagan succumbs and becomes interpellated into the text, so to speak. From this position--the doomed role of the single-focus protagonist in a gangster film--he realizes he has two choices if he wishes to escape: die like his predecessors, or destroy the genre. He chooses the latter.
In Rick Altman's forthcoming book on narrative theory, he explains that multiple-focus narratives "set familiar pieces into unexpected patterns, thus calling into question the comfortable habits of readers and viewers alike" (Altman 2, XV-1). As I mentioned earlier, the semantic elements--those "familiar pieces"--of Miller's Crossing imitate those of the classical gangster genre in a highly reflexive manner. The period setting--never specified but clearly designed to imitate the 1920s or 1930s--is replete with vintage automobiles, architecture, costume, dialogue, and familiar generic accouterments such as the obligatory tommy guns, speakeasies, and gambling halls. On its surface, the film plays as an almost-camp version of any one or several of the gangster films we have seen. It is the "unexpected patterns", however, which throw a spanner into the works and give Miller's Crossing its multiple-focus structure. Despite the conspicuousness of its point-of-view, the film deconstructs the typical process of identification with the single-focus protagonist and urges the viewer to ask questions about the plot, the diegesis, and, I argue, the concept of genre itself.
The overdetermination of the semantic elements (especially the self-conscious metonymic play with Tommy Reagan's fedora, of which more later) indicates to the viewer that beneath this recognizable surface, something else is happening. The rapid-fire vernacular of the characters; the cavernous spaces of Tommy's apartment; the attitude-laden, bombastic performances; the intense rupture points in which such images as a fiery, sweaty close-up of Johnny Casper threaten to burst out of the frame--all work to undermine spectator assumptions about the course of the film while simultaneously offering a recognizable misé-en-scene. In the midst of the multiple-focus melange, the seemingly stable figure of Tommy Reagan maneuvers. This stability, nevertheless, is illusory. Tommy begins as more of a reader than an actant--his reluctant birth into the world of the single-focus is constructed on the confusing grid of the diegesis. To escape the certain fatal closure promised by a generic text, Tommy systematically annihilates the very gangster genre which cannot contain him.
Instead of beginning the narrative as an ambitiously driven, radically individualistic character like the gangsters of the classic films, Tommy Reagan begins as merely an observer--an intelligent adviser who knows too well his fate if he allows himself to be swept up by a narrative trajectory. His role as right-arm to the mob boss Leo is entirely intellectual. In the opening scene, Johnny Casper approaches Leo for permission to kill Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who is selling him out. Throughout the exchange between the corpulent small-timer and Leo, Tommy remains safely out of the fray, absently clinking the ice in his glass of bourbon. After Casper storms out, Tommy warns Leo that his decision to protect Bernie rather than placate the over-zealous mobster was ill-conceived and dangerous. He recommends that Leo "Think about what protecting Bernie gets us. Think about what offending Casper loses us." Leo scoffs at this offer and remarks, "Come on, Tommy, you know I don't like to think." Tommy, the aloof counselor, must do the thinking for the whole film until he is reluctantly forced into action.
This segment also introduces vital information about the wholly-corrupt world represented by the film. Casper intones about the dangers of "chance" and accuses Bernie of illicitly acting to even the odds of the fights Casper fixes. The status-quo, then, is one of "sure things"; the "honest dollar" in Miller's Crossing is that which one "can make off the vig." There is none of the speculative situations which confront the characters of a single-focus narrative. Only Tommy, it seems, is comfortable to trust the uncertainty of betting on the chance Casper claims will lead "back to anarchy." After Johnny departs, Leo offers to set things straight with Tommy's bookie and erase the debts he has incurred from six weeks of bad gambling. Rather than play according to the fixed rules of this limited-good, or zero-sum, system of betting, Tommy favors the "anarchy" Johnny Casper fears. Altman notes that an important characteristic of single-focus actants involves "leaving one situation for another, investing one's money in a cargo of uncertain worth..." but that "all such attempts at increasing value involve an investment of one's goods--one's self--which is speculative at best" (Altman 2, IX-18). Tommy's attempt to improve his standing in the "variable-sum" games of chance is futile, though. His bad streak of luck follows him throughout the film and continually thwarts his efforts to escape the system by single-focus means.
