In an earlier column about remakes, I described a type of film called a “hidden remake,” and mentioned Miller’s Crossing (1990) specifically.
The hidden remake at once erases its past and creates a bond with the original. Miller’s Crossing lives independently of and makes no open acknowledgment of The Glass Key. However, underneath the Coen Brothers’ film’s fabric, the pattern of the original can be found, almost as if it were in secret communication with the original.
In Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers created a stylized and complex gangster film about power, loyalty, and desire that closely resembles The Glass Key (1942), which is itself based on a Dashiell Hammett novel.
The Glass Key stars Alan Ladd as lieutenant to Brian Donlevy’s political boss, just as Gabriel Byrne runs interference for Albert Finney, an Irish political boss, in Miller’s Crossing. Ladd spends much time getting into jams while trying to get Donlevy out of his.
An early, faintly noir film, The Glass Key also features Veronica Lake as its blonde center of desire, who Donlevy wants to marry, but Ladd eventually gets. When this triangle is duplicated by Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in Miller’s Crossing, Marcia Gay Hardin is the prize—only she sticks with Finney.
Each film is admirably enhanced by its subordinate players. Joseph Calleia is matched by Jon Polito as the Italian rivals to Donlevy and Finney. William Bendix is Calleia’s enforcer, while J.E. Freeman knocks out a few teeth as Polito’s main man. Richard Denning and John Turturro play the down-on-their-luck brothers to the female leads.
J.E. Freeman, the Dane in Miller’s Crossing, dishes out punishment with his fists, just like Bendix’s heavy, Jeff, in The Glass Key. When Jeff’s curious affection for his punching bag emerges under a strong dose of alcohol, Miller’s Crossing absorbs this budding relationship by writing in a homosexual relationship between Freeman and his underling, Mink (Steve Buscemi).
What was hidden in the original is made explicit in the remake. And the same follows throughout Miller’s Crossing: changes and permutations spice up the original without losing the noir flavor.
No Way Out (1987), which stars Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, is another, deservedly popular hidden remake. In an earlier life, this movie was called The Big Clock (1948), based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing, and starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. But the relationship between these two films is very direct, almost point for point, which nearly belies No Way Out’s remake status.
Neither The Glass Key nor The Big Clock are often shown on television, which contributes to the hidden nature of the remake.
The Big Clock is set in a Time-Life company that publishes many magazines. One of these is called Crimeways, a magazine that hunts missing persons and criminals, whose editor is Ray Milland. His boss, Laughton, kills a former mistress and thrusts blame toward an unknown person he has seen leaving the woman’s apartment.
(Sound familiar? In No Way Out, Costner's boss, the Secretary of Defense (Hackman), has killed his mistress and Costner's paramour (Sean Young).)
Unlike Costner’s naval attaché, Milland isn’t in love with the victim. But he is assigned by Laughton to hunt for the mystery man (Milland). Laughton’s advisor is unscrupulous lawyer George Macready, who hatches the cover-up; Gene Hackman’s right arm, Will Patton, dreams up the “Yuri” scheme (a Soviet mole in the Pentagon) to bail out his boss.
The pursuits in both films narrow to a single building, and Milland and Costner must extract themselves from tighter and tighter situations. In another parallel, Laughton sends a killer—Harry Morgan, who doesn’t speak the entire film—after the accused to shut him up before any investigation can ensue. Will Patton dispatches two secret “ops” to blast Yuri when he’s discovered (even though Patton knows Yuri is a myth and doesn't exist).
No Way Out’s formula to bond with its original is the one that most remakes try. The Big Clock flabbergasts most viewers. On its own, the final revelation in No Way Out has few equals in movie history. But as a hidden remake closely modeled on the original, it seems compelled to take an extra step; to force an extra twist. When you compare the endings to one another, you realize that No Way Out’s extra jolt is needed to avoid the inherent letdown in the original.
Miller’s Crossing similarly avoids the sentimental resolution of The Glass Key, where Donlevy learns of Ladd and Lake’s relationship and accommodatingly tells them to get married. He’s a good sport. We feel good that the right people have found each other.
Miller’s Crossing denies our satisfaction here, that Byrne and Hardin should marry, despite everything else working out better than could have been expected. It also magnifies the fact that Byrne and Hardin’s destructive relationship has no real chance of surviving.
Besides, Hardin may be the tramp that Byrne tells Finney that she is. His acceptance of her despite her faults mirrors the good-natured way that Donlevy rejects her. So maybe Miller’s Crossing does have a sentimental streak—hidden, of course.
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.