Friday, 8 April 2011


An unnamed city during the Prohibition era that is owned by criminal gangs and the mayor and the police chief are the happy puppets of whichever gang boss is ascendant. That's currently Leo (Albert Finney) who is acting extremely unwisely, in the opinion of his advisor Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) in protecting Bernie (John Turturro) the gay and loathsome brother of his girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) from another powerful gang boss Johnny Caspar (John Polito) who claims that Bernie has been screwing up his gambling on fixed boxing matches. Bernie is also the secret lover of Mink (Steve Buscemi) the boyfriend of Caspar's brutal lieutenant The Dane (J E Freeman). Reagan is also screwing Verna behind Leo's back and has a massive gambling debt which he won't allow Leo to pay off.

Got that? Read it all again if you need to because that's just the basic setup. I'll wait.
Tom & Verna
Johnny Caspar

Although a gangster movie, it transcends the bounds of genre with its powerful themes of loyalty, integrity, love, and betrayal. When Leo refuses Caspar's request to stop protecting Bernie, which he does out of loyalty to Verna, the scene is set for a challenge to Leo's authority. Morally, in terms of the gangsters' rules, Caspar (a brilliant performance by John Polito incidentally) is in the right. As he says, "If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust." Caspar is a practical man and also a man of integrity so when Leo won't do the right thing he decides to try and bring him down.

Although complicated, the story is easy enough to follow. The film itself is a rich and dark tapestry in which individual motivations are the key, though sometimes even the individuals concerned don't understand their own motivations, or they are deliberately never explained. It's beautifully photographed and superbly acted. The tight script and use of then contemporary slang (including the frequent use of ethnic slang like sheeny) is vivid and one of the Coens' best and that's saying something. The only way to do this film justice would be an extensive analysis which, frankly, is beyond me. This is one of those rare films where a whole book could be written about it. If I was doing a list of 50 must-see films, this would be near the top. Absolutely brilliant.

Random Notes.

Struggling with the script for Miller's Crossing, the Coens decided to take a break and wrote Barton Fink in three weeks to clear their heads so they could get back to it with a fresh eye.

When Gabriel Byrne first read the script he thought it was comedy. Having watched the film I can understand why he'd think that. It is sometimes funny, but it's no laughing matter.

There's a scene where one man gets his head bashed in. I remember it as being longer on my original viewing but it may simply be that the impact has lessened over the years.

Sam Raimi has a non-speaking cameo as a gun-happy detective who quickly reaps what he sows.

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