Review: The Duplicate Keys, Part 4: The Crafty Coens Try the Hat On for Size

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Tom Reagan: Don’t think so hard, Eddie. You might sprain something.

Eddie Dane: Except you ain’t. I get you, smart guy. I know what you are. Straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside-Outski, like some goddamn Bolshevik picking up his orders from Yegg Central. You think you’re so goddamn smart. You join up with Johnny Caspar, you bump Bernie Bernbaum. Up is down. Black is white. Well, I think you’re half smart. I think you were straight with your frail, I think you were queer with Johnny Caspar… and I think you’d sooner join a ladies’ league than gun a guy down. Then I hear from these two geniuses they never even saw this rub-out take place.

Frankie: Boss said to have him do it. He didn’t say nothing about…

Eddie Dane: Shut up! Or maybe you still got too many teeth. Everyone is so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll go out to Miller’s Crossing… and we’ll see who’s smart.

Ned Beaumont leaned forward. Muscles tightened in his lean face. The wrapper of his cigar broke between his fingers with a thin crackling sound. He asked irritably: “Did you understood what I said?”

Madvig nodded slowly.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“He was killed.”

“All right,” Madvig said. “Do you want me to get hysterical about it?”

Ned Beaumont sat up straight in his chair and asked: “Shall I call the police?”

Madvig raised his eyebrows a little. “Don’t they know it?”

Ned Beaumont was looking steadily at the blond man. He replied: “There was nobody around when I saw him. I wanted to see you before I did anything. Is it all right for me to say I found him?”

Madvig’s eyebrows came down. “Why not?” he asked blankly.

Ned Beaumont rose, took two steps towards the telephone, halted, and faced the blond man again. He spoke with slow emphasis: “His hat wasn’t there.”

“He won’t need it now.” Then Madvig scowled and said: “You’re a God-damned fool, Ned.”

Ned Beaumont said, “One of us is,” and went to the telephone.

‘We weren’t thinking so much of gangster pictures, just novels,’ Joel says of the influences on Miller’s Crossing.  The prime influence was Dashiell Hammett, whose work Joel says uses the gangster genre as a vehicle to talk about people.  ‘In Hammett, the plot is like  big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background.  It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important.’  The production notes for Miller’s Crossing acknowledge the influence of Hammett’s 1929 noel Red Harvest (the one that gave Blood Simple its title) on the Coen’s script.  However, there is no mention of another Hammett novel, 1931’s The Glass Key, whose central character, Ned Beaumont, is the right-hand man of Paul Madvig, the boss of a corrupt city….The similarities between The Glass Key and Miller’s Crossing have sometimes been overstated: some have suggested that the Hammett estate could have sued for plagiarism.  It isn’t the same story, but a number of similar characters are present and the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig is very similar to that between Tom and Leo.

From Coen Brothers, by Eddie Robson.  (Emphasis added.)

Tom: Friendship’s got nothing to do with it.

Leo: The hell you say. You do anything to help your
friends. Just like you do anything to kick your
enemies.

Tom: Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.

Caspar: We all know you you can be useful to us, a smart kid such as yaself, the man who walks behind the man, who whispers in his ear.

…Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

So what’s the rumpus?

After I got interested in Westlake through the Parker novels, I read The Mercenaries. I knew it wasn’t close to his best work, nor was it typical of most of his output, which could be attributed to it being his first real attempt at a book he’d want his name on. Killing Time, his second crime novel, was likewise a bit of an outlier, but I knew why that was. He was rewriting Red Harvest, making a new story out of it, with a different point. I’d read that, so wasn’t hard to spot.  I’ll be rereading it pretty soon.  Still seeking the screenplay adaptation Westlake did of it years later.  I think of funny things to do.

As I read my way through other crime fictioneers (Parker proved to be a bit of a gateway thug), I would stumble across some earlier book that told the same basic story as The Mercenaries.  “Ah-hah!” says I, “I’ve found his influence!”

But then I’d find another.  And yet another.  Ranging from 1949 through 1960.  Mob novels about a fixer and his boss, usually tragic in nature.  And with the exception of Rabe, from authors who didn’t write much about organized crime. Was this some kind of nervous condition they went through?  St. Valentine’s Day Dance?

I read The Glass Key recently, because I got interested in exploring Hammett as a way of understanding his aptest pupil.  And it worked–because that was the influence, on Westlake and all the others who wrote some version of this story.  (Hammett being the ultimate gateway thug.)

But while registering its influence on all these other mystery writers I liked, I didn’t think The Glass Key was all that good.  Except for the parts that are great, naturally.  Great dialogue, great atmosphere, great premise–it pulls you in–then pushes you away.  Too many red herrings.  Too many dead end plot threads.  Too much that doesn’t work, obscuring all the things that do.  And, as I said a while ago, the female characters in particular are weak.  Contrary to what some critics have said, Hammett could write great women.  This time, he didn’t.

My significant other just read it herself, after recently devouring the Op stories and novels, the way she once devoured the Parker novels, and with the same enthusiasm.  I never told her my reaction, she didn’t read my review, and she came to the same conclusion.  Without the need to bloviate incessantly about it. Her talents lie elsewhere.

All the pieces are there for a great novel, maybe Hammett’s best, as he sometimes claimed it was–but it doesn’t hang together right. Hammett had found something new, something important, but for whatever reason,  he never had a firm grip on the material.  It got away from him, like a fedora blown into the woods.  It’s his worst novel.  And perhaps his most surreptitiously imitated. Why is that?

