Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Hat or the Heart

In honor of the recent release of Joel and Ethan Coen's greatest film, Miller's Crossing, here is an essay I wrote many years ago for a Genre film class. It was also published in the Spring 1998 issue of Latent Image, a Student Journal of Film Criticism.
The Hat or the Heart:
Reconfiguring the Detective Hero in Miller's Crossing

Containing a myriad of familiar genre imagery, the self-proclaimed "dirty town" film, Miller's Crossing,  from the producer / director / writer team of Joel and Ethan Coen, reinvents both the gangster drama and the detective film. It is a combination that certainly allows the cross-over of several key elements in both genres: men in hats, violence, the enactment of crimes against the backdrop of a corrupt urban system. But those are superficial elements that can only go so far in mapping out the ideological terrain -- and it is this terrain that remains the most fought over in Miller's Crossing. If the gangster film is about the system of organized crime, the men who keep it oiled, and its eventual inevitable destruction of those same men, then the detective film, particularly that hard-boiled genre produced by the Hollywood system (most frequently) in the forties (sometimes referred to as film noir) is about the isolationist, the lone hero against that system, operating morally, thus alone, in the corrupt urban world. Or, more simply, the gangster perpetrates crimes; the detective attempts to solve crimes -- to restore order. The amoral gangster loses the nice girl due to his amorality; the moral detective loses the not-so-nice girl (read: femme fatale) due to his morality. And so on. Thus the oppositions that exist between the two genres (if one, indeed, is allowed to reduce them, as I am doing right now) is not so much a problem of turf, as a problem of perspective. Miller's Crossing constructs this turf -- an unnamed prohibition-era town, populated, seemingly, entirely by criminals (and corrupt law enforcement) -- then focuses on Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), the excommunicated right-hand man of the town's mob boss. The film follows Tom's period of isolation, as he floats between the town's warring mob factions, and emphasizes Tom's isolation using several key elements from what we have come to regard as film noir. But in the end Tom's individual actions (operating within his own moral code) eventually serve the criminal system (and Leo, the mob-boss), that the town relies on. Miller's Crossing thus deflates the idea of the importance of the individual against the corrupt collective, denying some of the pleasures of its own genre.


Tom's dual role as henchman / hero is set up in the first scene of the film, a scene that both conjures and parodies the opening sequence of The Godfather. In the scene an Italian mobster, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), delivers a speech to Leo O'Bannion (Albert Finney), the mob boss. While Caspar's words are the first words of the film -- and serve to introduce the internal logic of the criminal system that runs the town (and, ironically, the theme of ethics) -- the first image of the film is of a short glass being filled with ice-cubes and then whiskey, an image that recurs associatively with the protagonist throughout the film. This glass of whiskey we eventually see in the hand of Tom Regan, as he crosses the room to stand behind Leo, and subsequently doubles Caspar's own henchman, The Dane (J. E. Freeman), standing over Caspar's shoulder, holding not a whiskey but Caspar's hat (more on hats later). Caspar is asking Leo for permission to rub out a small time chisler named Bernie Bernbaum (Jon Turturro). As Richard McKim points out in Cineaste, the Coens "spoof the blood mysticism of Coppola's Sicilians (by) concoct(ing) a polyglot ethnic menagerie -- Leo's Irish, Tom Welsh, Caspar Italian, Verna and Bernie Jewish, and Caspar's Karloffian hitman is called The Dane."  Similarly, the monolithic heterosexuality of gangster films is challenged by several openly gay characters, a fact alluded to by Caspar, also in the opening scene. Leo denies Caspar's request, causing immediate friction with Caspar: "I told you the sheeny was robbin' me blind, I told you I wanna put him the ground, and I'm tellin' you now I'm sick a the high hat." After Caspar leaves Tom tells Leo that denying Caspar's right to bump Bernie was a "bad play," establishing Tom's free-thinking individuality, despite his role as subordinate. Furthermore, we learn that Tom has gambling debts that he is not allowing Leo to pay off, despite Leo's desire to do so. Tom heads out the door at the end of the scene in an attempt (futile attempt, we learn later) to square himself with the bookie Lazarre.
It is not a particularly noir opening -- the colors of Leo's office are lush, expensive browns -- but at this point Tom is still associated with Leo, and the film has yet to delve into Tom's increasingly isolationist world. It is in this world that the Coens most readily apply the conventions of the detective genre. Even Tom's apartment (apparently designed to emulate the inside of Tom's head -- more on heads later) is lit in chiaroscuro fashion; when Leo enters it at the significant hour of four in the morning to look for Verna, his silhouette in the door is solid black against solid white, emphasizing the classical elements of trenchcoat and fedora -- it is also the only scene in the film when Leo wears a hat. Leo's reason for being there, too, are personal, his insecurity about his mistress Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Mob bosses are equally susceptible to four a.m. wanderings and, although he doesn't know it, he has come to the right place. Verna is in Tom's bed, introducing the first major love triangle of the film, a heterosexual one (Leo - Verna - Tom) that is doubled by a homosexual one (Eddie Dane - Mink - Bernie). It is interesting to note that as the triangle plays out (the heterosexual triangle), it is the last scene between Tom and Verna alone that most self-consciously evokes detective film imagery. It is also a scene that takes place at four in the morning, when Tom, despite his interferences, his own private agenda, is faced with an outcome beyond his control. Verna confronts Tom in the rainy streets, after he has left an empty diner rendered filmically with an almost Edward Hopper sense of loneliness, then accuses him of the murder of her brother. They converse in a doorway, where their silhouettes (again reduced to black and white) are so evocative of pulp imagery -- the slant of the fedora, with the rain dripping off the brim; the betrayed woman holding the gun that may or may not be the murder weapon -- that it is at once a parody and emotionally effective. The penultimate lines of the scene are as follows:

