Tom and Leo

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Film directing over the decades has been a very involved art. When one looks back at the progression from the earlier soviet-style films…

Haha. Just kidding. Please don’t shoot yourself.

This post is actually about Miller’s Crossing. Specifically how, in my view at least, it did by far the best job of bringing out Ned and Madvig’s relationship to one another. Granted, this isn’t a particularly bold assertion to make given that the only other film in the unit that really attempted this was Heisler’s The Glass Key, and that film was working under the restraint of the Hayes Code. So really the focus here is going to be more on what I feel the Coen Brother’s did right as opposed to how I think Heisler dropped the ball.

Perhaps my biggest gripe character-wise about the film The Glass Key was the way in which it portrayed Ned and Madvig. Ned is shown to be some superman-like figure with no real weaknesses. The audience is left wondering why Ned even bothers to put up with his friend and boss. With Madvig it is just the opposite. The audience is left wondering how on earth this meathead was ever able to rise to his current position.

This flies in the face of how I read Ned and Madvig. From my reading, Ned came across as both a very talented and very flawed character. This is made clear to the reader in the part of the book where Ned goes to New York in order to collect his gambling winnings. Smart and well connected, he has little tracking down the guy who owes him his money. But when Ned confronts the man, he gets punched in the stomach, vomits, and then stumbles away.

Clearly Ned is not very adept when it comes to violent confrontation.

The Coen brothers do an excellent job of communicating this in the scene where Casper tries to buy Tom off in the warehouse. After Casper storms off, Tom is left alone in the room with Frankie, a slack-jawed bruiser with a curiously short tie. There is an undeniably child-like quality about him in this scene. Even though, to judge from Casper’s words, Tom is clearly in danger, the audience feels more inclined to laugh than to fear for Tom’s safety.

While Tom looms quite large in his frame, Frankie is framed so as to appear comically small. This impression is intensified by the support beams in the background. They get smaller as they head in Tom’s direction, and larger as they approach Frankie. They also serve to frame each character, as they intersect with the ceiling beams in such a way that they appear to be a line of boxes.

Awkwardness pervades the scene. There is no music. Just the sound of rain on the roof and what sounds like drops of water landing in a pot. Tom sits in his chair, visibly perplexed about his current situation. Frankie walks back toward the coat hanger, takes off his coat and hat, and then rolls up his sleeves. In the distance we hear the sound of a train, as if to signify the juggernaut that will be steaming Tom’s way. Frankie begins to walk toward Tom. Tom signals for him to stop, and Frankie complies. Tom calmly takes off his coat and folds it. As he goes to set it down he reaches for the chair and hits Frankie in the face with it. While Tom has clearly damaged his foe, Frankie appears to have been hurt more emotionally than anything else. He walks out of the room, leaving Tom alone and confused.

It’s worth taking a moment and considering some of the things at play here. The Coen brothers’ knowledge of Genre convention works masterfully in this scene. It is comical because of the manner in which it manipulates genre conventions. We laugh because the big bruiser isn’t supposed to leave the room with hurt feelings in order to seek reinforcements. “Genre films can exploit the automatic conventions of response for the purposes of pulling the rug out from under their viewers.” (Braudy, 667)

This scene also does an excellent job of capturing Ned’s gangster side. Tom isn’t a particularly skilled fighter, but he’s willing to do brutal and dishonorable things in order to prevail. While his opponent clearly has a sense of decency, Tom has no problem seizing on the situation in order to gain the advantage, in this instance, by hitting his opponent with a chair. “The Gangster’s pre-eminence lies in the suggestion that he may at any moment lose control; his strength is not in being able to shoot, faster or straighter than others, but in being more willing to shoot.”(Warshow, 705)

Then there is the “Death and Danny Boy” scene where Leo’s talents really shine. In stark contrast to Tom’s handling of a violent situation, Leo seems quite at home. It in this regard he is far truer to the Hammett’s Madvig than Heisler’s cheesy paperman-puncher.

Off screen we hear a struggle going on. As the camera pans away from the flowing curtains we see a man lying in a growing pool of blood. We see the slain man’s cigarette begin to set the newspaper he was reading aflame. His assailant opens the door for another man, who hands him a machine gun. The scene cuts to Leo. He smells the smoke from the newly-started fire. The camera cuts to the legs of the two gunmen as they walk up the steps, their guns hanging at their sides. Leo calmly puts out his cigar and grabs his pistol. He slips under his bed just as the gunmen enter his room.

After killing one and forcing the other to retreat into another room. Leo grabs the downed gunman’s weapon and makes his way across the hallway. He drops his gun out the window and jumps out of the burning house, almost as if he’d done it a hundred times before. Upon landing he grabs his machine gun and waits for the second gunman to show himself. After a pumping an obscene amount of rounds into the intruder (fun fact: Thompson submachine guns can carry 100-round drums), Leo then shifts his attention to a car that careens onto the screen, spraying machinegun fire at him.

Wearing his slippers and smoking jacket, he calmly walks down the street firing at the car until it finally crashes into a tree and bursts into flames. All the while the song Danny Boy is playing; its soothing melody a juxtaposition of the carnage playing out on screen. Leo, his gun still smoking, appears to be satisfied with his handiwork. He takes out his cigar and puts it back in his mouth.

