Home > Reviews > MILLER’S CROSSING – Carter Burwell

MILLER’S CROSSING – Carter Burwell


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Miller’s Crossing was the third feature film directed by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, following their debut Blood Simple in 1984, and their sophomore effort Raising Arizona in 1987. Like the others, it’s a crime thriller, but this one is a period piece, set amongst Irish gangsters during the American prohibition era in the 1920s. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Reagan, the right hand man of ruthless mob boss Leo O’Bannon, played by Albert Finney. Problems arise when Leo finds himself in a territorial conflict with Italian gangster Johnny Caspar, an issue that is exacerbated by the fact that Tom is having an affair with Leo’s girlfriend Vera (Marcia Gay Harden), who is the sister of crooked bookmaker Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), on whose head Caspar has put a bounty. As the stakes rise, Tom sees an opportunity for some personal gain, and begins to play both sides against each other – with potentially deadly results. The film was generally well-received by critics at the time, who praised its noirish atmosphere, dense plot, and intentional references to the works of Dashiell Hammett.

The score for Miller’s Crossing was by the Coen’s regular collaborator Carter Burwell, who during the period between Raising Arizona and this film had taken the opportunity to diversify his filmography and score other films in disparate genres, most notably comedies such as Pass the Ammo in 1988, and Checking Out in 1989, although neither of those films were especially successful either commercially or critically. As such, Miller’s Crossing was a return to familiar ground for Burwell, and can very much be seen as the film which launched him into the film music mainstream; within a couple of years of this score, he would go on to write music for such popular movies as Barton Fink and Doc Hollywood in 1991, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992, and from there on to The Hudsucker Proxy and Rob Roy and Fargo and beyond.

To capture the Irish heritage of Reagan and O’Bannon, Burwell made use of an old Irish folk ballad, “Lament for Limerick,” as the basis of his main theme. It’s a gorgeous, longing melody for fiddles and Gaelic woodwinds that hesitantly plucks away at the heart strings, singing songs of the emerald isle, and which regularly opens up into a sweeping orchestral statement, equal parts beautiful and melancholy. It’s presence in the “Opening Titles” sets the scene, and allows Burwell to develop one of the first instances of what is now a familiar technique with him, juxtaposing death and brutality against musical lyricism that enhances the inherent sense of impending tragedy that characterizes the entire movie.

Burwell’s arrangement of the theme is, in many ways, one of the first instances of what would eventually become his quintessential sound, where the woodwinds are phrased in highly specific ways, the chord progressions have an unusual minor key dark undertone, the ground basses are significantly prominent, and metallic percussion items – especially anvils and finger-cymbals – ring out loudly. One other clever thing that Burwell does here is to take the actual melodic line of the folk tune and split it in two, so that they can be used separately; the hesitant, breathy part that begins at 0:20, and then the more overtly emotional part that begins at 0:40, often crop up independently of each of other to excellent effect.

These two parts of the main theme re-occur regularly throughout the score. In “A Man and His Hat” the theme feels a little lonely, and is underpinned with a string drone to give it a different flavor. “The Long Way Around” initially showcases a performance for solo oboe, before eventually picking up a lighter orchestral arrangement. “After Miller’s Crossing” has a sense of weariness, and intelligently passes the melody around from clarinets to brass and back, with one counterpointing the other amid a rush of strings. Later, “He Didn’t Like His Friends” breaks the theme down into its constituent parts and builds to a dark crescendo.

The rest of the score tends to be quite dissonant and challenging, giving the scenes of murder and betrayal a real sense of menace with music that is often very harsh. “Casper Laid Out,” for example, has a sinister tone, and uses high string sustains above rumbles in the percussion and bleak brass clusters to create an atmosphere of dread. “Miller’s Crossing” – the central turning point of the film, in which a crime is committed from which there is no coming back – takes broken fragments of the main theme and inserts them into a series of desperately grim textures; droning sustains, string tremolos, metallic tinkles, and low end woodwinds. One interesting idea that appears for the first time here is a high, scraping, squeaking texture that seems to build from out of the strings, and which tends to foreshadow the sense of panic and tension immediately preceding a violent death.

Both “Rage of the Dane” – a brief explosion of anger – and “All A You Whores” continue the agitation, while “Nightmare in the Trophy Room” returns to the sounds of the earlier “Miller’s Crossing” cue, but is somehow made even more desperate through the addition of rattling nerve-jangling wooden percussion, eerie fluttering textures, and a sequence of chaotic pizzicato. The penultimate cue, “What Heart,” uses deconstructed parts of the main theme on oboes amid more string dissonance, shrill metallic effects, and a sense of hesitant anticipation that puts the listener on edge; it feels like it wants to resolve, but never does. Thankfully the extended “End Titles” offers catharsis via a series of beautiful statements of the main theme, including some truly gorgeous crescendos. The whole thing gradually increases in intensity, before eventually unleashing a final statement of the main theme at 3:45, which is sublime.

The soundtrack also includes several jazz tunes reflective of the era in which the film is set, notably Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp”. In addition, the soundtrack features several performances by Irish singer Frank Patterson – Ireland’s Golden Tenor – including a heartwarming refrain of the classic “Danny Boy,” and Jimmy Campbell’s “Goodnight Sweetheart” which is heard in a scene in a club.

I have always considered Miller’s Crossing to be Carter Burwell’s dry run for Fargo, which also featured a traditional folk song interpolated into the body of a score to give it cultural relevance, and which was then surrounded by a series of dark, moody instrumentals which add to the gloomy atmospherics of the film as a whole. As such, anyone who enjoyed Burwell’s contribution to that film will find plenty to appreciate here too. The lilting main theme is gorgeous, the dark orchestral passages are difficult but add volumes to the feel of the film, and with a running time of just under half an hour it never outstays its welcome.

Buy the Miller’s Crossing soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles (1:53)
  • Casper Laid Out (1:58)
  • A Man and His Hat (0:56)
  • King Porter Stomp (written by Ferdinand Morton, Sonny Burke and Sid Robin, performed by Jelly Roll Morton) (2:10)
  • The Long Way Around (1:39)
  • Miller’s Crossing (2:36)
  • After Miller’s Crossing (0:42)
  • Runnin’ Wild (written by A. Harrington Gibbs, Joe Grey, and Leo Wood, performed by Joe Grey) (3:06)
  • Rage of the Dane (0:06)
  • All A You Whores (0:24)
  • Nightmare in the Trophy Room (1:37)
  • He Didn’t Like His Friends (0:22)
  • Danny Boy (traditional, performed by Frank Patterson) (4:07)
  • What Heart? (0:50)
  • End Titles (4:44)
  • Goodnight Sweetheart (written by Rudy Vallee, Ray Noble, James Campbell, and Reg Connelly), performed by Frank Patterson) (0:54)

Running Time: 28 minutes 03 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5288 (1990)

Music composed by Carter Burwell. Conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel. Orchestrations by Sonny Kompanek and Larry Wilcox. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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