Verna:  That's you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart.
Tom:  It isn't easy, is it, Verna?

She heads down the street, again a perfect silhouette against the almost perfect black-and-white rendering of the street, Chinese lettering (evoking Chinatown?) draped down across the street, and the frame.

Elizabeth Cowie, in her article "Film Noir and Women," discusses the archetypal triangle in Freudian terms:
Freud describes...falling in love with a woman who is another man's 'property', that is, his wife or mistress, but who is sexually promiscuous, giving rise to the lover's suspicions and jealousies...This explains the condition that the woman not be unattached, as well as the over-valuation of her as love-object, and the condition of her unfaithfulness for, after all, she has betrayed the son by granting her sexual favours to his father, rather than to him.
                                                                                    (Copjec, p. 124)

Such Freudian implications are overwhelmingly obvious in Miller's Crossing, where Tom is clearly the son/right-hand-man to Leo's father/boss. Verna's over-valuation as a love object in the plot is in fact the motivation behind Leo's protection of Bernie, which causes the gang-war violence that ensues. Tom repeatedly attempts to sour Verna for Leo, calling her a grifter, a murderer, promiscuous, but Tom, himself, is in love/in bed with Verna. Her promiscuity is also documented by, of all people, her brother Bernie, who says of her, "she'll sleep with anyone, you know that. She's even tried to teach me a thing or two about bed artistry. Can you believe that - my own sister" (italics are not mine, but belong to the screenplay book Barton Fink & Miller's Crossing, from which most of the lines are at least confirmed if not copied verbatim (see Works Cited)). Tom, failing to convince Leo of Verna's unworthiness, is reduced to confessing his own sexual relations with her, which causes the split between father Leo and son Tom.

Verna, of all the characters excepting Tom, clearly exists in the realm of the detective film. She is the femme fatale, in looks and attitude, but also by stint of her being the primary suspect in the detective story sub-plot that plays itself out throughout the film, that being the murder of Rug Daniels, one of Leo's toughs. Although clearly subplot (if not sub-subplot material) Rug Daniel's death -- popped by a .22,  a lady's handgun -- calls into question Verna's ethics outside of the bedroom -- grifter she may be, but murderess is another story. The murder is solved by Tom, clearly the only one who cares, by his discovery that Mink (Steve Buscemi, who nails his character in one scene), skittish already due to his central role in the homosexual triangle, is the one who killed Rug. It is ironic that Mink and Verna, doubled by their similar roles in the two love triangles, are together on the night of the murder, and that Rug Daniels was assigned to follow Verna. But Verna, unlike her predecessors -- Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity come immediately to mind -- turns out to be innocent, at least of murder, which, seemingly should allow her access to Tom, the heroe's, love. (As clearly Mary Astor would have been worthy of Humphrey Bogart's love if she hadn't murdered his partner in cold blood.) Instead Verna winds up with the patriarchal figure of Leo, now reestablished as mob-boss thanks to Tom's meddling, and Tom, at the end, is alone, tucked more firmly than ever beneath his hat.            