The opening scene leaves us asking more questions than we came into the theater with. Who are these people? Where are these people? WHEN are these people living? What are they talking about? Who is Bernie, who is Mink Larouie (besides "Eddie Dane's boy"?), and who, even, is Eddie Dane? Apart from the functions all these characters perform in the film, these questions are never really answered. The readers of a multiple-focus text are, according to Altman, "forced into positions where they will be encouraged to ask the 'Grail' questions, the questions which reach beyond the familiar character/plot surface of the text and into the thematic regions beyond" (Altman 2, XV-2). As the narrative progresses and more characters are introduced, the spectator can only satisfy her concerns by answering "These are characters in a gangster film." The "grail" is the genre itself. The only rupture is Tommy Reagan who stands out like a sore-thumb in the center of this multiple-focus world. But his continual bad luck, his inability to progress and separate himself from this melange of contained activity, positions our identification with him as one of surrogate spectator, or "mapper" as Altman describes the role of the reader making sense of the action and events in a text. "The process of mapping," he writes, "involves the reader in a perpetual return to the past, a constant attempt to define the present in term of the past, thus permitting eventual understanding of the present" (Altman 2, XVI-5). Tommy is established as a cerebrally-oriented figure who does not so much at first intersect bodily with the text as he does explain it to the other actants.
The dichotomy of mind/body is an important one to Miller's Crossing: focus on the mind removes one from the narrative into the position of mapper; focus on the body results in one's being swept away, or "kidnapped by the text" (Altman 2, XVI, 4). Tommy's black fedora metonymically functions as his "head" throughout the film, and the entire text can be read as Tommy's struggle not to lose it. The enigmatic shot over the credit sequence displays a setting we later learn is the wooded area called "Miller's Crossing". Tommy's hat lands into the shot and remains framed as the title is superimposed on the scene. Suddenly, a gust of wind rises and sweeps the hat away into the depth of the shot until it disappears from sight into the outside space of the forest. The importance of the hat to Tommy Reagan is played out over and over throughout the film. As he wakes from a drunken stupor in the first scene after the credits, for example, we learn that Tommy has lost at cards and plunged himself deeper in debt. His first concern, however, is to locate his missing hat which he is told was won by a woman named Verna after Tommy bet it on a losing hand. At Verna's door, in a scene composed with a single shot, he confronts her about his hat. "Is that all you came for?" she prods him, and slams the door in his face when he replies, "Yeah. I want my hat." Tommy knocks again and Verna responds. "I need a drink," Tommy explains. With this surrender of the needs of the mind to the needs of the body, Tommy is allowed entry to Verna's abode, and to her bed. Faced with a situation which requires action, the protagonist must offer his body to the needs of the narrative instead of remaining in his head, aloof and out of real contact.
The cut which moves us from Verna's door to Tommy's apartment is a shot of his hat sitting, disembodied, on a dressing table. His temporary acquiescence in offering his body to the film again proves destructive nonetheless. Verna, we discover, is Leo's girlfriend (or "twist"). Leo visits Tommy who discretely leaves Verna sleeping in his bed as he answers the door. In the dialogue the two men share in Tommy's spacious but sparsely furnished apartment it becomes apparent both that Leo is protective of Verna and that Tommy's interest in her in mainly physical. Tommy accuses Verna of being a "grifter" who is sleeping with Leo only to protect her brother Bernie Bernbaum from Johnny Casper. His crudeness and coldness toward the woman who is occupying his bed indicates that Tommy is a man quite adept at separating his mind for business and his body for pleasure. Indeed, upon Tommy's return to bed, he admits to Verna that "I told [Leo] you were a tramp and he should dump you." This neat separation which enables Tommy to skim the surface of the narrative and resist being sucked into the single-focus trajectory of the gangster hero becomes difficult to maintain as the film continues.
The point at which Tommy makes the full entry into the single-focus role is in the scene in which he reveals his affair with Verna to Leo. The admission does not stem from guilt or friendly respect, however, it is entirely motivated by Tommy's attempt to divert Leo's violent attack on Johnny Casper and prevent a gang war. Leo refuses to believe that Verna killed his man "Rug" Daniels despite overwhelming evidence pointing to her. Leo suspects instead Casper; the only piece of knowledge he lacks to change is mind is Verna's whereabouts on the night of the murder. Tommy's speculative endeavor to confess to Leo that Verna was sleeping with him is a calculated move designed solely to transfer information--intellectual property--to Leo without regard to personal consequences. At this point, Tommy is acting entirely with his head, and, indeed, before he exits Leo's office he grabs his hat from the rack. After a pause, Leo pursues Tommy in a rage of betrayal. At the end of the long hallway lined with mob bodyguards, Leo slugs Tommy and sends his hat sailing from his head. A bystander catches the hat and hands it back to Tommy before Leo strikes again and sends his partner down the steps of the nightclub. Stunned on the landing, Tommy shakes off the blow and struggles through the daze and pain to grab his hat from the floor. The continual effort to regain his figurative head after this malicious attack on his body is futile. The mind no longer counts to Leo and Tommy cannot shake off the assault with words--his body has been plunged into the narrative despite his wishes and the rest of the film charts his journey to reestablish his position outside of the gangster film which would seal his single-focus doom.
