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Miller's Crossing: Nothing But Trouble

"Remember, ya always gotta put one in the brain. The first one puts him down, the second one finishes him off. Then, we go home." - random gangster on his philosophy of life, Millers' Crossing

The rival gangster in town (Jon Polito) loves his little boy, doting on him at every chance he gets, but the kid better watch out. As he's trying to talk with Tommy (Gabriel Byrne), the pudgy little guy is shouting frantically for his father's attention attention... until the gangster smacks him in the face and yells: "Shaddup! Daddy's trying to do business here!"

It's a good thing for Tommy that his fuse is so short, because his survival over the next week or so is going to depend on it. He's had a falling out with his boss Leo, a guy who he cares deeply for but is currently involved with a moll Marcia Gay Harden) that Tommy doesn't like one bit. Of course, that doesn't stop Tommy from sleeping with her. But the real problem is that the moll's brother Bernie (John Turturro) is a crooked bookie who's ripping off Johnny Caspar by screwing up his fixes on the fights.

"If you can't trust a fixed fix, what can you trust?" he asks Leo in the opening scene. Bumping off Turturro makes sense, but Leo is so wrapped around his girlfriend's finger that he won't lift a finger. Which leaves it up to Tommy.

Co- writer and producer Ethan Coen knows that the only thing certain about being in charge in the underworld is that sooner or later, somebody comes looking for your head. Headhunting leads to violence, which leads to war. And when things get into all-out war, it's the people who choose the right side a the beginning who are the victors, and the losers are quite simply dead. With Tommy, Ethan creates a landmark gangster character whose monomania about setting things even once again for Leo is the driving force behind everything in the picture. Like Iago, Tommy insinuates himself with Caspar and warns him against imaginary plots like those posed by his icily brutal lieutenant The Dane (J.E. Freeman). Tommy's skulduggery is incredible and his guts even more so. When Polito questions one of his theories, Tommy simply stares at him for a moment then looks away, as if wondering how anybody could be so stupid. It works: Caspar jumps right back in and plays along with him.

"Maybe that's why I like you, Tommy. I've never known anybody who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride," Verna tells him bitterly. Gabriel Byrne is spookily believable as a sociopathic liar who turns the Italian's empire upside down in a matter of days. The supreme irony is that when war breaks out between the two factions, from Leo's point of view it's all completely unnecessary. All he has to do is send Tommy over in a gift-wrapped box and wait for the backstabbing to die down. He's a one man wrecking machine, bent on bringing his enemies down. His depths of deception and plotting are dizzying at time, and sometimes you don't know what's going on until after it's happened. Occasionally, neither does Tommy.

Before this can happen comes Miller's Crossing most famous sequence: the woods, where Byre has taken Turturro to be executed. Director Joel Coen's stark filming and shots of Tommy marching behind his sacrificial lamb, hat down over his eyes seem to go on forever. We're almost thankful when Turturro pleads cravenly for his life, begging him to "look in your heart, Tommy, look in your heart." And Tommy does not kill him, setting him free with instructions to disappear. It's the only mistake he makes, but it's a doozy.

A couple days later, The Dane and two of the Italian's boys pick up Tommy walking down the street (kidnap is probably the more appropriate term) and tell him they're going for a little ride. It seems rumor has it that Turturro isn't dead, and they can't find a fresh stiff out at Miller's Crossing, they're going to leave another one. But Tommy has figured out a way around it, and by the end of the movie Turturro is once again pleading for his life in Tommy's hallway. He drops to his knees, hands wrining, and implores Tommy once again to look into his heart.

"What heart?" Tommy asks coldly, and shoots him in the head. He's learning: you always gotta put one in the brain.

Violent and darkly filmed, Miller's Crossing remains of the most stylish and best-done gangster films of the past twenty years. Unlike the flatly dry The Untouchables (a surprising combo from Pulitzer-wwing playwright David Mamet), there is moments of genuine black humor, a Coen Brothers trademark. After one of Tommy's patented double crosses has unfolded, The Dane is trying to get up from Caspar's floor, nose dripping blood. The fat man looks over, grunts contemptously, waddles over, picks up his gun and plugs his lieutenant right in the dome. "You always gotta put one in the brain! That's what I tell my boys!" he says in a happy tone of voice. Black humor, indeed.

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