Hats, and what they protect, are so obviously a large part of the symbolism of the film that it would be impossible to not spend a good deal of space discussing them. On one level an immediately recognizable genre icon, on another level the hat serves a protective function in the world of Miller's Crossing. In his review in Cineaste, Richard McKim puts it succinctly when he writes:
 A hat covers one's brain, both shielding and crowning our most powerful secret weapon in a hostile world. Losing your hat symbolizes the helplessness of your situation, whether in love or gang war, when intelligence can no longer save you.
                                                                        (p. 46)
Clearly, this is what the hat means to Tom Regan. It is Tom's hat that lands on the forest floor under the title credits after the opening scene. We learn this later when Tom, in one of his more revealing moments, tells Verna a dream of his about walking in the woods when his hat blew off. Verna replies by saying: "And you chased it, right? You ran and ran and finally you caught up to it but it wasn't a hat anymore. It had changed into something else - something wonderful." Tom's reply -- "No. It stayed a hat. And, no, I didn't chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat" -- ignores the fact that Tom had earlier done just that, chased his hat, after losing it to Verna in a poker game. Verna knows this and her "something wonderful" refers to the possibility that what Tom feels for Verna is actual love, is, in a sense, unintellectual. The hat, however, is not a symbol reserved solely to cast illumination onto Tom Regan. Here is a relatively brief list of the hat as it relates the film, or the characters in it:
1. Caspar repeatedly refers to the high hat, and how he is sick of it.
2. Leo, insecure about Verna, passes his hat back and forth between his hands.
3. Rug's hat lies next to his dead body. (He then loses his hair).
4. Before Tom kisses Verna in the nightclub he takes his hat off.
5. Bernie, begging for his life in the woods at Miller's Crossing, is hatless (wouldn't be so important if it wasn't such a rare sight in the film).
6. Tom knows Bernie was at Drop Johnson's place because the hat left behind doesn't fit Johnson's head.
7. The recurring image of Tom being punched, losing his hat, then bending over to retrieve it.
8. Entering the Barton Arms, Tom's apartment building, at the end of the film, Tom first sees Caspar's hat on the stairs and knows that Caspar is dead.
9. The final image of the film: Tom peering out from under his hat.

This constant repetition of a symbol points to the central theme of the film, that of the importance of rationality, the importance of keeping one's head, in the dangerous world that the film portrays. Characters without their hats are usually in some sort of trouble; dead, or about to be, or vulnerable. Of course, as McKim points out, it is not so much the hat that is immediately important as what it protects, or rather its metonymic function: the head.

Joan Copjec, in her article "The Phenomenal Nonphenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir", makes this assertion:
 The tradition of detectives is that of the armchair rationalist, known less for his perceptiveness than for his scepticism; the detective is one who withdraws from the world of the senses, of which he remains infinitely suspicious, in order to become more attentive to the clear and distinct prescriptions of a priori ideas.
                                                                                    (Copjec, p. 169)