Funny thing–Ned Beaumont, going by the book, sounds a lot like Hammett  himself in his 30’s, when he was working as a private cop.  Tall, dark, thin, mustached, physically a bit frail, temperamentally a bit fey, but still tough, determined, relentless, sardonic–and observant–about clues, and about people.  Loyal to the crew he worked for, yet troubled about it, finally walking away from it, never to return.

Hammett looked nothing at all like The Continental Op or Sam Spade, superior protagonists in superior novels.  Nick Charles does resemble Hammett a bit, but an older sadder wiser Hammett (married to an urbane young heiress he based on Lillian Hellman), who has lost his life’s work, and can’t get over it.  And Hammett created nothing of note after he wrote The Thin Man. Life tragically imitating art.

I got the notion lodged in my noggin that there had to be a reason there were all these books that were based on The Glass Key, yet diverging from it on crucial points.  And my answer to this mystery was that these writers liked the story, and its confusing criminal combatant, but saw problems with both, and as a creative (and commercial) exercise, set about trying to make them come out right.  To fix the fixer.  (Implicit puns are such a joy; why do I keep spoiling the fun by making them explicit?)

So having worked my way through all the duplicate keys I knew of in book form, I knew it was time to get to the one that wasn’t a book.  The one that some of  my comments sections regulars have been raving about for years, and when I made faintly unenthused remarks, based on bits and pieces I’d seen while channel-flipping, demanded I give it a fair trial before I hung it.

I watched the DVD.  Jury’s in.  I was wrong.  Miller’s Crossing is a great film, that richly deserves its avid cult following.

But you don’t need me to tell you that.  That isn’t the mission statement here. I could probably grow old(er) and gray(er) pouring over books and online articles about Miller’s Crossing.  It’s that kind of movie.  But this is not a blog about movies, unless they in some way impinge on Westlake.  The Coens are over-analyzed.  He isn’t.

I’m am neither going to review Miller’s Crossing, nor synopsize it.  It’s been done.  To death, even.  (There will, needless to say, be major plot spoilers because that’s how Freddie rolls.)

But I am interested in comparing and contrasting it to all the duplicate keys that came before, and most of all the Master Key.  Because make no mistake, this is a movie that is, in every sense–in the very best sense–a remix of a book.  Hammett’s book.  Just that book.  No other.  Oh there’s a few other tips of the hat to other things Hammett wrote, but The Glass Key is the only source worth mentioning.  Chopped up into pieces,  rearranged, retooled, remastered, and edited down into a story that works far better than Hammett’s.  You heard me.  They fixed the fixer.

That opening scene everybody thinks is a reference to the opening of The Godfather?  It’s a reference to the scene where Madvig and Shad O’Rory face off, disguised as a reference to The Godfather.  Later in the film, Tom talks to a guy named Shad on the phone, and says about Leo’s hitting Caspar’s club “It’ll mean killing” just like Shad says at the meeting, only it’s bunched in with a lot of other words.  (But still spoken in a deadly soft lilting brogue–that interestingly, the Coens didn’t want Byrne to use, but he talked them into it.)

That closing scene everybody thinks is an  homage to the The Third Man?  That’s a deliberate inversion of the concluding scene from The Glass Key, and I’m not convinced Joel Coen even thought about Carol Reed when shooting it.  (Possible Reed was thinking of Hammett while making The Third Man.  That film does, after all, have a quixotic American pulp fiction author as its detective/hero, and is about a doomed friendship.)

Obviously the Coen style, the Coen ethos, is different, and any Prohibition-era gangster story told decades after Prohibition is going to be a lot more self-conscious and artsy, the tropes all fossilized, exaggerated (that was my main beef with the film before, but in retrospect, I must admit–they make it work for them.)

Like all the keymakers before them, they’re out to improve, not imitate.  I don’t claim it’s the same story.  Even deliberate plagiarists never write the same exact story.  That’s not how plagiarism works.  That being said, if the Coens ever had been dumb enough to say “Yeah, we got a lot of ideas from The Glass Key, what of it?” they would have been leaving themselves open to a lawsuit from Hammett’s heirs, whoever they were in 1990.  It’s that close.  It’s that blatant.  It’s that unapologetic.

It’s that respectful–they didn’t have to name Bernie Bernbaum after Bernie Despain, to name just one example out of seeming hundreds.  They didn’t have to keep referring to hats (the word hat appears at least 70 times in Hammett’s book, and in the title of a key chapter).

It’s an honest caper they’re pulling here.  Barely a scene passes without some reference to the source material.  They want you to know.  They want you to know they want you to know.  But they know that cineastes, amateur and pro alike, will assume they’re doing movie homages, even when they say they’re basing this entirely on novels. And will take them at their word when they say the Hammett novel they drew on was Red Harvest.  

The way plagiarism law works, you almost need a written confession to get a conviction.  Why else would Westlake call Dig My Grave Deep ‘a second rate gloss’ of The Glass Key, but never once mention his first novel, The Mercenaries, was glossy and glassy itself?  Because nobody could sue Peter Rabe on the basis of another man’s opinion, however well-informed.  It has to come from the horse’s mouth.  Far as I know, that’s the only time Westlake ever mentioned The Glass Key.  I’d say there was some encoded self-criticism there.  His hand points one way, his eyes another.

Far as those production notes mentioned up top go, Red Harvest is a red herring.  That’s a movie homage, all right–to Kurosawa, avowing with a straight face (I can’t very well say inscrutable) that he didn’t base Yojimbo on Red Harvest, but was somewhat drawing upon a different Hammett novel.  One guess which Hammett novel he said that was. (And somewhere, Sergio Leone grinned to himself, and maybe said something about sauces, geese, and ganders, only in Italian.)