Tommy's bad speculations--his attempts to marginally enter the narrative to increase his standing--all affect him adversely and cause him bodily injury. Tommy's bad habit of gambling (or, rather, habit of bad gambling) carries with it, as we have seen, the clichéd threat of having his legs broken. Indeed, the bookie Lazarre's goons eventually attack Tommy (though they assure him "He likes you, Tom. He said we didn't have to break anything."). Of course his run-in with Leo has left him scarred as well. The truly life threatening risk Tommy undertakes, however, occurs in the outside space of Miller's Crossing. Roped into the job of killing Bernie, Tommy leads the pleading bookmaker into the woods as Casper's boys, Frankie and Tic-Tac, wait in their car. Tommy menacingly strides through the trees with his hat tilted grimly over his eyes. Bernie whimpers and whines throughout the journey eventually dropping to his knees in prayer when they arrive at the designated execution spot. The intended victim implores Tommy, "Look in your heart! I'm praying to you! Look in your heart!" The latter half of the film's mind/body duality is signified in this scene as the heart. Tommy stands before Bernie in conflict: his mind knows he must kill Bernie to preserve stability; his heart tells him he must let him go. The heart wins out and Tommy commands Bernie to run away and disappear.
Later, this concession to the body forces Tommy back to Miller's Crossing at the hands of Eddie Dane (a man who always wears his hat) who is not convinced Tommy actually bumped Bernie. Tommy realizes that his speculative move to free Bernie will be discovered which means his certain death. Succumbing to the fear, Tommy clutches a tree and uncontrollably vomits as the party draws near the site of the non-existent corpse. Luckily, however, a body is discovered at the last moment and mistaken for Bernie's. He is saved, but the damage is done. In the convulsions of vomiting, Tommy has symbolically purged from his system the heart which has placed him in continual trouble throughout the film. From this point on, Tommy will rely only on his head to pull himself out of the fray.
Over the remaining course of the film, Tommy coordinates a series a double-crosses, lies, subterfuges, and plots that toss the narrative organization back into a frenzy. Motivations are muddied, justification remains unclear. The spectator is again placed in an uncertain position in which she must question the text. In the climax scene back at Tommy's apartment, Bernie kills his nemesis Johnny Caspar, but finds himself once more pleading to Tommy Reagan at gunpoint. "It don't make sense! Tommy! Look in your heart!" Tommy does not intend to make the same mistake twice. Before he puts a bullet in Bernie's brain, he coldly utters: "What heart." The typical and expected clear single-focus pattern of casualty is called into question and undermined. The actions of Tommy Reagan are not driven by the plot any longer; instead, they are prompted by his true desire to escape from the gangster film unharmed. After skirting this real issue during the rest of the film and attempting to resist the single-focus lure by remaining a passive interpreter of events rather than an actant, Tommy Reagan concludes that they only way for a protagonist in a gangster film to walk out alive is for him to destroy the very genre which has predetermined his fate. In the final scene at Miller's Crossing, Tommy is reunited with Leo who announces that he and Verna--the only characters left--are getting married. This note of finality, this symbolic death in wedlock of the mob leader is enough for Tommy to disregard Leo's promise that "things can be like they were." Leo and Verna depart for town while Tommy remains behind, indifferent, free, with his hat firmly planted on his head and tilted over his eyes.
In the early 1930s, the genres for the sound film medium arguably were created to introduce a level of stability and security for the viewing public in the throes of the Depression. As an example, the classical gangster film of this period establishes a dual-focus diegesis out of which the radical, success-oriented single-focus character attempts to escape but ultimately is brought down by the forces of Justice or the Law. In Miller's Crossing, however, the Coen Brothers construct a multiple-focus world populated by caricatures and images all "hem-named" simply as belonging to the gangster genre. Tommy Reagan's reluctant entry into this world as a single-focus actant forces him to destroy the genre itself lest he succumb to the same fate as his criminal predecessors. The way in which the gangster genre itself was established in the early years of the Depression can be seen as a particularly good microcosmic example of the codifying process of Hollywood genre in general. Miller's Crossing, as a parodic critique of these conservative narrative genres, implies that the only way to represent an ingenious and resourceful individual who can escape intact from a genre film is to do away with the genre. In explicitly undermining the gangster film in Miller's Crossing, then, the filmmakers can be said to attempt a critique of the very notion of genre itself.
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Hutcheon, Linda. "An Epilogue: Postmodern Parody: History, Subjectivity, and Ideology." Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 4:12, 1990. 125-133.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Levine, Lawrence W. "American Culture and the Great Depression." Yale Review. 2:74, 1985. 196-223.
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