Miller's Crossing: Special Edition (1990)

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Released 17-Jun-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Shooting Miller's Crossing
Audio Bites-Interview Soundbites
Theatrical Trailer
Trailer-Raising Arizona
Gallery-Photo
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1990
Running Time 110:09
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (71:21) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Studio
Distributor

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Gabriel Byrne
Albert Finney
Marcia Gay Harden
John Turturro
Jon Polito
J.E. Freeman
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $36.95 Music Carter Burwell


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 4.0 L-C-R-S (384Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles Dutch
English for the Hearing Impaired
French
German
Italian
Spanish
Swedish
French Titling
Greek Titling
Italian Titling
Spanish Titling
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Miller's Crossing is a very popular film liked by a great many film-goers, so it's about time we finally see its release on DVD. I remember seeing this film theatrically in 1990 and again soon after on video and loving it both times, so I was a little bit apprehensive about reviewing it again now after all these years to see if it still held up to high expectations. It did. I would put this film alongside The Godfather as one of my favourite films in the genre.

    This movie warrants a superficial comparison with The Godfather, in that both are high quality, extremely well crafted and well acted  "gangster" (or "mob") films. But here the comparisons quickly fall away, as the two films are concerned with completely different story elements. Where The Godfather's warmth and charm lay in the exploration of the various relationships within a powerful mob family, Miller's Crossing is essentially one man's story. Gabriel Byrne delivers a brilliant performance as Tom Reagan, a player, a wise guy and a loner, the quintessential right-hand man running the show behind the scenes. The character development in Miller's Crossing is arguably just as impressive as in The Godfather, but is just more focused. It is also interesting to note that while The Godfather had the benefit of being born of Mario Puzo's bestselling novel, it speaks volumes for writer/director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen that they were able to absolutely nail this genre at one attempt with their own original story.

    Many of the Coen brothers' films can be described as a little off-centre and this turns many viewers off a bit - a pity as their films have a very quirky but enjoyable style about them. The brothers pitched Miller's Crossing a lot more down-the-line, making it more accessible for mainstream audiences, but at the same time without losing their characteristically witty approach to film-making. One of the great selling points of this film for me is the witty repartee in the dialogue between the characters. We start with Reagan (Byrne), the wise-cracking, cool, collected, manipulative but likeable rogue. If he was any more Bogart in his delivery of the character he'd be..... well, Bogart! but miraculously he still manages to keep it from being completely hammy. Then there's his relationship with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) - the chemistry between these two is just great. The tone and speed of witty banter between them is among the best I've heard for a long time. The two actors work very well on-screen together and it looks like they are having an absolute ball doing it. Competing for attention we have some extremely funny and memorable one-liners from support characters such as The Dane (J.E. Freeman) and his boss Johnny Casper (the brilliant Jon Polito), the man who suffers from everyone giving him "the high hat"!  Altogether, this movie contains more one-liners, more witticism and more cynicism than you can poke a stick at. But still, above all this, Miller's Crossing manages to maintain the dignity of a seriously engaging and emotional story. Well written indeed.

    The story revolves around a rather complex plot of intrigue, crosses and double-crosses, so you're never really sure who is on whose side and who is about to double-cross whom next. The only thing you become relatively comfortable with as the film progresses is the belief that somehow, no matter how tangled the web becomes, Tom Reagan should continue to outsmart and outmanoeuvre his opponents - that is, unless he pushes his luck just that little bit too far. The story starts with Tom as the right-hand man for Leo (Albert Finney), Irish mob boss in an America town during the Prohibition era. Leo is having a bit of trouble with upstart Johnny Casper (Jon Polito), a big-talking, small-time, wannabe Italian mob boss. But far from taking Johnny seriously, Leo gives him "the high hat" and that pisses Johnny off. Enter Bernie Birnbaum (John Turturro), a loud-mouthed, crooked bookie and the brother of Leo's girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Verna thinks she can keep her brother protected by keeping Leo well and truly tamed, but at the same time she is attracted to the wise-talking man of action, Tom. And so the plot develops, on the surface a mob war film, but underneath an exploration of the relationships between these interesting characters, largely from Tom's point of view. Most importantly by the end, it is an examination of Tom's internal conflicts.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality

Video

    I have been blessed with some wonderful DVD transfers to review recently and this one is even better than the last few. (SUPERLATIVE ALERT: Warning, the following bits may contain a reviewer lapsing into superlatives!)  The short version is that this video transfer is just sublime.

    The presented aspect ratio of this transfer is 1.85:1, 16x9 enhanced, which is the same as the theatrical ratio.