Those cute Coen bastards.  They inverted that too.  They think they’re so damn smart.  Well, I guess they are at that.  But let’s to go out to Miller’s Crossing and find out why they’re so smart.

Miller’s Crossing, like The Glass Key, is mainly about a friendship between two men that irreparably breaks down, but for better-defined reasons, and in a larger social context.  Tom Reagan has been working for Leo O’Bannon for an undefined period of time, during Prohibition, and as in Hammett’s book, what they do straddles the line between corrupt politics and outright gangsterism (which wasn’t so uncommon during Prohibition–at one point Tom makes the toast “To Volstead.”)  Ned Beaumont has only known and worked with Paul Madvig a year.  Which simultaneously makes the depth of the relationship less believable, and its ending less tragic.

There’s no sweet silver-haired mother for Leo.  There’s no vengeful suicidal daughter.  There’s no pretense he could have been what he is so long without having anyone killed, though he only does it as a last resort, mainly in self-defense.  There’s a murder mystery, but Leo’s not a suspect, and it’s peripheral–a small detail in the larger mosaic, that gets solved (by Tom) almost as an afterthought, and nobody really cares.  There’s no upcoming election to worry about, and all of these absences take a lot of unneeded stress off the narrative, free it up, give it more focus, though it does ramble some.

There is a subordinate gangster looking to move up at Leo’s expense, but he’s Italian, and isn’t improbably knocked off by one of his own flunkies (the flunkies had better watch out for him).  And that works better than the subplot involving the upstart Shad O’Rory challenging Madvig (who is no Irishman, but succeeded one, his mentor).

See, Prohibition gangsterism was a true multi-cultural endeavor–everybody was in on it.  But the Italians were the ones moving in, and up.  Taking over.  Creating a national organization, where only Italians were welcome at the very top.

The Irish, independents to the core, were mainly just holding on in various local redoubts, with that stubborn streak for which we are so justly noted–a prolonged rearguard action that went on for generations (reportedly still going on in Boston).

So it works better that you’ve got two Irishmen–one either American-born or got off the boat a long ways back–and another who was raised in the sod (I tell a lie, Byrne’s no culchie and neither’s Tom).  Tom showed up just in time to see the end of Irish dominance in the rackets.  He can’t stop it, but he can slow it down some.  Leo is his friend, but even more, his chieftain, and when an Irishman gives you that kind of loyalty, it’s to the death.  Of somebody.  Possibly a lot of somebodies.

This is key to the story–and the answer to the mystery of what Hammett was getting at to begin with.  Friendships, and most of all deep friendships, are breakable, because they’re based on the compatibility of two personalities, and personalities, most of all complex ones, never stop evolving.  If one friend changes too much, the friendship ends.  But loyalty–that runs deeper.  In some people.

Leo’s in love all right, but not with the silly swooning scion of some sappy supercilious Senator–no social climber Leo.  No, his cap is set for Verna, a delectable dark-haired adventuress, played by a young Marcia Gay Harden, and while she’s the only female character of note in the piece, let me just say–that’s some piece. “Drop dead” is her leitmotif, and she plays it to perfection.  If you don’t like her, you can lump her.  (Or she you, watch the right hook.)

She’s in love with Tom, which matches up nicely with Hammett, but she’s willing to settle for Leo, and the security he can give her.  Tom’s in love with her, but what’s that got to do with the price of hooch?  Trouble is, she comes with heavy baggage, namely her brother.

Bernie Bernbaum is the most important character in the film, other than Tom–much more significant than his bookie namesake in The Glass Key (who vanishes from the plot early on).  Infinitely more twisted and treacherous.  Also Jewish (maybe even practicing, since there’s a rabbi at the end).  Honestly, if two Jews hadn’t made this movie, I’d call Bernie a stereotype, though a damned complex one (and you know, stereotypes are usually dumbed-down, for the benefit of those that go for them).  Played by an Italian, but you know, Brooklyn’s an ethnicity all to itself, and Turturro speaks the lingo like a native, because he is.

But pivotal though he is, you don’t see much of him, and you never see him at all when Tom’s not around.  Do we see him with his sister, who loves and protects him?  With any of his co-conspirators/lovers?  Schmoozing any of the local power-brokers?  Enjoying the local nightlife?  Nyet.

With one brief exception (just so we’ll know he’s not a figment), we only see him alone with Tom, exchanging sardonicisms, matching wits.  A secret sharer, except Bernie’s not much for sharing (though he will tell you things you didn’t need to know, like the time his sister taught him about sex).

Begging for his life in the film’s most famous scene, he makes a lot of the affinities between them.  Both gamblers, though only Bernie makes a living at it.  Neither is a natural-born killer, a tough guy.  There’s different kinds of toughness, we should remember–it’s not always about how hard you hit.  The other hoods in the film are all masters of violence, Leo, Caspar, The Dane.  Tom can’t dish it out for beans, but boy can he take it.  Bernie’s not tough at all, but chutzpah like you wouldn’t believe.

Point is, he and Tom make their living by brains alone.  By manipulating others, by bending the truth, seeing the angles, spotting opportunities, exploiting weaknesses.  The difference–and it’s crucial–is that Bernie’s only loyal to himself.  And he assumes Tom’s the same way.  People without loyalty figure it’s only for rubes, and he knows Tom’s no rube. So it makes sense the final confrontation is between Tom and Bernie, and their parallel yet diverging outlooks.  And ends with a twist even the most twisted guy in the movie can’t see coming.