In short, an intellectual. This is undeniably the case for a detective such as Sherlock Holmes but also aptly describes hard-boiled detectives. In The Maltese Falcon, arguably the first film noir, Philip Marlowe sends Bridget O'Shaugnessy to prison despite his love for her because, as he puts it, "You killed Miles and you're going over for it." Certainly Marlowe felt no real love for his dead partner (interestingly, he formed a triangle with Miles and Iva, Miles's wife), but, in his rational world, one must avenge the death of one's partner, even if it means denying your heart. In Miller's Crossing the opposition of the head and the heart is almost incessantly re-iterated. In fact, the word "head," or its synonyms (i.e. brain, mind), appears over sixty times in the film. Leo, who admittedly does not like to think, and who is also the one self-admitted romantic in the film, refers to his mistakes as "bonehead plays." Caspar teaches his hitmen, his "boys," that the way to kill someone is to always put a bullet "inna brain." Tom frequently answers requests by stating "I'll think about it." Tom is clearly an intellectual. If looking out for Leo is Tom's agenda throughout the film, then he succeeds, not through guns, or strong-arm tactics (Tom almost never fights back, despite the extraordinary number of times he is beaten up), but through outsmarting Caspar and his gang, by slyly turning them against one another. Tom's intellectualism is even established by The Dane, who on several occasions refers to Tom as "smart guy," at one point right before he is about to fire a bullet into his brain. From the beginning Tom wants to give up Bernie Bernbaum to Caspar, the smart move that Leo is unable to do because of his love for Verna. But when Tom does get his chance to do away with Bernie at Miller's Crossing (the scene that comprises the chronological and the psychological mid-point of the film) he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, which brings us to the heart.

The character most firmly associated with the heart in the film is Leo, whose inability to do the smart business move of killing Bernie is predicated on his romantic love for Verna. Verna even says of Leo that he "has a big heart," echoing Leo's earlier defense of Verna when he tells Tom "You don't know what's in Verna's heart." But in the case of Tom, it is Verna, and her brother Bernie, who most frequently raise the question of his disappearing / reappearing heart. Verna, in several instances, insists that Tom is not so much trying to protect Leo and his territory, but is motivated by sexual jealousy and his desire for her.
Verna: Why can't you admit it?
Tom: Admit what?
Verna: Admit you don't like me seeing Leo because you're jealous. Admit it isn't all cool calculation with you -- that you've got a heart -- even if it's small and feeble and you can't remember the last time you used it.
Tom: If I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words, I'd have memorized the Song of Solomon.

Later, after Tom has split with Leo (over the issue of Verna), Tom gives up Bernie to Caspar's goons. But in order to prove his loyalty, Tom himself is sent into the woods to bump Bernie. Tom, not speaking, his hat pulled down to just over his eyes, walks the hysterical, hatless Bernie deeper into Miller's Crossing. Bernie, begging for his life, tells Tom repeatedly to "look into his heart," appealing not to his intellect (which we, the audience, know has already decided that Bernie must die) but to his emotions, his heart. Tom lets him go. This scene had been foreshadowed by Tom's significant hat dream earlier in the film, where Tom loses his hat in the woods. In fact, in Bernie's arguments to Tom to pity him, Bernie says, twice, "it's a dream." Indeed, the dream plays itself out: essentially, in Tom's calculating world, in his rationale, he does the wrong thing in the woods by giving up his reason and allowing Bernie to live.

The scene at Miller's Crossing comes back to haunt (literally almost) Tom. Bernie, who is supposed to be playing dead and supposed to leave town, returns to blackmail Tom, to punish him, in a sense, for the heart that would not let him pull the trigger. Bernie comes directly to Tom's apartment and tells Tom that he wants Caspar killed or else he'll "start eating in restaurants." When Bernie leaves the apartment, Tom, in a mad rush to correct his error, grabs first his gun and then his symbolic hat, and tries to cut off Bernie. Bernie foils him, however, then says, "What were you gonna do if you caught me? I'd just squirt a few and then you'd let me go again." In the logic of the world Tom inhabits, his one moment of irrationality, his one moment of following his heart, is punished. Earlier, after the Tom/Leo split, Verna had suggested that the two of them leave town together, with Bernie. Tom's reply -- "You, me and Bernie. Where would we go, Verna -- Niagara Falls?" – is obviously a mockery, but also an acknowledgement, of the normalcy that they cannot have. By trying later to save Bernie, Tom is not just doing a favor for him, but trying to do right by Verna, emulating the behavior of Leo, the big-hearted father figure.