This is where Leo is more like a cowboy of the old west. “By the time we see him, he is already “there”: he can ride a horse faultlessly, keep his countenance in the face of death, and draw his gun a little faster and shoot it a littler straighter anyone he is likely to meet…With the Westerner, it is a crucial point of honor not to “do it first”; his gun remains in its holster until the moment of combat.” (Warshow, 705) He didn’t seek out gunmen from a rival gang in order to kill them. It was only when he was set upon by them that he killed them. And in contrast with Tom, he is clearly a very capable gunfighter.

What’s more, he has a moral transparency that extends beyond his confidence in Tom. This is clear in the scene following the attack. Tom advises him on the smart play: “You lay back, you give Bernie up, you let Casper think he’s made is point. Then you wait for him to show a weakness.” Against Tom’s better judgment, Leo lets his enemies know exactly where he stands. This is also what sets him apart from his rival crime boss Casper. Casper sent his men without warning to sneak into Leo’s home and kill him. On the other hand, if Leo is going to war against a rival, his rival knows it.

So, what did my classmates think of the film? Well, the purveyor of Garbo’s Lesbian Interlude agreed with me that Madvig got the short shrift of it in Heisler’s The Glass Key. She then asks:

I was wondering if this was a directorial choice by the Coen brothers or if it was simply a matter of acting styles changing since the 1940s, evolving more into the subtleties of character (the influence of Method acting, and so forth).

It is a good question. Frankly I’ve been so wrapped up in the convention of film being a product of the director’s vision that I didn’t even consider that there might be other forces at play in Miller’s Crossing. Now that I think about it, some of what I’ve described may have been a result of choices made on the actor’s part. It’s one of those situations where it is difficult to discern some clear-cut line of demarcation between directorial influence and the actor’s art. This became apparent to me while reading the warehouse scene in the screenplay.

Originally, after being turned down, Casper is supposed to slowly tear up the check, and visibly saddened; tell Tom that he doesn’t like being given the high hat. In the film however, Casper is more angry than sad, and he delivers the line about the high hat as he is storming out of the room.

Ultimately, I think it was a directorial choice. At least in so far as, if the director really doesn’t want something in the film, it won’t be in there. Hammet doesn’t really go into detail concerning how Madvig rose to power. I think that the Coen brothers were more or less filling in the blanks left by the book. Personally, I think they were spot on in portraying Leo as relatively sophisticated and an extremely capable killer.

Next up we have Mal writing on her blog And why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles! In one of her rare, non Errol Morris-obsessed moments, she raises the issue of Ned’s fallibility:

It became fairly clear that Ned Beaumont was not much like Sherlock, and I think that might be one of the reasons I found the book to be so interesting… I don’t ever think I had that feeling in the back of my mind that Ned Beaumont would definitely solve the crime. His gambling addiction, coupled with a few other characteristics I witnessed about him, always left me with a slight sense of “wow, maybe he won’t be able to do it.”

I think she’s exactly right about this. As I wrote earlier, I really took issue with the character of Ned as portrayed in the Film The Glass Key. Far from being the heavy drinking compulsive gambler presented in the novel, he seemed to have a Sherlock Holmes quality about him, with Madvig filling in for the role of his simple-minded Watson.

Next up we have the hat. To be honest, one of the most frustrating things for me when watching a film is when I recognize that the directors are trying to bring something to my attention and yet I am unable to figure out what that something might be. That was the case with the hat in Miller’s Crossing. While I was watching I knew the hat was important, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out its significance. Fortunately, Kathleen and Dan come to the rescue.

Kathleen points out that that the hat is, in part, homage Miller’s Crossing’s source material:

I loved the little things the Coen brothers seemed to be doing to tip their hat (literally and figuratively) to Hammett’s Glass Key. Besides “The Hat” being a simile to the dream, in the book the importance of Taylor’s hat was found throughout. Ned used Opal and the hat to get money owed to him from gambling and Taylor’s hat (or the lack thereof) was instrumental in Ned’s discovery of Taylor’s killer.

Along the same lines, Dan writes:

I saw the hat as an homage to the Glass Key. Through Tom’s dream about the hat the Coen brother’s are showing Tom’s attitude’s similarity to the attitude of Ned in the Glass Key.

But he goes further, explaining the hat’s significance within the film itself:

Throughout the beginning of the movie Tom is looking to recover his hat, and ends up getting it from Verna, so in some ways she can be seen as the one possible meaning of the hat. Using Verna as the hat we can correlate Tom’s eventual killing of Bernie as his letting the hat go. Until the moment he actually kills Bernie it is still possible for Tom to be with Verna. In the end Tom gives up everything and this defeatist attitude is exemplified in his refusal to go after the hat in his dream… In a way Tom is saying that it is foolish for a man to try to better himself, or even retain what he has earned.

I’d say that’s a solid interpretation. It’s certainly far more in depth than anything I’ve been able to muster.

To be honest I wasn’t really sure about the blog format for a film study class. But it has proven quite useful when it comes to considering multiple interpretations of a single work of art. Plus its pretty fun to look back over my posts and be watch how my thoughts progressed as I learned more about film throughout the summer session.