What makes sense to me is that Bernie is Tom’s doppelganger–a repository of fascinating yet repellent qualities in Ned Beaumont, that the Cohens wanted to make use of, but couldn’t put in a guy who is, after all, the hero of a major motion picture.  That’s why Verna is drawn to Tom, as she has been in the past to her brother–that’s why she can’t kill Tom, even when she thinks Tom killed Bernie.  That’s equally why Tom is drawn to and yet wary of Verna.  She’s more dangerous to him than any of the tough guys, because she’s the ultimate temptation.

By killing Bernie (you remember I warned you about the spoilers) Tom’s not committing murder, but killing the dark half of his own soul.  Winning the battle to be himself without all the moral compromises.  He loses Verna, but that’s a price he’s ready to pay.  At the end, he’s walking away from this poisoned town (yeah, there’s some Red Harvest there) clean and unencumbered–free at last.

Ned Beaumont is a very twisted person, for all his loyalty and guts.  One problem with The Glass Key is that the book can’t seem to make up its mind about him.  He does some despicable things in the course of his story, and they don’t seem to bother him that much.    Not that he’d admit it if they did.

Yeah, that’s true of the Op, and Sam Spade, maybe even Nick Charles, but Ned’s a different order of heel–and yet he’s the hero.  It’s a norm-shattering conception–the genesis of the modern crime novel, one might argue, with its frequently amoral protagonists, its jarring twists and turns–but Hammett couldn’t commit to it enough to make it work.  Because, we may suppose, he was getting so close to his own demons there that he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger on his own doppelganger.  (Or, if you want to go full Dorian Gray, slash the picture.)

I reread The Glass Key this past week, and I liked it a bit more, understood it better, having worked my way through all these variations on its themes. But I still ended up feeling that Hammett never achieved anywhere near the full potential latent there.

I’d suspect the Cohens could have easily enough gotten the rights to do another film based directly on it–why didn’t they?  I mean, they remade The Ladykillers as a southern gothic, and True Grit as a somewhat more faithful adaptation of the original novel (that somehow doesn’t work for me like the original).  They’ve never been afraid to do that kind of thing.  (In the case of The Ladykillers, they should have been, as some things simply can’t be improved upon.)

Why not here?  Because the original couldn’t be fixed.  Not in its original form. But it could be remixed.  Broken into its component elements, melted down, recast into a new form, where the same basic points could be made more cleanly, without all the irrelevant detritus of a daring concept gone wrong.  The key didn’t break in the lock this time.

I’d say Westlake reworked Hammett even better across his career (much better), but not in The Mercenaries, which was his first attempt, and maybe a bit too concerned with rejecting the very idea of Ned Beaumont–reminding us that the guys who fix things for criminal bosses (the Cohens and the Kellys, if you know what I mean) aren’t people we need waste many tears on, and don’t think I’m not seeing the stark truth in that lately.

It was impossible for Westlake, the Poet of the Independents, to identify with an organization man–however, even the most independent filmmakers have to be organization men and women to some extent–they all have studio bosses who sign their checks, and they can’t do their work without a whole lot of collaboration, often with people they don’t like or even trust much (and for good reason).  So makes sense they’d bond more with the story, have a better sense of how to get it across.

And as happens far too rarely in the movies (and Hollywood movies at that), all the pieces came together–as much by happenstance as by design.  The perfect casting picks just happened, even when they weren’t the original picks.  Little flaws in the early screenplay drafts were ironed out.  Everybody helped everybody else.  Nothing was left in the end but what needed to be there. Nothing was explained too much.  Leaving us to find our own explanations, which is what I’m doing here, and I think I’ve done it enough now.  You don’t need me for that.  Explain it yourself.

A story that had been told and retold, never quite achieving its ideal form, was finally told right.  And could blow away into the woods, its purpose achieved.  No more about it. (Except maybe in the comments section.)

51dbc-cryyy2bmiller

 

21 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Parker Novels

21 responses to “Review: The Duplicate Keys, Part 4: The Crafty Coens Try the Hat On for Size

  1. Well, I for one am glad you gave it a chance, as I was one of its loudest defenders in the aforementioned comments section.

    And as happens far too rarely in the movies (and Hollywood movies at that), all the pieces came together–as much by happenstance as by design. The perfect casting picks just happened, even when they weren’t the original picks.

    One of those original picks, as you surely know, was Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona himself) as Leo. Wilson died a few weeks before filming was to begin, and Albert Finney stepped in at the last minute. As much as I loved Wilson in Raising Arizona, Married to the Mob and other ’80s movies, Finney brings weight to the role that I don’t believe Wilson could have managed. Finney had 12 years on Wilson, and 14 years on Byrne, changing the dynamic between the two male leads from fraternal to paternal. In addition, the plot necessitates Leo’s absence from the screen for most of the second half, but his presence is felt in every moment, in every move Tom makes. Finney’s strength in the first half carries the weight of his absence in the second. Could Wilson have pulled that off? I’m not so sure.

    (Don’t get me wrong. It’s tragic at Trey Wilson died so young. But I believe Miller’s Crossing is a better movie with Albert Finney than it would have been with Trey Wilson.)

    Finney apparently had a ball on the set, and he hung around even after his scenes were complete. He appears in drag in the ladies bathroom scene (and once you spot him, you can never un-spot him) just because he was on the set that day for no particular reason.

    Is Tom in love with Verna? I’ve grappled with that question. He clearly loves Leo above all (even himself), and he recognizes the threat to Leo’s well-being that Verna represents. I think maybe he sleeps with her just to pull her away from Leo, just as he’d pull any threat away from Leo, bringing the chaos down on his own head instead.

