Over at First Thoughts blog, Joe Carter offers a canonical list of most overrated and most underrated films by genre — well worth a perusal. But I have to take issue with his #8 “Mobster Movie” apposition: “Scarface” (presumably the Al Pacino version rather than the marvelous Paul Muni original) vs. the Coen Brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing,” which I hate with unquenchable passion. The film conflates the plots of Dashiel Hammett’s two greatest novels, Red Harvest and The Glass Key, the two best American novels of the 20th century in my eccentric estimation, while utterly ruining Hammett’s intent. Some years ago I wrote about Hammett as follows:
We encounter the Op in a 1920s Western town, where the mine boss imported gangsters to break a strike, and the gangsters stayed to run the rackets. A brittle truce prevails among the various gangs, the corrupt police and the mine owner. The Op willfully incites a gang war, deceiving colleagues and superiors. He dislikes authority, not least the one that pays him. Damsels in distress and downtrodden workers matter to him not at all. He is a loner without friends, short, fat and alcoholic. His transient love interest is a demimondaine whose murder he neglects to prevent. He incites the war simply because he can, at great risk to his own life, which in any case he holds cheap. He manipulates rather than confronts. The story ends when everyone else is dead.
Numerous films borrowed Red Harvest’s plot outline, including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, without, however, portraying Hammett’s protagonist. That anomaly reveals much about American culture. The detectives and cowboys who infest American cinema descend from the silly chivalric literature that Miguel de Cervantes lampooned in Don Quixote.
Americans want their tough guys to have a heart of gold. In the Kurosawa-Leone-Hill adaptations, the Toshiro Mifune-Clint Eastwood-Bruce Willis characters take great risk to aid a lady in distress. Hammett’s Op cares neither about lady nor risk. His object is the mutual destruction of the contending parties, which he arranges with humor and enjoyment.
At one point the Op arranges “a peace conference out of which at least a dozen killings ought to grow ... pretending I was trying to clear away everybody’s misunderstandings ... and played them like you’d play trout, and got just as much fun out of it ... I looked at [the police chief] and knew he hadn’t a chance in a thousand of living another day because of what I had done to him, and I laughed, and felt warm and happy inside.”
....That is why we never have seen American literature’s most characteristic creation on the screen, which abounds with cynical tough guys, but cannot abide an intelligent one. In any event, he upsets the French. “The last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror,” said writer Andre Gide of Red Harvest.
Gabriel Byrne plays a Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm version of Hammett’s avenging angel. This is not simply a literary issue, but a theological one. I should add that nothing in Carson McCullers comes near the dreadful destructiveness of Hammett’s heros. Gide was right: it is the last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror.
In conversation the other night, my colleague Joseph Bottum asked what happened to righteous indignation in fiction. As we searched our mental inventory, we thought of Schiller’s William Tell and Dickens Nicholas Nickleby—and then nothing until the detective novels.
All the classic detective novels center upon the protagonist’s quest to avenge the blood that cries out from the ground, but none evoke the terrible character of divine vengeance as profoundly as Hammett. Many of our cleverest theologians stand paralyzed with horror before the fact of divine destructiveness—the destruction of the Amelekites, for example. The passionate God of the Bible, who is forgiving and slow to anger, nonetheless is capable of terrible anger when roused. And the prophets did not shirk from calling on God to show this anger:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are the workers of treachery at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root,
They spread, they even bear fruit...
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying! (Jer. 12:1-3).
The fact that Hammett was a Communist, a philandering drunk, and the paramour of the detestable Lillian Hellman notwithstanding, his writerly imagination captured the quality of Biblical vengeance in a unique and uncanny fashion.
The Coen brothers wade in gore (as in the revolting “No Country for Old Men” so long as it is random violence; Hammett’s presentation of directed, justifiable violence was too much for them to bear. Rather than an avenging angel we have in “Miller’s Crossing” the feckless, sentimental Gabriel Byrne character.
In that sense “Miller’s Crossing” is one of the worst American movies ever made, at least in terms of the gap between source-material and outcome.
There is also something profoundly Biblical about the Continental Op’s approach to engaging the opposition. As he says in Red Harvest:
“Plans are all right sometimes ... And sometimes just stirring things up is all right - if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”
The arm’s-length ratiocination of the genius-detective, beginning with Dupin and Holmes and continuing through their clones in English detective fiction, portrays tragedy as a puzzle to be solved, rather than a living reality to be engaged at the risk of one’s own life and even sanity.
The self-characterization of the mob enforcer Jeff in Red Harvest unfortunately characterizes American filmmakers in general: “I’m just a big, good-natured slob and everybody takes advantage of me.” Of course, Jeff said that just after strangling his boss thanks to the manipulation of Hammett’s hero.
Forget all the mobster films ever made. Read Hammett’s books.