   Sharpness and shadow detail is just superb for a thirteen year-old film. The image is crystal clear and it is apparent from the very first scenes that either the original interpositive has been very well preserved or else a painstaking effort has been put into a remastering and transfer process, or both. Whatever the reason, this transfer is just a joy to watch, virtually devoid of any noticeable grain or noise issues and with both foreground and background resolution remaining sharp throughout. As just one of innumerable examples highlighting the fine level of detail on offer, check out the detail in the newsprint on the newspaper shown at 64:41. Shadow detail is also excellent in this transfer, when called upon that is, as the film is largely shot in well lit interiors and daytime exteriors.

    Colouring is very faithful indeed, with all colours well balanced across the board, blacks very solid and skin tones realistic. One of the main drawcards of this film for me is the sumptuous cinematography employed and this transfer certainly highlights this aspect. The style of the film is very warm and generous, with a palette accentuating the browns, yellows and reds of the interior sets. See for example the richness of colouring in the polished floorboards - beautiful stuff. The warm cinematography also lends well to the exterior locations, particularly that of Miller's Crossing itself, which is captured very moodily. Just have a look at the skilful balance between the great use of light and the tight focus-pull on the shot of the hat on the Crossing floor as the hat blows away into the distance (this scene is also seen on the main menu) - just great and shown with breathtaking detail in this transfer.

    There are no MPEG artefacts introduced into the transfer and no film-to-video artefacts noted. Even that little aliasing critter was kept well and truly in its box and refrained from popping up anywhere to spoil the day. Film artefacts? Yes, they are there, but only in nominal form as very small and film flecks. I emphasise the word small and the number of times these little flecks become really noticeable or detracting I would count on the fingers of two hands. Certainly there is nothing in the way of more obvious large scratches or marks. This is certainly a print you can lose yourself in.

    I sampled the English subtitles for a little while (that is, English for the Hearing Impaired as the only English option) and found them to be clear and unobtrusive on the frame, yes, but also a little bit frustrating in the liberties it took. The subtitles seemed to truncate the nuances of the dialogue quite a bit and while they still get the gist across they also lose quite a bit of the humour of the language and mannerisms. After a short while these subtitles started to annoy me so I turned them off again.

    The disc is RSDL formatted, with the layer change placed unobtrusively at 71:21, right in between scenes over a fade-to-black - quick and well executed.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The default audio track is a bit of a case of good news, bad news. The bad news is that, despite the specs, in all consciousness you couldn't call this a surround mix at all. The good news is that the frontal mixing is great and makes up for it somewhat.

    The default audio track is English Dolby Digital 4.0 L-C-R-S (at 384Kb/s), with other options being French, German, Italian and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded (each at 192Kb/s) tracks. I reviewed the English "4 channel" mix. This is not a common audio configuration, but think of it as a similar type of configuration to the more usual Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded mix, just with the added benefit that the surround channel and the centre channel are dedicated, rather than matrixed. Note however that, just like a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded track, this 4.0 configuration still has only one surround channel of information to spread across the two rear speakers.

    Unfortunately, the surround speakers remain stubbornly quiet throughout the overwhelming majority of this film. Pressing my ear up against the rear speakers several times during the movie, just to make sure that they were indeed working, I found that all the rear speakers achieved for the most part in this mix was to deliver added audio hiss!  There was the odd occasion where the rears might have assisted with echoes and ambience, like during the machine gun fights for example, or maybe I was just trying to convince myself of this. Anyway, apart from one or two possible isolated instances, you would have to say that the rear speakers do not add anything and so for all intents and purposes this is for me like a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, just with a bit more separation for the centre channel. That's the bad news.

    The good news is the rest of the mix. For starters, dialogue quality is very good. There was only the odd line here and there that I found to be mumbled just a bit by the actors, notably John Turturro with his frantic delivery and Gabriel Byrne on occasion when he spreads on that Bogart accent just a little too thick, but this is not a fault of the audio transfer. If I was to be nit-picky, I would probably also mention that there is some persistent audio hiss in the centre channel too - but hey, this is a 1990 recording after all.

    I did not note any issues at all with audio sync being out.

    The music score is by Carter Burwell, who has provided the score for all of the Coen films and has a long list of other film score credits including Rob Roy (1995), Conspiracy Theory (1997) and Being John Malkovich (1999). The score in Miller's Crossing is an interesting mix of several different music styles, including bringing out, appropriately, elements of Irish music to good effect. It is a bit Bohemian, but is evocative and emotional music nonetheless. The score also features the song Goodnight Sweetheart and this is revisited at different times in the movie to good effect. The audio transfer on this disc handles the score well, with some nice stereo separation and a clean and decent dynamic range.