    There’s probably not just one reason why he sleeps with Verna. Early on, he says to Leo (who’s ascribing the wrong motive to another character): “Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.” But later, at the very end, on another matter, he says: “I dunno. Do you always know why you do things, Leo?” Tom’s journey between those quotes is the story of the movie.

    • Ah, you ask just the question I needed asked–as you often do. (You have been missed.)

      Let me try to answer it here–there was so much to say, you understand, that if I tried to say it all, I’d be writing more about this movie than I did about Hammett’s novel, and that wouldn’t do. This is a book blog. And as I said, good as it is, this movie is not wanting for analysis. My task is only to analyze it within this very specific frame of reference.

      I think Tom feels like he could love Verna. Maybe even that he should. There’s a deep physical attraction there, she can take his measure like no one else, and she, like him, is gifted/cursed with indestructible loyalty to another person.

      She maybe half-understands him–you see how the film recreates the exchange of dreams between Ned and Janet in Hammett’s book, from whence the title is derived. In this case, Verna clearly has had a dream a bit like Tom’s, but different. They’re so much alike, yet so different. It could be so good, and yet it couldn’t work.

      He wants her, that’s for sure. Maybe more than he’s wanted anything in his life. What we want most isn’t always what we need most. It may be that love isn’t within his range. That’s a question only he could answer, and you could say he does, in his last two words to Bernie.

      So many scenes of the two of them in bed, post-coital, talking. It’s only in the last one that she’s naked under the sheet–indicating that she’s opening up to him, letting her guard down. But he’s not naked in that scene–he’s always getting dressed. He can’t open himself to her, or maybe anyone. He tries with Leo–by confessing his betrayal, if you’d call it that–and Leo repays him with his fists. In a sense, he tests both of these people so important to him, and both of them fail.

      But when you say maybe he’s just trying to save Leo from her–yes. And no. I don’t think he planned it that way. He couldn’t have, knowing what Leo’s reaction would be.

      But see, I’ve been thinking the same thing about the end of The Glass Key–it’s impossible for me to believe Ned loves Janet at all. She’s crazy about him, but doesn’t understand him the least bit. (I like her less than any of Hammett’s women–there’s something truly contemptible about her. Compared to her, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is a paragon of truth.)

      By taking her away with him, he’s making sure there isn’t some spite marriage between her and Paul–or maybe she’d marry Paul out of remorse for having misjudged him, even though she still hates him (plus she’s lost her father, and his money). That won’t happen now. His last favor to his friend, but it seems an open question whether Paul will ever recover from it.

      The ending of the film is less existentialist–more stoic. Verna marries Leo, partly for security, and definitely for spite–taking Leo away from Tom. Tom shows no surprise at this. He knows them both very well.

      But Tom’s already let go of Leo. She can’t understand that his loyalty isn’t the clinging kind. That he was going to leave town alone, no matter what, leave Leo to his fate (which is that in a few years, when Prohibition ends, he’ll be old and irrelevant, pushed aside by New Dealers).

      Ned and Tom have this in common as well–that no one really knows them. But isn’t what really matters that you know yourself? It’s a long hard climb to that kind of self-knowledge. And it’s lonely at the top.

      I don’t see how anyone could have played Leo as well as Finney (just the scene where he survives the attempted hit–magnificent). That performance has the ring of destiny to it.

      See, you have to understand why Tom is so loyal to him. No, he’s not the deepest fellow, he makes one mistake after another, but there’s something splendid about him–they didn’t pick that name for nothing. There’s magic between Finney and Byrne. What a tragedy if they’d never worked together.

      Each character understands the other is the missing piece–Leo has the strength and guts–Tom the guile and perception. And Verna comes along to spoil it, which speaks to your point, but something was going to, and not that far off.

      I like Paul Madvig well enough in the novel, but I don’t really get the relationship between him and Tom, in spite of Hammett’s deftly drawn scenes between them. The Coens once again do a better job showing us why this friendship exists–and why it has to die.

      That being said, I was sampling the extras on the DVD (nothing from the Coens themselves, which tells me they said all they had to say in the film itself), and I was taken aback to see Byrne talking about Tom’s ‘downfall’ stemming from his thinking he can control everyone. No, he doesn’t. That’s wrong. A man who says “Nobody knows anybody” knows better. He can control himself, his choices, nothing else. If fate chooses to spare him, or snuff him out like a light, that’s somebody else’s lookout. He plays the best hands he knows, and in the end, the gambler wins–but like all such victories, it’s very pyrrhic.

  2. Yes, my interpretation of Tom throwing himself on the Verna grenade is informed by The Glass Key, where it’s a better fit.

    I have little interest in what most actors have to say in DVD commentaries. Their understanding of their own movies can be embarrassingly limited. Writers and directors, on the other hand, often have great insights. (Steven Soderbergh is a master of the DVD commentary.) However, the Coens are notoriously closed-lipped (or downright pranksterish) about discussing the “meaning” of their movies. (One reporter credulously relayed the Coens’ assertion that Fargo is making fun of the character of Marge Gunderson.) The published screenplay of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink has a forward by their fictitious editor Roderick Jaynes (in reality Joel and Ethan themselves), crankily berating the brothers for their lack of classical style. And asked about the hat motif in Miller’s Crossing, the Coens asserted that the hat had no meaning, that it was just a cool thread to run through the movie. This is obvious nonsense.