Near the end of the film, after Tom has successfully dismantled Caspar's gang, thus the threat to Leo, Tom and Bernie replay their scene from Miller's Crossing, this time in the Barton Arms (The Coen's subsequent film, Barton Fink, is an exploration of writer's block, apparently inspired by their inability to write the third act of Miller's Crossing). Tom needs to pin the murder of Caspar on somebody and Bernie is there to take the fall. Right before Tom drills Bernie through the head, they have this brief exchange:
Bernie: So what's in it for you?! There's no angle! You can't just shoot me, like that! Jesus Christ! It don't make sense! Tommy! Look in your heart!
Tom: What heart.

On some levels, Bernie's arguments are valid. There is no angle. All the major players of the drama have been killed. Tom asserts that he needs to pin the murder of Caspar on someone, but considering the portrayal of the police force in the film, that argument is hardly viable. What is viable is Tom's need to return to the rationality with which he began the film -- when he first asked Leo to give Bernie up to Caspar. In the course of the film, during Tom's solitary journey, his attempt to follow his heart, to do the right thing by Bernie, and more importantly by Verna, leave him vulnerable in the world he exists in. It is only his brain he can trust, prompting him in the end to assert that he has no heart. The constant juxtaposition of head and heart in Miller's Crossing points to some of the essential contradictions in the hard-boiled detective genre -- to the important question of who the hero-cum-detective serves.


In his review of Miller's Crossing for "Sight and Sound" Tim Pulleine writes that:

In the manner of a Howard Hawks movie -- though thankfully there is no suggestion of direct reference -- it erects an exact yet invisible dramatic scaffolding, around which the participants, no matter how far removed from 'real' life, can create an illusion of independent existence.
                                                                                    (p. 64)

This independent existence seems to be what Tom Regan is aspiring to throughout the film. One might argue that Leo's reemergence as undisputed mob boss in the film's final moments validates all of Tom's action and elucidates his reasoning -- this is what Leo believes --, but there is much in the film that contradicts that. If the imagined world of the film were less cynical, or the film itself less critical of its own genre, this might be the case, and the audience could cheer, along with Leo, Tom's cleverness in disposing of the enemy. Tom, however, at several key moments in the film, not only contradicts this, but contradicts himself.

Early in the film, Tom argues with Leo about starting the war with Caspar.  Leo is still being stubborn over the issue of Bernie:

Tom: -- and Caspar hasn't broken the rules, Bernie has -- and you, too, by helping him. And if that isn't enough, consider that if you make it a war, you've more to lose than Caspar.
Leo: Okay, but more to beat him with. Jesus,
Tom, the two of us've faced worse odds.
Tom: But never without reason. It helps to have one.

This is Tom's rational side speaking. A little later, he makes the same point again to Leo when he asserts that you always do "things for a reason"; again, in this sequence, Tom is asking Leo to give up Bernie. Later, of course, Tom is unable to do the very thing that he has advocated, yet despite that mistake, Caspar's gang is still dismantled and the threat to Leo evaporates. At Bernie's funeral service in the final scene of the film, Tom and Leo are briefly reunited, and Tom very uncharacteristically asserts his own insecurity when Leo thanks him for what he's done.
Leo: It was a smart play, all around. I guess you know I'm grateful.
Tom: No need.
Leo: I guess you picked that fight with me just to tuck yourself in with Caspar.
Tom: I dunno. Do you always know why you do things, Leo?

Without that line, the final scene of the film would be very different -- it would look as though Tom really did do everything in the film in order to achieve the favorable ending for Leo. But not only is Tom unwilling to admit that that is the case, he does not rejoin with Leo, despite Leo's forgiveness. He is adamant, stating "I didn't ask for that and I don't want it." Tom is alone at the end. He no longer has Leo, and he no longer has Verna.
John G. Cawelti, in his essay "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films" discusses the problems of morality for the detective hero:
(Gittes) attempts at individual moral action hadled to the death of a woman he care for. It is apparently this tragedy that motivated him to leave the police force and set up as a private investigator. Now he has been drawn back into moral action (and) his attempt to live out the myth of individualistic justice collides with the power of evil and chance in the world.
                                                                                    (Grant, p. 232)

