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George At 

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Miller's Crossing

Joel and Ethan Coen have made many of my favorite films since the late 80’s, including “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “No Country for Old Men”, the list goes on.

With last week’s passing of Albert Finney, I realized that he had starred in the Coen Bros third film, 1990’s MILLER’S CROSSING. A quirky, brilliantly written and performed gangster film, it’s instantly on my list of mob film classics.

Finney (Tom Jones, Skyfall) is Leo, a powerful crime boss with the city, judges and police force firmly in his grip. But his right hand man, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is noticing some slips in Leo’s recent judgment. Most of them are tied to Leo’s mistress Verna, perfectly played by Marcia Gay Harden (The Mist, Mystic River) in the performance of her career.

Leo’s power is challenged by Johnny Caspar (a terrific Jon Polito) who spends his time equally split between giving speeches about character and ordering murder and mayhem. Caspar has a beef with Bernie Burnbaum (a raving John Turturro), who also happens to be Verna’s brother.

The Coens create incredible characters, nearly all of them loaded with eccentricities or convictions that empower their positions. As the mob bosses battle for control and power, loyalties shift, power moves and Tom becomes our navigator through the gangland mess.

Byrne is terrific as Tom. His exchange with Caspar ending with “I told you so” is one of the funniest serious moments in any gangster film. The dialogue is fantastic.

Several scenes standout, including the killing at Miller’s Crossing and the midnight attack on Leo’s home by rival hoods. As the smoke started rising through the floorboards to the strains of “Danny Boy”, I knew the Coens were about to unleash something powerful. They never disappoint. Finney’s stroll down the middle of street with Tommy Gun in hand and cigar in pocket is a classic. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, When Harry Met Sally, Raising Arizona) frames every prohibition nightclub and dark alley to perfection.

It’s stunningly paced. The Coens pull you into rooms that will be filled with laughter or explosive violence, but you never know which to expect. J.E. Freeman’s Eddie Dane is an all time great sidekick. Mike Starr’s Frankie is violently memorable and Steve Buscemi’s Mink is a raving lunatic of fast patter and oddity.

Sitting alongside “The Godfather” like its slightly off kilter and funnier cousin, MILLER’S CROSSING rivets from its mysterious titles to its quiet finale and earns an appreciative A. The Coen Brothers would follow this up one year later with “Barton Fink”.

Watch closely near the end for a small appearance by frequent Coen star Frances McDormand as the mayor’s secretary. After meeting on the set of their “Blood Simple” screen debut, Joel Coen and Frances married in 1984, 12 years before her star making turn in their masterwork “Fargo”.

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