    • Right, but if they said “The hat motif is a tip of the hat, because we borrowed our entire plot from a novel still under copyright because we knew we could fix it and we didn’t think Dash would mind” that would be legal suicide.

      Actors do what they have to do, think what they have to think, to get themselves in the emotional place they need to be. We can respect that while still acceding that they often understand the stories they’re in about as well as the average infantry soldier understands the grand strategy of the war he’s in.

      (The tragedy, in film as much as war, is that a lot of the time the generals don’t understand much better, but that’s never the case with the Coens.)

  3. The Coens’ original screenplay is worth seeking out. There are a couple of scenes that were removed from the finished film (though BTS stills suggest they were shot), and illuminating lines of dialogue that were trimmed (the movie isn’t about illumination). Here’s their original description of Tom:

    He is trimmer and younger than Leo, perhaps in his thirties, dark-complected, with a pencil mustache and a gaunt intensity that is not entirely healthy-looking. This is Tom.

    Byrne may not have entirely understood the movie, but his casting was spot-on. And he convinced the Coens to ditch the pencil mustache right along with the American accent.

    • I was looking at it the other day. Did not see the description of Tom, which is, of course, a picture-perfect description of Ned Beaumont. And Tom’s original last name was Duschaine–French, like Beaumont–Hammett being of French extraction. So he wasn’t going to be Irish at all. Actors have to fight for their characters, and Byrne didn’t have to be right about everything to do that.

      I give the Coens all kind of credit for the job they did, but let’s just say that some movies are meant to work out (even if the box office doesn’t.) They really were remaking The Glass Key, more directly than any of the other duplicate key makers, but it turned into a lot more than that. Collaborative ventures have the advantage of collaborators–if you know when to listen to them.

      I don’t know whose idea it was to change Bluepoint’s name to Eddie Dane, but that guy deserves an Oscar. Oh wait, nobody got an Oscar. Oscars suck.

      • Miller’s Crossing had the misfortune of being released the same weekend as Goodfellas, which sure seems like a bonehead play now, but in 1990, Scorsese hadn’t had a hit in 14 years, and the scheduling monkeys at Twentieth Century Fox were likely casting a nervous eye at another big gangster movie on the horizon, The Godfather Part III, which was opening a couple months later. (Westlake and Frears’ take on The Grifters, produced by Scorsese and opening more or less against TGP3, likely wasn’t on their radar.)

        In any case, MC sank like a stone at the box office and wasn’t a major awards contender (zero Oscar noms; the Coens’ Oscar glory still lay in their future). In 2011, it received a bunch of nominations for the 20/20 Awards (a ceremony created to re-evaluate the Oscars from 20 years prior, utilizing the benefit of hindsight), winning Best Original Screenplay (ha!), but losing Best Picture to Goodfellas, which had famously lost the Best Picture Oscar to Dances With Wolves. Yes, Oscars suck. All award shows suck.

        • Goodfellas was the kind of picture you could appreciate right away. It had big stars doing what they do best (and wouldn’t be doing much longer–Casino was okay, but you know…)

          And much as it excoriates and mocks the mob subculture, it also celebrates it, delights in its machismo, crudeness, and bacchanalian splendor. We probably wouldn’t have The Sopranos (which I like a lot better) without it. It’s retro, but it’s not all the way back to the 1920’s retro. And it can play songs people going to it actually remember hearing on the radio growing up. It’s a different flavor of nostalgia.

          Miller’s Crossing takes more time to appreciate, and isn’t really about organized crime (wasn’t in Hammett’s book either.) Its protagonist can’t win a fist fight, even gets punched out by a broad. Yeah, he’s the most dangerous guy in that town, but mainly because they keep underestimating him.

          Also, people may not have been ready for a gangster story in which seemingly half the gangsters are gay, but nobody calls it that. It sort of sneaks up on you that Bernie is sleeping with Mink is sleeping with Eddie. And nobody really seems to care. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of business. The biggest, scariest, physically toughest guy in the picture is gay, and he’d probably plug you if you called him that.

          Hammett was probably the first major crime writer to make gay men major characters in his stories. It was a big ballsy move, as you saw in that memo from Breen I put up a while back. But even he couldn’t just come out and say it, let alone show it, so he hinted to beat the band. Put in the usual cliches about how gay men acted and looked and dressed (and probably some of them did–the culture was different, and how were you going to meet anybody if you weren’t giving off signals? Really dangerous then to approach the wrong guy.)

          Now that I’ve had time to ponder, and have reread The Glass Key, I have to reconsider whether Ned Beaumont is gay, or bi. And I still don’t think so, but it’s a tough call. His reaction when he finds out about Paul’s infatuation with Janet is definitely jealousy–and Paul is embarrassed by it. It’s hard to read something that subtextual. Paul’s definitely not, but Ned? Maybe ambiguous. Which fits the character.

          Multiple in-depth biographies have failed to turn up any evidence of Hammett himself being gay, or bi. But he may have been ambiguous himself. Sex is never simple for complex people. He was attracted to women, but preferred the company of men–as Patricia Highsmith was attracted to women, but preferred the company of men. Both tended to have dysfunctional romantic relationships, because of this. But Highsmith at least tried it with men–it was expected. Could Hammett have tried it with men? Or thought about it? And Ned was what came from that thinking?

          Some questions never have satisfactory answers, in fiction or in life.

    • Based on that description of Tom, I would guess the Coens were thinking of George Raft, who played Beaumont in the first GLASS KEY film.

