With Miller's Crossing (1990), the Coens did for the gangster genre what their earlier movies had done for noir and screwball comedy. Loosely based on Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key, and drawing on Chicago's Capone-O'Bannion gang war, the film pits Irish, Italian, and Jewish gangsters against one another. Set during the Prohibition in an unnamed Eastern city, Miller's Crossing is a put-on gangster, removed from any discernible reality. Morally vague and strictly pop, the film suffers from excessive style, motivated by the Coens' concern to show off familiarity with the gangster genre. Still, what gave the familiar drama of murder and betrayal a different feel were rich visuals and dark, melancholy mood.
The movie opens with a comic monologue in which Leo's Italian rival, Johnny Caspar (John Polito), complains about the collapse of ethics. Pompously righteous, Johnny is given to theoretical formulations about honor and loyalty. His grievances disturb Leo's chief adviser and friend, Tom (Gabriel Byrne), a brooding gambler who senses Leo is losing control. Leo, the Irish political boss, sleeps with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and out of loyalty protects her brother, Bernie (John Turturro), who skims profits from fixed fights. When Leo discovers that Tom and Verna have betrayed him, a full-scale war begins.
The Coen's films usually begin with an image. In Miller's Crossing, Tom describes a dream in which he chases his hat through the woods; the hat is seen flying in slow motion across the ground. In Hudsucker Proxy, it's a circle motif: Hula Hoops, clocks, the plot's 360-degree shape. In Fargo, the vision of a single car driving through vast white snowscapes.
Throughout Miller's Crossing, the imagery is striking: closeups of heavy guns, black blood slowly dripping to the ground, sunless skies and serene woods, men in black overcoats speaking in coarse voices. The Coens exaggerate the genre's conventions: The mayor and police chief take orders from the gangsters, who maul one another. Unlike Scorsese, whose crime films Mean Streets and GoodFellas were based on realistically recognizable characters, what matters to the Coens is not the actual conduct of gangsters but their visual representation: hatched-faced thugs hiding under fedoras, snarling quasi-poetry.