At the end of Miller's Crossing the world has been returned out from chaos and back to the status quo. Tom gets what he wanted in the first place. So why is Tom clearly unhappy at the end of the film? Why is he unwilling to get back to his job of protecting Leo, or rejoining the system? What Tom has done, in his period of isolation, his period separated from Leo and his womb-like office, is try out his own version of moral action -- shown most significantly by his decision to not kill Bernie. But Tom, like Jake Gittes, belongs to a world far too corrupt for such action. Earlier Tom had referred to the "rules" that first Bernie breaks, and then Leo breaks by protecting Bernie. These are the unwritten rules of their shared community -- a community based on capitalism run amok (crime) and fueled by greed. Tom, himself, breaks the rules. They do not get him killed, but in the end, the system prevails, just as the system prevails in the cynical world of Chinatown. Tom may have started the film as part of the machine, but in the end he is in isolation -- having lost a woman that he attempted to not betray, and having faced his own death due to that action -- the second crucial scene at Miller's Crossing.
The second scene at Miller's Crossing is when Dane, convinced that Tom did not truly kill Bernie, brings Tom back to look for a corpse. Tom knows that no corpse will be found, and that he will be killed for his transgression, for his double-cross. Tom, usually relatively cool in difficult situations, says little during this scene and, in fact, vomits when he realizes that he is about to die. It is only by luck that Tom escapes the situation. The Dane has significantly removed Tom's hat, pinned him to the ground with his foot, and is about to put one in the brain, when Mink's body, left by Bernie, is found. But Tom's despair in the situation is significant -- shown by his vomiting (Tom had vomited -- a familiar motif in Coen brothers films -- earlier, after he wakes to find he's lost his hat in the poker game to Verna). Tom, although he lives through the moment, is again being punished for using his heart, and not following his head. As the noir hero, the individual working outside of the system, he finds nothing but grief -- while the system, associated with Leo (and with Caspar), grinds on.


The final shot of the film, the penultimate shot, is Tom watching Leo walk away from him, peering out from under the brim of his hat, that has never quite seemed so low down on his head. It reminds me of a minor character's observation of Tom in an earlier scene: "You don't look so hot." In that scene Tom had just come away from seeing Verna, seeing her for what we -- and Tom -- know will be the last time. Verna is not lost to Tom through violence or death, like Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, she is lost to Leo -- they are getting married --, and the prevailing system of the dirty town they all inhabit. The Coen brother's ultimate joke seems to be that Tom cannot exist as a noir  hero in the world he lives in, where doing the right thing brings you closer to death, and only serves the seemingly indestructible mob-boss. Tom, as an individual, is ineffectual, except for the ways that he can serve Leo, and subsequently the smoothly-running economics of the corrupt town. Tom is left without his dignity -- he murders Bernie -- and without the woman, and in the noir world this means he is left with nothing. He is not even left with his own fatalistic death, such as Walter Neff's death at the end of Double Indemnity.  In the shooting script the final scene directions are as follows:
Leo stares at him, waiting for something else. When nothing comes, he turns, and walks away.

Tom watches him go. He takes out a flask, pops its cap, drinks. He recaps it and pockets it, his eyes on the road.

Behind him a tree soughs in the wind.

(Coen, p. 288)

The tree moaning in the wind is making the noise that the self-contained Tom would never make. As an individual, he has made much difference in the gang war, but almost no difference in his own alienation -- he exists in a world where the head is worthy and the heart is not.

Works Cited

Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen. Barton Fink & Miller's Crossing. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.
Copjec, Joan, editor. Shades of Noir. London: Verso, 1993.

Grant, Barry Keith, editor. Film Genre Reader II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
McKim, Richard, "Miller's Crossing," Cineaste 5 (1991): 45 - 47.

Pulleine, Tim, "Neo-Classic Hammett: Miller's Crossing," Sight and Sound 60, no. 1 (Winter 1990/1991): 64 - 65.


  1. A wonderful post, Peter. It made for fascinating reading. Though these sorts of films are not for me, I still enjoyed reading about their themes and the film-makers' intent.
    Good stuff.

  2. God, I miss film classes. I finally was able to read this all the way through and it is pretty great. I love this sort of scholarship. Not being facetious. Thanks for sharing.