      • Raft could be intense, but he was never gaunt. There’s no mention of him being a lot shorter than Leo, and of course, in the book, Paul is bigger than Ned, but not taller. Byrne is actually listed as an inch taller than Finney, though they do a good job covering that, since Leo has to be a dominating presence. Other than Toshiro Mifune, I can’t think of any shortish actor who was better at looking like a giant than Finney.

        Raft also doesn’t sport a mustache in that picture (or any other I’ve seen him in.) I might mention as an aside, that I’ve yet to watch either film adaptation through, but based on what I’ve seen, I like the first one better. The second basically gives up trying to adapt the book, and makes it into a sort of hard-boiled romance between Ladd and Lake, who seemed to specialize in well-made but highly inaccurate adaptations of crime novels.

        No, if you go back to my review of the novel, you’ll see a picture of Ned on the cover of Black Mask. That’s based directly on the description from the novel, and that’s what the Coens were working from too.

        Miller’s Crossing tests the limits of plagiarism law more than any film I can think of. Very well known novel, made into two movies already. They never come out and say “This is The Glass Key,” but they give you a hint every other minute that’s what it is. Hints in the visuals, hints in the dialogue, hints in the plot. And so few people ever crack wise. Well, who reads?

        It’s respectful and creative plagiarism, and I really don’t think Hammett would have objected. So long as he got his cut. Screw the estate.

        • Yes, it’s far more blatant (and reverent) than, say, Apocalypse Now, which everyone asserts was lifted from Heart of Darkness without actually reading Heart of Darkness to find out for sure. But many critics were caught napping with Miller’s Crossing, completely missing those references. Here’s Roger Ebert:

          This doesn’t look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie. Everything is too designed. That goes for the plot and the dialogue, too. The dialogue is well-written, but it is indeed written. We admire the prose rather than the message. People make threats, and we think about how elegantly the threats are worded.

          (That’s good, Roger. Now think about why.) Ultimately, Ebert didn’t get it, not entirely:

          “Miller’s Crossing” comes from two traditions that sometimes overlap, the gangster movie of the 1930s and the film noir of the 1940s. It finds its characters in the first and its visual style in the second, but the visuals lack a certain stylish tackiness that film noir sometimes had.

          • Not sure if Heart of Darkness was still under copyright in the late 70’s, but of course when you change venue that much, you don’t have to worry about coypright. Basically, it’s got the same basic outline and premise, one iconic line (that Kurtz is consciously quoting), and nothing else. Geez, it’s barely even got a plot. But the visuals, man! FUCKING TIGER!!!!

            Ebert was, at times, a good film writer, but he got so many things wrong, and at his level, it was hard for him to admit it. Caught between being a serious film analyst and a pop critic, and never getting either 100% right. I mean, when your gift to the zeistgeist is so totally binary (Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down), it’s going to get in the way of finesse.

            But you know, if I had to review everything, whether I liked it or not, and was stuck with the space limitations he was, I’d suck a million times worse than Ebert at the absolute nadir of his perspicacity.

            Is Miller’s Crossing noir? I can see why people would think of it that way, but it’s the wrong era, the wrong style, the wrong approach. People in the story aren’t doomed because fate is against them, but because they make bad choices, had bad intel. You can do noir in color–Memento is brilliant noir. But I think people get confused about crime fiction, figuring it’s all noir, when only some of it is. All bugs are insects, not all insects are bugs, you know?

            I think Hammett was in some respects anticipating noir, but I don’t think he wrote it.

  4. Ebert was a great writer, and a force of good in the world of film. But the vast majority of his contemporary reviews contain at least one error of fact or misstate a plot point in some fundamental way. In addition, most quotations (set inside quotation marks) included in his reviews are off by at least one word.

    • Since my only deadlines are self-imposed–and I still screw up constantly–I shall judge not lest I be judged. And sing hosannas to whoever invented the edit button. 😉

  5. J.E. Freeman, who was openly gay, is electrifying as Eddie Dane. He made dozens of movies, turning in plenty of good to great performances, but he never held the screen quite as commandingly as he does here. He must have considered it the role of a lifetime.

    • The Dane is a great nemesis for Tom–his only weaknesses are his temper and his lech for the fast-talking Mink (I don’ t know how Buscemi crammed so many words into so short a scene). Deadly and smart, but not quite smart enough to see all the angles Tom is playing. Still–it’s close. Too close. Somebody up there likes Tom.

      I think to some extent The Dane’s a reworking of Jeff Gardner (maybe just a jigger of Whisky Vassos). Jeff’s the big ape-like bruiser who spends part of the The Glass Key beating Ned to a bloody pulp, and later goes drinking with him. (The latter scene is a highlight of the novel, by the way. Jeff’s talking about how once he gets Ned upstairs for a few drinks, he’s going to bounce him off the walls, and wants to know what Ned has to say to that. “Scotch.” Nobody did sang froid quite like Hammett.)

      As intimidating as Jeff is, the way things play out between him and Shad is somehow unsatisfying–too out of left field–better suited to a short story. Again, the Coens come up with a better conclusion, to a mastermind/henchman relationship in this case. And the henchman himself is much more than just some drunk gorilla. Though I will say, I do like Jeff. He seems like a good guy to have a drink with. If you come heeled.

      • It’s interesting how the Coens stage the scenes in Leo’s and Johnny’s offices, respectively — Leo behind an impressively large desk, Tom seated on a fancily upholstered sofa on Leo’s right; Johnny behind a smaller, cheaper desk, Eddie seated on a smaller, cheaper sofa on Johnny’s left. They are quite deliberately mirror images of each other, and Eddie can see plainly enough that Tom crossing over is a threat not only to his boss but also to his own position on the couch.

