Miller’s Crossing (1990) is the third Coen brothers movie, and in my eyes, it remains their best. Miller’s Crossing is set in an unnamed Midwestern city during the 1920s. (It was primarily filmed in New Orleans.) It tells the story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), who serves as advisor to two warring gangsters, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito).
Miller’s Crossing has a superb script, excellent casting and performances, lush cinematography, bravura directing (particularly in the famous “Danny Boy” scene), and effective music. The wide, low-angle panoramas of interiors and the woodland scenes bring to mind similar settings similarly treated in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
But the most remarkable thing about Miller’s Crossing is its message. Actually, there are two of them.
First, from start to finish, the movie deals explicitly with the virtue of rationality. Tom Reagan may be a criminal. He may drink and gamble too much. But his most salient trait is his rationality. He is a thinker. He uses his head and keeps his emotions in check.
The only mistakes he makes come from listening to his heart. He is a natural follower, not a leader, which makes him too deferential to his boss, Leo, even when Leo makes mistakes. He also has a strong distaste for violence. He has to master these tendencies to do the right thing.
Tom’s rationality is governed by an honor code. He pays his own debts, and he is loyal to Leo. Leo, however, does not listen to Tom’s advice, basing his decisions on his passions, which leads to a disastrous gang war.
Second, Miller’s Crossing features the most loathsome Jewish villain since Shylock, the bookie Bernie Bernbaum (played by John Turturro, who also played the title role in Barton Fink). Being a small-time grifter, Bernie is also a thinker, but unlike Tom, he has no moral compass whatsoever. Everything to him is just about “angles.” Bernie does, however, have some loyalty to his sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is similarly sociopathic, prostituting herself both to Leo and to Tom because Bernie sees an angle in it. Verna is so depraved, she even tried to seduce her brother, a homosexual, to “rescue him from his friends.”
Remarkably, the characters of Bernie and Verna Bernbaum provide object lessons in how Jews have hacked the Aryan mind—and how we can defend ourselves from them.
The movie begins with Johnny Caspar and his henchman Eddie Dane (J. E. Freeman—Marcellos Santos from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart) paying a visit to Leo and Tom. Leo is the head crime-boss in the city; Caspar is an independent operator who is subordinate to Leo. Both Caspar and Bernie Bernbaum pay Leo for “protection.” Bernbaum, however, is cheating Caspar on fixed fights, and Caspar is asking Leo for permission to kill the “shamatte” (Yiddish for “rag”).
It is a reasonable request, given the rules of their trade. Caspar is following the rules, Bernbaum breaking them. Caspar pays Leo a lot, Bernbaum a little. Caspar is too big to anger, but Bernbaum is not too big to kill. Leo glances at Tom, hoping for advice, but then arrogantly refuses Caspar’s request, enraging him. It is a mistake that will soon prove disastrous.
When Caspar leaves, Tom says, “Bad play, Leo.” To which Leo replies, “Tom, you know I don’t like to think.” Tom shoots back, “Think about whether you should start.”
Tom knows why Leo has decided to protect Bernie: Verna is sleeping with Leo. Tom suspects that Verna is also sleeping with him for the same reason. Verna is a grifter who plays men’s hearts. In one scene, she prods Tom to admit that he has a heart. In another scene, she claims that Leo defends Bernie because he has “a big heart.” Verna is another Queen Esther, the archetype of the Jewess who whores her way into positions of influence over powerful goyim in order to help her people. And as in the case of Esther, Verna’s influence leads the goyim to massacre one another, Purim-style, although with bullets and bombs, not gallows.
Lesson number one: Never have sex with Jews.
The mob war starts when Leo tasks a henchman, Rug Daniels, to keep an eye on Verna. When Daniels turns up dead, Leo blames Caspar, and the war commences. But Caspar had nothing to do with it. Tom suspects Verna killed Daniels to prevent him from discovering that she was sleeping with Tom as well as Leo. In fact, he was killed by Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi), one of Verna’s drinking buddies that night, who is also in on Bernie’s scheme. (Mink is Eddie Dane’s butt boy, who relays information about Caspar’s fixes to Bernie.)
Tom is so loyal to Leo that he is willing to sacrifice himself to break Verna’s spell. He tells Leo that Verna and he are also sleeping together. Leo beats up Tom and expels him from his office. Tom then goes to work for Caspar. He tells Caspar Bernie’s location, and Caspar sends Tom and two henchmen to take Bernie on a ride out to Miller’s Crossing and kill him in the woods. When they arrive, one of the henchmen hands Tom a gun and tells him that he has been ordered to kill Bernie.
