Albert Finney as Liam “Leo” O’Bannon, Irish Mob-connected political boss
Upstate New York, Fall 1929
Film: Miller’s Crossing
Release Date: September 21, 1990
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Costume Designer: Aude Bronson-Howard
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is the 80th birthday of Albert Finney so BAMF Style is taking a look at his portrayal of Liam “Leo” O’Bannon, the “cheap political boss with more hair tonic than brains” in Miller’s Crossing, the Coen brothers’ 1990 nod to Dashiell Hammett.
The movie particularly draws out plot points and characterizations from Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, both centered around a shrewd tough guy during a Prohibition-era mob war. The Glass Key has been specifically cited as an influence on Miller’s Crossing with Leo and his pragmatic protégé Tom Reagan clearly modeled after the book’s Paul Madvig and Ned Beaumont, respectively. Madvig, a crooked big shot, relies on Ned to do his thinking for him without realizing that the two men are also sharing a mutual love interest.
The Coen brothers originally imagined Trey Wilson for the Madvig-esque role of Leo O’Bannon, but Wilson’s death just before production brought Albert Finney into the role, his first major film in three years. Who else but Finney could have delivered “Jesus, Tom” with so much earnest conviction each time?
As the boss of two warring mobs in the film’s unnamed setting, Leo becomes targeted for an assassination attempt. The sequence proves that while brains might not be his strong suit, Leo’s got plenty of chutzpah to match his excessive hair tonic. Toss in a stirring tenor rendition of “Danny Boy”, a tommy gun with a seemingly bottomless ammunition capacity, and a well-deserved cigar and a classic scene was made.
What’d He Wear?
The screenplay describes the scene: “Leo – stretched out an his bed, wearing a robe over his pyjamas, smoking a cigar, listening–but only to the phonograph. Its sound covers any other noise in the house.”
Leo’s status as a big man in town is evident by elegant loungewear. His red printed silk dressing gown has black satin trim, including the black shawl lapels. The robe has three pockets, including two slanted hand pockets with black satin jetting.
Before the battle begins, Leo places his now-extinguished cigar in the patch pocket over his left breast, which has a thin strip of black silk about an inch down from the opening.
Although it appears solid red in wider shots, the robe’s silk is actually two printed tones of red in a swirly Deco-style design.
The robe ties around the waist with a matching red printed silk belt with black satin-trimmed edges and black tips.
Underneath, Leo wears pale blue cotton pajamas with thin white piping on the edges. The untucked pajama shirt has four clear plastic buttons, including a slightly smaller button that closes at the top under the narrow, rounded collar. There are two white-piped patch pockets on the lower portion – one over each hip. The pajamas’ simple trousers have plain bottoms with no cuffs.
Expecting trouble, Leo casually slips into his black Prince Albert house shoes (hey – “Albert!”) Like classic Albert slippers, they have velvet uppers, leather soles, and quilted inner lining – black in this case, although red is also common. The vamp is decorated with a gold embroidered crown and a brown leather strip across the top. The dark brown hard leather soles come in handy when Leo finds himself tumbling outside.
Leo wears a large gold ring on the third finger of his right hand, flashing the big green stone setting when he firing a revolver at the hitmen from under his bed.
Since he was reading his newspaper, Leo also sports a pair of reading glasses with clear half-moon lenses and thin gold frames and arms.
Go Big or Go Home
From the beautifully atmospheric scores contributed by frequent collaborator Carter Burwell to O Brother Where Art Thou‘s Soggy Bottom Boys cutting their recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow” and The Dude’s character-defining music taste in The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers have always been masters of using music to heighten the scene.
The juxtaposition of Irish tenor Frank Patterson’s deep and soulful “Danny Boy” playing under the artistry of a silk-robed Albert Finney wielding a Thompson submachine gun created one of the most memorable and iconic moments in both the Coens’ canon and the genre as a whole. The narrative even acknowledges the dissonance as we see Leo settling in for a comfortable night at home, drifting in and out of sleep with his cigar, his newspaper, and a beautiful ballad. It was clearly part of the Coens’ vision from the get-go, as the screenplay tells us that “Faintly, from another room in the house, we can hear a phonograph playing John McCormack singing ‘Danny Boy’.”
John McCormack was one of the most celebrated Irish tenors of his time and hearing his remarkable renditions of songs like “Danny Boy” and “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” leave no question as to why. To elevate the scene depicting Leo’s assassination attempt from badass to cinematic perfection, the Coens recruited Frank Patterson, known as “Ireland’s Golden Tenor” and described by Taoiseach John Bruton as having “the purest voice of his generation”, to deliver a stirring performance of that most Irish of ballads for the sequence. The Coens directed Patterson’s performance to be precisely timed with the events on screen, following Leo as his night rapidly shifts from relaxation, tension, action, and – finally – sweet victory.
