Scarface and Miller’s Crossing represent two of the “purest” gangster films out there, both building directly upon accepted conventions of the genre in order to convey their story. However, due to the fact that one was created after the revival of the gangster genre and the other was part of the “classical period,” these films manage to be very different, particularly in terms of the application of specific genre conventions.
Miller’s Crossing, a product of the post-Godfather gangster revival, focuses on Tom, the right-hand man of the most powerful gangster in a small town. He’s the crime-advisor, the little voice that whispers in the headman’s ear, telling him right from wrong, good call from bad call. When his current employer goes against his advice and makes a poor judgment call, Tom must manipulate both Leo and Leo’s rival, Johnny Casper, in order to clear the mob boss’s debt and restore order to this crime driven society.
However, the original, classic 1930’s Scarface follows a very different plotline. Tony strives for power, money, success. Taking up a position in a mob, he begins to climb the ladder, striving to run the gang himself. It is this desire though, coupled with his weakness for family that ultimately leads to his fall from power and subsequent death.
As a result, these two films differ on many levels. The first and most obvious is in the role of the main character. In Scarface, the main character was the mob boss, the man in charge. It focused on his rise to power and the detrimental affects of that. Miller’s Crossing though, was focused on a lesser mob member, not the front man but rather, the brains behind the whole operation. This difference is symptomatic of the different time periods in which these films were made. Post-Godfather, the genre was somewhat reinvented, redirected in order to cover a broader range of stories. The classical period of the gangster film almost entirely focused on the head of the mob, the man that would be most clearly descriptive of the pitfalls in overreaching the American Dream.
Another of the major differences between the two films comes in the setting. As is common in the gangster genre, Scarface takes place in large, urbanized Chicago. This was a regular focus as these cities were not only illustrative of the American Dream, they could also be illustrative of the corruption of the American Dream. Dirty and worn down, it is a physical representation of the results of urbanization, humans tainted just as the buildings around them. However, Miller’s Crossing takes place in a smaller, more rural town. The characters are able to drive for only a short while and find themselves in the woods (a perfect place to “bump off” those no longer wanted). Also a commonality of the post-Godfather revival, this again, allowed for a more diversified range of stories to be told. In addition, it passed on the message that corruption, danger, fear, can be found anywhere, not just in the cities where it is so classically shown to exist.
A third difference between the two films in the themes explored. Scarface, due to the laws laid down by the Production Code, very clearly attempted to leave audiences with an idea as to the dangers of chasing after power, of making that one’s primary goal in life. At the end of the film, Tony is hunted down by the law officials and killed as a result of the crimes he has committed. Had he not fallen into the life of crime, had he not so greatly desired the power the mob life brought to him, it is likely that he would have survived. Therefore, this film tried to act as a warning.
Miller’s Crossing though, did not have quite so clear-cut of a meaning. In the end, Leo, the head gangster, walks away and marries his girlfriend. His enemies have all been killed and he has been restored to power. Tom, after ensuring that all of this will be possible, states that he is going to leave the mob world completely, stepping away from his position of power.
Not only are the endings exceptionally different between the two films, but the meanings of the endings are also very different. Miller’s Crossing is far more ambiguous, falling into a morally gray area. It is not a warning against power, against corruption, as is made clear in the fact that none of the main characters, while all involved in the mob, reach tragic endings. For some, it could actually be seen as positive. As a result, this entire film is more the story of an anti-hero. It is purposefully amoral, as is Scarface, but it is not necessarily acting as a warning, more of a character portrait, a study of motivations and human interaction in a criminal underworld. It paints an image of the moral codes of these men who seem to have no moral codes and as a result, forces audiences to question whether any person can really be considered all good or all bad.
From that, the characters in the two films are outlined and represented very differently. Throughout the film, we get little access to Tom, to what he is thinking. As a result, we do not really know what it is that possessed him to join Leo in the first place. Being an advisor, the man behind the scenes, power doesn’t seem to be his obsession, nor does money as he continually turns down his boss’s offer to pay off his debts. Taking what we know of him, it is possible that he joined the mob simply because he liked playing the game. He is clearly a very intelligent man, has to be in order to be able to manipulate situations as he does, plan ahead as he does. As a result, he could have done most anything he wanted, worked as a doctor, even a lawyer. But, seeing how he manages to control everything in the film, it is clear that he is an expert chess player, and his drive is most likely from simple enjoyment of the game, manipulating people and situations in order to reach the desired outcome. Like any good chess player will say, it is an addicting sensation.
This is different though than what drives Tony’s actions. He wants power, as simple as that. He will murder anyone who gets in his way, anyone who hinders his climb up the ladder towards “success.” As a result, all of his decisions stem from this obsession, this concept being what lead him to become involved in the mob in the first place and what kept him working up until the end.
