1990; directed by Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen); written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; 115 mins
One of those many films that I came back to after x number of years to find my opinion of it slightly more nuanced. I first watched this about the time I was catching up with the work of Jim Jarmusch and whilst a few years hence my appreciation of Jarmusch’s work went up, looking at this third Coen Brothers’ outing, it has holes in it.
A period gangster flick in which Tom Reagan, best friend/righthand man for top mobster Leo, is also sleeping with Leo’s girlfriend Verna Bernbaum whilst trying to convince Leo to off Verna’s beloved brother, prattish bookie Bernie, so as to placate up-and-coming Italian gangster, Jonny Caspar. Tom eventually makes it his business to betray Leo to try and prevent a war between him and Caspar which ends up happening anyway. All the while Tom is owing money all over the place and Caspar’s own very dangerous righthand man, The Dane, is onto him because Tom is spreading rumours about his special relationship with Bernie and another bookie called Mink…
With his recent passing, let’s first discuss the film’s biggest asset: Jon Polito as Jonny Caspar. There’s not that many actors who can get away with a performance that is that big but somehow Polito managed it and created one of the best performances of that decade (possibly one of the best movie gangsters ever). Certainly joining the ranks of great Coens’ supporting characters such as Walter Sobchak and Sy Ableman. Why, though, is it so good? Well, it seems odd to say it but it has the ring of truth about it. That simple actors’ tool of empathising with and understanding your character and you do sense that Polito probably knew – not necessarily gangsters – but people like that. It’s one of those instances in which, despite the Coens’ wonderful writing, you think first and foremost of the actor.
What’s the deal with Tom, though? He’s an enigma amidst Coen characters. Most of their heroes are happy to just be. Why does he take as much punishment as he does to gain so little? Is he, like Johnny from Naked, an embittered optimist? I’m not sure…
Elsewhere, it’s the Coen Brothers’ big break, budget-wise and whilst it still holds up for the most part, there are noticeable moments in which you can see them trying too hard. Funnily enough, it’s their dialogue in which it becomes most prevalent. With the soup of 30s gangster patoir coming thick and fast, there are times where it’s almost (and believe me I hate to say it) a bit Guy Ritchie. That said, that so much of it does work is really impressive for a couple of new-ish filmmakers and is why it stands up so well still.
Still, John Turturro’s big scene at Miller’s Crossing is still fabulous, Marcia Gay Harden as Verna is the best gangster’s moll ever and Barry Sonnenfeld‘s cinematography is a work of overcast class. This remains a labyrinthine, style-over-substance, early Coens, 90s treat!