Tag Archives: Miller’s Crossing

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.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Parker Novels