Miller’s Crossing delivers one of the few cases in the post-political correctness world where smoking is actually seen to save someone’s life. If Dana Cudahy hadn’t been smoking his Fatima cigarettes downstairs when he was killed, the cigarette would’ve never lit up the newspaper; the newspaper smoke rising through the floorboards is what alerted Leo to potential danger. And, of course, if Leo hadn’t been awake smoking his pre-bed cigar, he wouldn’t have even seen the newspaper’s smoke in the first place.
How to Get the Look
- Red deco-printed silk robe/dressing gown with black satin-faced shawl lapels, patch breast pocket, slanted jetted hip pockets, and matching tie/belt
- Pale blue cotton 4-button pajama top with white-edged collar and hip patch pockets
- Pale blue cotton pajama pants with plain bottoms
- Black velvet Prince Albert slippers with gold embroidered crown and brown leather strip on vamp
- Gold-framed half-moon reading glasses
- Gold ring with large green stone
The old man’s still an artist with a Thompson.
…as Terry McGill proudly tells Tom in the aftermath of the attempted hit. And while Leo does display a fine – if excessive – shooting technique when mowing down the mob hitmen with one of their own Thompson M1928 submachine guns, he must also be something of a magician to keep it firing that long without reloading.
An IMDb contributor did the math: “In the scene where Leo uses the Thompson sub-machine gun he should have had to reload at least 6 times. Assuming the gun is a 1928 model the rate of fire is 700 rounds per minute and has a 100 round can of ammunition. The gangster walks into the bedroom and fires for 5 seconds for a total of 58 shots fired, Leo takes his gun and fires at the window for 20 seconds for 233 shots fired, then Leo fires at the car for about 20 more seconds for another 233 shots fired. That is a total of 524 shots fired from one Thompson with no reload.”
While Miller’s Crossing certainly aims to explot the genre’s propensity for exaggeration (after all, do that many people ask “What’s the rumpus?” in real life?), it’s worth noting that even a 100-round drum of ammunition would have needed to be reloaded five more times after the first magazine was emptied. However, entertainment ought to trump realism for this scene, especially for the brief bit where Leo guns down a hitman from behind, causing the dead killer’s finger to pull the trigger on his own Chicago typewriter and fire wildly, even into his own feet.
Leo only gave himself a fighting chance by keeping his own firearm, a Colt New Service revolver, easily accessible on his nightstand. After the gunmen burst into his room, Leo grabs the New Service from his nightstand and dashes under the bed.
In a questionable maneuver that seals their fate, the gunmen synchronize firing up the sides of the bed, allowing Leo just enough time to fire a .45 round from his New Service into a hitman’s foot. When the hitman drops, Leo finishes him off with a second round to the head. Leo then picks up the dead man’s tommy gun and is better armed for the next stage of battle.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Miller’s Crossing never explicitly identifies the time or place of its setting, barely even implying that we’re seeing an eastern U.S. city sometime in the late 1920s. It was filmed in New Orleans mostly to take advantage of the city’s old-fashioned and unchanged architecture from the era; Ethan Coen even stated that “New Orleans is sort of a depressed city,” inspiring its use to set the tone of Miller’s Crossing… a “depression” that was used two decades later to convert the city into 2008 Boston for Killing Them Softly.
Context clues, however, tell us that it was likely meant to be upstate New York sometime in the fall of 1929. Although the town certainly evokes thoughts of Al Capone’s war-torn Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, Tom’s mentions of the Palisades and Niagara Falls as relatively nearby spots to quickly lam out imply a setting in New York state.
The experts at IMDb have tried to use Johnny Casper’s office calendar – which indicates a January where the 1st fell on a Saturday – to determine that the year is likely 1927. However, Johnny Casper doesn’t strike me as the type to update his calendar often, and the “Lars Thorvald” fight poster promotes a date in the fall of 1929. Casper even appears to date his check to Tom for December 2, 1929. The recording of “Decatur Street Tutti” by Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces – which we hear in Verna’s apartment – was recorded on April 4, 1929… a recording that would’ve been released shortly after and thus, also available by the fall of 1929.
Finally, visible car model years range from a 1926 Oakland up to several 1930 Ford Model A sedans, further strengthening the 1929 theory as those are all cars that would’ve been available by that fall. (Despite this, the Coen brothers have been known to not dedicate too much detail into avoiding anachronisms.)
And – HREY! 🤔 – someone made a cool Pin that reflects this scene. If I had a Pinterest, I would re-pin it myself.