A lot of this difference probably comes from the fact that again, Scarface was meant as a warning whereas Miller’s Crossing was not. Therefore, Tony had to have a more definable flaw that led to his demise, one characteristic that took him down in order to prevent people from following that same path. Tom however, is ambiguous due to the fact that he is not intended as a message, a moral. He just is, a human being, good and bad. He also does not meet a tragic end as so many classical gangsters do. Therefore, there is nothing to warn against in this film and as a result, the character doesn’t have to represent any negative characteristic that the creator wants the audience to view as a flaw.
Further, the major thematic difference comes from the views of good and bad represented in the film. Scarface states that power leads to corruption, which leads to evil, which consequently leads to a collapse of some kind. Miller’s Crossing reveals that there is no clear process, no clear definition of good and bad either. All the characters possess some redeeming characteristics, some good to counteract the bad or some bad to counteract what is supposed to be inherently good. For example, Leo, though a hardened mob boss, clearly loved his girlfriend Verna and had an amount of emotion reserved for Tom. He was loyal to those who were loyal to him, and as a result, had an amount of caring left in him. Johnny Caspar, another ruthless mob boss who had Tom nearly beat to death, had a strong moral code that kept him from wanting to double cross anyone. On the other side, the police officers, men who are supposed to be the epitome of good, of right, are under the thumb of the gangsters. As a result, this shows that black and white do not exist; everything is gray. There is no clear consequence to any path of action; sometimes a gangster will be killed for his wrongdoings, such as is Johnny’s case or Bernie’s case, but other times they will simply walk away, such as with Leo and Tom.
Despite this list of differences, there are several conventions of the gangster genre that make appearances in both films. For one, the use of hard, fast dialogue is a commonality. Characters in both movies speak quickly and often, without emotion. This is representative of the shields the characters must put up in order to survive in the underworld that has been created, a hardening of the internal manifesting in their interactions with other characters.
Following that is the use of sound. Originally, it was said that the reason the gangster film never made any real headway until the 1930s was because it had to await the addition of sound to pictures. Resounding gunshots, screeching cars, screams are largely characteristic of the genre, so innately entwined that it was thought that one could not exist without the other. From that, both films make use of these stereotypical gangster sounds, gunshots and sirens used throughout.
One of the other smaller similarities between the two films comes in the dress of the characters. The suit and “gangster hat” are so clearly a part of the genre that when given only a silhouette of a person wearing such an outfit, audiences are usually able to immediately determine the role that person fills. Not only does Tony wear this outfit in Scarface, but Tom does in Miller’s Crossing as well. This convention is such an integral part of Miller’s Crossing that the hat itself even works its way into the plot as a symbol. What it is a symbol for is up for debate but most likely, it has something to do with rationality, control of others and of oneself. This is possibly seen in Tom’s conversation with Verna about his dream. He states that he had a dream about a hat to which Verna replied, “And you chased it, right? You ran and you ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn’t a hat anymore. It
From that, another similarity between the two films arises thematically. Both films build upon the ideas of race that are common in other gangster films. Often times, the mob bosses in gangster films are from immigrant families, typically Italian or Irish. In Scarface, Tony and his family are of Italian descent. Miller’s Crossing though, exploits both sides of this convention. Both the Irish mob and the Italian mob operate within this town, Leo and Tom products of the Irish, Caspar a product of the Italians, and even further, his bodyguard is referred to as the “Dane.” Therefore, not only is this separation by race common between the two films, there is also possibly a common commentary on the role of race in society.
In the time that Scarface was made, there was a great deal of division between races in society. Immigrant families often fell into lower classes than older families. The result of this was that in the poor areas that these people were confined to, the only way they saw to gain wealth and power was through crime. Therefore, in films such as this, it can be said that the gangsters arose due to the struggles of immigrants, the fact that these families were never granted the same opportunities to succeed as those who had been here for longer periods of time. As a result of this, both films suggest that a lesser separation between races, a greater amount of unity amongst all people, less bigotry and prejudice, could lead to a less crime-driven civilization.
As seen, there are a great number of similarities and differences that can be seen between these two movies in terms of characterization, setting, plot, and even filmic devices. There are probably a great number more that have been missed in this post. However, both Scarface and Miller’s Crossing are quintessential gangster films. Not only do they represent the time period in which they were made – pre- or post-Godfather – they are also representative of the gangster conventions that have lasted, endured in the sixty years between the films’ productions. Therefore, whilst both are descriptive of different times, they are still unified under the conventions of their label: the gangster genre.