Sunday, March 01, 2009

Brent Butt introduces Miller's Crossing Tuesday

I've been ambivalent about the Coen brothers for some time. There's a smarmy, misanthropic edge to their films that I find distasteful - it put me off No Country for Old Men the first time through, though I've managed to overcome my initial reactions to that film; and it makes it difficult for me to respect or enjoy Fargo or Barton Fink, despite their brilliant moments. (I did get a kick out of Burn After Reading, I admit, as a deserved pisstake on the current state of the US "intelligence" community, but it's nothing I was that enthusiastic about). In fact, of their films, I've really only admired one - their first, Blood Simple - and consider it an act of considerable perversity that they would maul their own film for the "director's cut" DVD release, actually shortening it (assumedly as a kind of gag, since director's cuts are typically longer); as far as I know, the original, proper version of the film is not available on DVD. I initially liked Miller's Crossing, as well - playing Tuesday at the Vancity Theatre, as a Cinema Salon event hosted by comedian Brent Butt - but had a lot of trouble with it after I discovered that key elements (plot, character, even names) were borrowed wholesale from a couple of Dashiell Hammett novels (The Glass Key and I think one other - maybe Red Harvest?). It came as an utter shock to me - I'd seen the film a few times as a teenager, really liked it, and then, in my 20's, read The Glass Key and went, "Wait a minute...;" there are such strong resemblances that I ended up feeling that the film was an act of plagiarism, that it *needed* to credit Hammett's novels as source material.

I've been told that my objecting to the film on these grounds is silly, that it's an homage, and that this was obvious, needing no acknowledgement; and after all - it was argued - I don't object to Yojimbo because it borrows plot elements from Hammett, do I? (I didn't realize when I was told this, by someone over on the Criterion Forum, that Yojimbo was in fact borrowed from Hammett, since I've only read a couple of Hammetts, but I suppose my response would be that there are no samurai in Hammett; plus it kind of pleases me that Yojimbo is not in fact the Ur-text for the whole "Man With No Name" thing in spaghetti westerns, as it is often hailed as being, but merely an adaptation of an idea that originated in America. It seems more fitting that way). It's true that my process of discovery - not knowing until years after first seeing it that Miller's Crossing was derived largely from the works of a writer that it doesn't deign to credit - is part of the reason I objected to the film; maybe if I'd seen it at the time, and seen the Coens acknowledging their debt in the media (as they may well have done), I wouldn't have felt like they'd put one over on me, sold me, as it were, stolen goods. I'd like to be able to get over my objection, because in fact, Miller's Crossing is a great piece of storytelling, has some fine performances (Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney especially), uses music very well - the "Danny Boy" sequence is terrrific - and, really, does do a terrific job of presenting Hammett for a contemporary audience; it's not because it's a bad take on Hammett that I object to it, 'cos it's a terrific one. I've been meaning to re-visit the film for a few years now; how delightful that I'll be able to do it on the big screen! If you haven't seen this film, by chance, and care enough about cinema that you've read this far... you really should make it out to the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday.

3 comments:

nd said...

Is Yojimbo really particularly close to Red Harvest? Beyond the general fact that it involves someone who blows into town, discovers that the place is a powderkeg of warring criminal factions, & decides to set them at each others' throats. -- My recollection is that the Yojimbo-Red Harvest connection was made primarily by Leone & his film company in order to muddy the legal waters of the otherwise open & shut case that Fistful was a ripoff of Kurosawa's film (the Italians had neglected to secure the rights). See Frayling's discussion in Something to Do With Death (which I may be misrepresenting somewhat--this is from memory).

On the other hand, the Coens' film models particular scenes on Hammett (like the pub shootout, complete with the two-fisted gunner--that's in RH too!), & a few lines of dialogue and phrases (like "What's the rumpus?").

I'm actually not bothered by this--it's simply overt homage/pastiche. I'm more bothered, actually, by the Coenesque smirks that stick out from the mix, like the toupee theft & ear-cocked doggie.

ammacinn said...

Hm. Okay, I will seek out SOMETHING TO DO WITH DEATH! Thanks - as I say, I have not actually read RED HARVEST, was repeating something someone else told me. I actually missed the MILLER'S CROSSING screening the other day - I woke up from a nap and didn't feel like hurrying - so I could use a memory refresher myself here, but I think the similarities between MILLER'S CROSSING and Hammett's work run a little deeper than you suggest; THE GLASS KEY has the whole idea of the trusted friend sleeping with the boss' wife, while "going underground" to save him from his folly, as I recall (though it plays out a bit differently); the scene where Tom is beaten up is very similar to one in that book; there are some character names that I seem to recall are the same - and so forth. It still all may be overt homage/pastiche, but it gets to where an "inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett" would have been a fitting thing to put on the screen; I certainly would have valued them as a teenager, since I would probably have started on Hammett earlier than I did!

Oddly, their "smirks" don't bother me so much in this film...

Thanks for the comment. Nice to know there are film buffs looking in on this blog...

A.

nd said...

Just glanced at Something to Do with Death -- actually, Leone's associating Yojimbo with Red Harvest comes in a different passage from the bit discussing the legal shenanigans.... apparently he & the film company commissioned someone to find ANY halfway plausible Italian source for both Yojimbo and Fistful and the result was the claim that Kurosawa nicked his plot from.... Goldoni!