“I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics.”—Johnny Caspar
In the end, this is a film about those virtues, only not how you would think. Johnny Caspar is a crook that is complaining that he can’t fix a fight anymore because other crooks are cheating him at his own game. He fears anarchy, and in his mind organized crime and a boss run city is order—and good for everyone.
The main character in this story is not Johnny, but Tom, the right hand man of the big boss in town. The story is somewhat based on stories by Dashiell Hammett. The same stories that inspired such great films as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. In those films, a stranger comes into a town and proceeds to play two gangs against each other for profit. Instead, in Miller’s Crossing the main guy is not a stranger, but the best friend of one of the two bosses.
It’s not particularly deep, but it is thoughtful enough to add an added dimension to the normal gangster/noir movie elements. As far as those elements are concerned, the Coen brothers do a masterful job of creating a beautiful, visually stimulating, creative, and original addition to the genre.
Towards the beginning of the film, Leo (the big Boss) tells Tom, “I figure I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town… except you, Tom.” Later on we find out that he can, but that is not what he meant. Their friendship is too important to him. Tom burns his bridges with Leo, however, and has to start playing both sides in a mob war that breaks out without Tom’s sound advice to guide Leo.
In the end, well… two questions hang in the air the whole film. Will Johnny or Leo’s side win out in the war? And, will Tom and Leo be friends again?
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