    There is also healthy directional panning and precise directional placement across the front soundstage for sound effects and a great example of this is just how clear and precise the sound of ringing telephones sound at different times in the movie.

    The subwoofer does not have the benefit of a dedicated audio channel and is used to only a moderate degree of success. It is not called upon as effectively as might be hoped for many scenes, but does chime in effectively to help out with some more obvious sound effects, as for example the scene involving the explosion and ensuing machine gun fight, starting at 80:10. A moderate use is the best way to describe the subwoofer contribution here.

   

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The extras on this disc are certainly not exhaustive, but do include one short featurette that more than makes up for it, providing an enhanced appreciation of the film and being, in my opinion, preferable to a dozen lesser-quality "fillers". That, plus the fact that the extras on offer are newly recorded ones and the video quality is much better than the norm for these things.

Menu

    All menus are in the appropriate aspect ratio to match the feature, 1.78:1 16x9 enhanced. The menus are well themed, with a small animated sequence launching into the main menu and then all menus being static and with most boasting audio underscore.

    The aspect ratio for the extras detailed below is also 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced, and 2 channel audio, unless otherwise noted. Note also that there is the ability to select subtitle streams for these extras covering all of the available language choices as per the main feature subtitles - a nice touch.

Featurette: Shooting Miller's Crossing: A Conversation With Barry Sonnenfeld (16:30)

    Barry Sonnenfeld established his career firstly as a great cinematographer, as this film proves, before moving on to become a producer/director straight after this film. He is now more widely known for his directing credits on The Addams Family (1991), Get Shorty (1995) and Men In Black I and II (1997, 2002). From his career to date, personally I think he excels much more as a cinematographer than as a director, but that's just me.

    This featurette is all too short but makes up for it with quality. Sonnenfeld is fascinating to listen to and once you wind him up he just keeps talking. In this featurette he discusses the story of how he came to work in film in the first place and how he came to work with the Coens on their first film. He then goes on to explain the rationale behind a director/cinematographer's decision as to why they might shoot with wide-angle lenses or not, and he compares his own particular style with using wide angle lenses to the styles adopted by other cinematographers/directors, with Stanley Kubrick's contrasting style highlighted as a case in point. Fascinating. Other aspects covered in this interview include a quick storyboard comparison and info on the location scouting for Miller's Crossing. Quite a bit covered here in a very short interview and it's all fascinating stuff.... particularly if you are into the technical featurettes.

    This interview was newly recorded for the DVD release and boasts great video quality, being clean and with nice colouring. The audio is a little hissy.

Featurette: Interview Soundbites (8:55)

    Includes 5 interview snippets with Gabriel Byrne, 3 snippets with Marcia Gay Harden and 2 with John Turturro, all newly recorded by the look of them. Gabriel Byrne's interview snippets provide the best insight, and John Turturro's are at the other end of the spectrum. Video is 1.33:1 and quality is excellent, again with audio being a little hissy though.

Trailers - 2

    Miller's Crossing theatrical trailer (3:04) and Raising Arizona trailer (2:32), the former presented in 2.35:1 (not enhanced) and the latter in 1.33:1. Quality is OK. The Miller's Crossing theatrical trailer is in the incorrect aspect ratio of 2.35:1, when the actual theatrical release of the film was 1.85:1, so this false trailer aspect ratio must have been achieved by matting the image down further, to try to make the advertising of the film appear a bit "grander" (falsely so) than it is. An annoying practice that is thankfully not common. The trailer suffers from oversaturated colours but is otherwise OK on the video side. Audio is extremely hissy this time. Raising Arizona trailer is grainy.

Photo Gallery (21 shots)

    All shots are worthwhile behind-the-scenes stuff, with only about 3 or 4 of the shots being duplicated/fillers.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    All specifications and extras are identical across the regions (apart from one very nominal difference in that Region 1 also receives an additional trailer extra, for the Coen film Barton Fink), so the superior PAL resolution makes Region 4 the preferred option in my view.

    Note that this disc is not due to be released in Region 2 until November this year, but when it is it will then be exactly the same as our release (noting our disc is in fact dual-zoned for this purpose).

Summary

    This film is long overdue on DVD, but worth the wait given the quality of the release now. The film is in my view an undisputed leader in the gangster genre, up there with The Godfather. Miller's Crossing is a film that is extremely well written, well acted, beautifully shot, well executed, and so is a five-star film for plot as far as I'm concerned.

    The video transfer on this DVD is sublime and you will have no trouble losing yourself in the detail. The audio mix is apparently the original theatrical mix and is a surround non-event, but does redeem itself by setting up an impressive frontal soundstage. A set of limited but valuable extras add to this package.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Saturday, June 07, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre.
AmplificationElektra Home Theatre surround power amp
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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