        • Now that’s something that doesn’t come from the book.

          Shad would like to acquire Ned’s services, yes–he can see, like Caspar sees with Tom, that Ned doesn’t agree with Paul’s decision. But he has nobody equivalent to Ned on his side. Just a bunch of gunsels and armtwisters. Probably Jeff does have to worry a bit that Ned will push him down the ladder, but he’s not Shad’s brain (he’s barely got one). Shad’s his own brain. And good bet he’d have gotten rid of Ned in future, once Paul was finished, seeing a rival in the making.

          It all plays out in a very similar way otherwise, Tom playing double agent, Caspar wanting to test his loyalties, the only thing missing is a bulldog (though they actually went to the trouble of putting a dog in another scene, and hired the legendary trainer Karl Miller to help the pooch hit his marks! They literally did not miss a trick.)

          Hammett didn’t want to commit to the infiltration subplot, cuts it short, and that was his prerogative, but the Coens saw unused potential there.

          We should not neglect Jon Polito, another career-defining performance in this film. His Caspar is the most amiably despicable bad guy since Edward G. was in his prime. Not as tough as Leo, but far subtler–his achilles heel is his class consciousness, his inferiority complex. He riles too easy, and overthinks things, making him ripe for manipulation by Tom. He does seem to have read a bit, though.

          His parenting skills could probably use some work.

          • He also makes the mistake of thinking that a standard of ethics can be applied to an inherently unethical enterprise — or, at least, that he can rely on such a standard.

            Agreed on Polito, of course. He’s great on “Homicide,” but pretty much everyone involved gives a career-best performance.

            • A lot of people make that mistake–not just criminals. We have all these systems we think will protect us, but nothing can protect you from basic human treachery. Caspar’s mistake isn’t to believe in criminal ethics, but to try and systematize it, nail it down. It’s his security blanket.

              He clearly aspires to something higher than Chief Rumrunner. In a different life, he might have been a king, an emperor–a Duce. But he never would have been a good leader. The Dane was loyal to him–as loyal as Tom to Leo. But because Caspar knows he himself can’t be trusted, he can never trust anyone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (And lies and lies and lies.) It’s very Richard III. He’s invincible until he gets what he always wanted, and finds out it wasn’t what he thought it was.

              Well, nobody knows anybody–not that well. The people you can trust are the ones who know themselves, and they can be hard to find.

              It’s all very Starkian, isn’t it, the focus on criminal ethics? I tend to doubt the Coens had read The Jugger, but then again, they probably do like Godard (more than me, anyhow), and I could see them tracking down the book Made in USA was kindasorta based on, just out of curiosity.

              I think highly enough of them to feel they’d have recognized that Stark has the better of that exchange.

  6. Reading over a chapter from the book Dashiell Hammett and the Movies by William H. Mooney (not bad, a bit dry and over-parsed, like all such books, but he covers the bases), I found about as thorough a comparison of Miller’s Crossing with The Glass Key (novel and both films) as is likely to be found anywhere. He picked up on a bunch of references I missed. Though I doubt anybody ever got them all.

    He suggests ‘Tom Reagan’ is a reference to Tom Hagen, Duvall’s fixer from The Godfather, and if we’re just talking the name, I’ll buy that–though that is hardly a duplicate key, since the film has a very different story, and isn’t remotely about Hagen’s relationship with either of the titular Godfathers. (Duvall wouldn’t come back for Godfather III because they wouldn’t even pay him half as much as Pacino. Man has his pride.)

    He convinces me that the funeral scene at the end is drawn from the funeral scene at the end of the 1942 film version (both feature a sister burying her beloved scapegrace brother), though of course the underlying tensions still come from the end of Hammett’s novel.

    I don’t agree with him that there’s any sexual ambiguity whatsoever in the relationship between Tom and Leo, as there just barely is in the relationship between Ned and Paul. Tom is straight (as is demonstrated repeatedly in the course of the film), and so is Leo (nobody even suggests otherwise, and given how outspoken these guys are about each others’ proclivities, somebody sure as hell would have, particularly once the gang war started).

    Once the love that dare not speak its name is shouting its name from the rooftops, you don’t have to tippy-toe around it anymore, as Hammett actually did less than most writers of his era, genre or mainstream.

    Again, I think the sexual ambiguity of the novel stems not from Hammett being gay, but from his only being able to form strong friendships with men, and mainly not being at ease with women, unless he was actively romancing them. Not a rare problem, then or now. Essentially, Ned chooses sex over friendship at the end, but only because the friendship is over, and there’s nothing else for him now.

    Making other characters openly gay in the movie fixes that ambiguity problem–a lightning rod, of sorts. I could totally buy two gay gangsters being friends, allies, and lovers in the 20’s. Not two bisexual gangsters. I mean, seriously. Maybe one or the other, but not both. That’s too improbable to even discuss.

    I also found a reference to an article in Sight and Sound, written by John Harkness, who said it was a wonder the Coens weren’t sued for plagiarism by the Hammett estate. However, I’m unable to find the article at the present time, and since he apparently refers to ‘tone’ he may not have appreciated just how right he was.

    But again, you basically have to come out and say it, unless you reproduce dialogue word for word. They made their debt to Hammett as clear as they possibly could without incurring legal liability. But I would say that by understanding Hammett’s story so well–its strengths and its weaknesses, and the underlying truths it had to tell–they paid that debt in full.

    I get the impression from some other things I’ve read that they had no idea how Irish the movie was going to be. It just sort of came out green in the wash. 😉

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