The scene is unforgettable. Tom marches Bernie into the woods. Bernie is hysterical, effeminate, and undignified—shrieking, sobbing, and begging for his life. Bernie recognizes that Tom is a kindred soul: they are not “muscle.” They commit crimes with their minds. He is a swindler. “It’s my nature, Tom,” he blubbers. They have no taste for killing. They are not like “those animals” waiting back at the car. Four times, he says that he can’t die in these woods like a “dumb animal.”
For “animal” here, read “goy.” In Barton Fink, the title character, also played by Turturro, shrieks at a bunch of soldiers and sailors that they are “animals” who have no appreciation for the mind.
Bernie falls to his knees, sobbing, “I’m praying to you. I’m praying to you. Look in your heart. Look in your heart.”
And lo: Tom Reagan has a heart after all. He fires a couple of shots in the air and tells Bernie to leave town. Bernie speeds away, his limbs windmilling spastically.
There is a similar scene in Barton Fink. When Karl “Madman” Mundt, who has just blasted two police detectives with a shotgun, accuses Barton of being a stuck-up elitist who doesn’t listen, Barton fears that he is next. If Mundt doesn’t kill him, the burning hotel will. He breaks down and offers a tearful apology, piercing the heart and deflecting the wrath of the big sentimental schmuck, who then frees him from being handcuffed to a bed in a burning building.
Both films, in short, portray how Jews turn our big hearts, our sentimentality, and our willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt against us.
Turturro’s performance is utterly riveting. Everything about Bernie is calculated to induce loathing, from his round-shouldered posture (also displayed in Barton Fink) to his undignified hyper-emotionality, oily insincerity, and physical cowardice.
John Turturro may be Italian-American, but he looks Jewish and excels at playing Jews, particularly negatively characterized Jews: Bernie Bernbaum, Barton Fink, and Herb Stempel in Quiz Show. Turturro certainly has had ample exposure to the tribe. He grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and is married to actress Katherine Borowitz.
A couple nights later, Tom has reason to regret listening to his heart. Bernie Bernbaum breaks into his apartment. He has decided not to leave town after all. He has been brooding over his humiliation in the woods. “It’s a painful memory.” He is grateful to Tom for sparing his life, but angrier that Tom put him in that position to begin with.
“You didn’t see the play you gave me,” he tells Tom. By sparing Bernie’s life, Tom has betrayed Caspar, and Bernie is now going to use that fact to blackmail him. And, he adds, he is also going to enjoy watching Tom “squirm.” It is an utter moral obscenity to blackmail the man who spared your life with the very fact that he spared your life.
When Bernie leaves, Tom grabs his gun and exits by a different door, hoping to intercept and kill him. But Bernie anticipates the move, trips Tom, kicks him in the face, then taunts him: “What were you going to do if you caught me? I’d just squirt a few, and you’d let me go.”
Later we learn that Bernie has killed his own friend Mink, mutilated his face, and dumped his corpse at Miller’s Crossing in case Caspar decides to confirm the kill.
Tom hatches a plan to get Caspar and Bernie in the same place, each looking to ambush the other. Tom plans to kill off the survivor, if any. This plan bothered me a bit, because although Johnny Caspar is brutal and grotesque (almost ruined by the Coens’ penchant for cartoonish caricature), he is still a likeable character: slightly less rational than Tom, but slightly more ethical. Tom, however, values peace, and maybe he sees Caspar’s death as the only way to end the war.
Bernie kills Caspar. Tom arrives on the scene and coolly offers to dispose of Bernie’s gun. Once Bernie has disarmed himself, Tom takes Caspar’s gun and points it at Bernie. He plans to shoot Bernie and make it look like Caspar did it.
Bernie is incredulous. “What’s in it for you? There’s no angle!” Because, of course, nobody would ever wish to rid the world of a Bernie Bernbaum for the common good, as a matter of general principle or simple hygiene.
Then Bernie starts in with the weeping and the praying: “Look in your heart! Look in your heart!”
“What heart?” replies Tom, who then puts a bullet in Bernie’s head.
This is lesson number two: Harden your heart; don’t be fooled by the tears. The Coen brothers, in short, have done something utterly astonishing—something that is, by all reigning standards, simply obscene. They have created a movie about how to kill Jews.
It is one thing for the Coens to portray how Jews manipulate whites. That could be interpreted as merely a Jewish in-joke. But it is quite another thing for them to show how we can protect ourselves from their manipulations. Thus Miller’s Crossing is a profoundly anti-Semitic film. Watch it, and ask yourself: Would Joseph Goebbels have changed a single frame?
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