The GROGNARD Files

Table-top RPGs from back in the day and today.

I’m sure that I first saw this as a double-bill with Blood Simple (1984) at Manchester CornerHouse back in 1991. It was a new golden age of the American Gangster movie, thanks to the recent release of Goodfellas and ahem, The Godfather Part III. On first viewing, I was smitten by the knowingness of it all with its relentless homage to the films of the 40s, especially the film -noir classics such as The Glass Key (1942). My patience for such films has now worn a little thin. This is cinema about cinema that is sometimes difficult to connect to the characters and situations as they appear unreal representations, four times removed from reality. It’s imbued with everything that has gone before, including the obvious noir references, but there’s also Bertolucci and the Three Stooges in there too. This is a film that wears its references on its sleeve. It lacks a human-touch, but its genre emulation techniques are perfect fodder for gaming.

SYNOPSIS

Leo, a crime boss of an unspecified American city at an unspecified time during Prohibition, has a meeting with Johnny Casper (a rival gangster), who urges him to kill Bernie Bernbaum, who has been skimming from the fights fixed by Casper. Bernie pays protection to Leo, he’s also the brother of his girlfriend Verna. Against the advice of his right-hand man Tom Reagan, Leo refuses to sanction the killing of Bernie. Leo doesn’t know that Tom is also in a romantic relationship with Verna, but he is suspicious of her and has her tailed by Rug Daniels. 

Rug is killed (and his wig nicked by a street urchin) and Leo immediately suspects Casper so uses his political influence to bare down on Casper’s rackets. Tom tries to persuade Verna to leave Leo. He’s visited by Bernie who tells him that he has the details of Casper’s next fixed fight, he’s been told by Mink, the boyfriend of Casper’s sardonic lieutenant Eddie Dane. 

Casper reaches out to Tom, offering to pay off his considerable gambling debts in exchange for Bernie. He refuses. He suggests to Verna that she or Bernie killed Rug. Verna says that she believes him to be jealous of her relationship with Leo. Later, Leo survives a spectacular attack on his home by Casper’s hoodlums. He’s enrage when Tom reveals his relationship with Verna, as he intends to marry her.

Rejected by Leo, Tom turns to Casper, who demand proof of his change of allegiance by shooting Bernie. Tom takes him to the forest and spares the whimpering Bernie, who goes into hiding. He reveals to Casper that it was Eddie Dane and Mink who was giving Bernie the details of the fixed fights. 

Bernie threatens to resurface if Tom doesn’t kill Casper. Dane suspects that Tom didn’t kill him, but his plan to kill him is set back when a body surfaces in the woods. The corpse is Mink, killed by Bernie. Tom calls Bernie’s bluff by threatening to tell Casper that he is still alive. Casper kills Dane after Tom informs him that his trusted right-hand man was double-crossing him with the details of the next fixed fight.  Tom tells Verna that Bernie is still living and sends Casper to a rendezvous with Mink.

Casper is killed by Bernie who ambushes him. After he has revealed that it was Mink that killed Rug, Tom kills Bernie. Tom uses Casper’s money to place a bet on the fixed fight to clear his debts.

At Bernie’s funeral, Verna ignores Tom, but Leo offers him the role as an advisor once again, forgiving him of his relationship with his finance. Tom rejects his offer. Leo walks away, framed by the trees. 

NPCS

Leo, Irish American gang-leader, political mover and shaker

A mover and shaker in the town with influence with the politicians at the highest levels. Leo is a reflector, trying to work out the moves that he some times can’t understand:

Leo: You hear about Rug?

Tom: Yeah, RIP.

Leo: They took his hair, Tommy. Jesus, that’s strange, why would they do that?

Tom: Maybe it was injuns.

Description: Cigar smoker, his hair is slicked back and wears suits with an insouciance.

Roleplaying hook: He’s rich, powerful with great influence in town, but vulnerable, his relationship with Verna is his weakness.

Tom Reagan, Irish American, world-weary consigliere 

The smartest guy in the room. Tom has the ability to play different characters against each other. He’s got a high emotional intelligence and is always a couple of steps ahead of everyone else. He will offer his opinion and advice if you want it or not. Rarely smiles as he is carrying the weight of all of the tensions playing out in his head: gambling debts, an affair with his boss’ girl-friend.

Description: His accent is Irish rather than American. He’s got rugged appearance, smart, with a calm intelligence behind his eyes. 

Leo: I reckon I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town.

[Tom looks at him]

Leo: Except you Tom.

Tom: And Verna.

Roleplaying hook: His hat is his comfort and security. If he loses his hat, or if someone possesses his hat, he gets anxious and vulnerable. He’s a risk taker and his gambles don’t always come off. Drinks rum, lots of rum.

Johnny Caspar, Italian American gang-leader and fight-fixer

Description: Overweight with a comb-over and fat tongue. He’s a working-class street-mobster who has little time for the people in power.

Roleplaying hook: He loves his son. He’s smart and ruthless, but blinded by his impulses. If he wants something to happen, he wants it now. Offended when his requests are not met.

Caspar: You think that I’m some guinea, fresh off the boat, and you can kick me! But I’m too big for that now. I’m sick a’ takin the scrap from you, Leo. I’m a’ of marching into this goddamn office to kiss your Irish ass. And I’M SICK A’ THE HIGH HAT!

[Puts on his hat and coat] Youse fancy pants, all a youse

Bernie Bernbaum, Jewish American provocateur bookie 

Bernie’s power lies in his connections. He is pushing the limits by provoking Caspar, but he feels like he holds all the cards. 

Description: Pale, thin, vampiric appearance with slick-back black hair and black suit. Wild-eyed and simpering.

Roleplaying hook: He’s in above his head but he thinks his relationships with Mink, Dane and his sister put him in a powerful position. Who is the weakest link? Break the connection and his elaborate get rich quick schemes will fall down.

SCENES OF NOTE

  • Perhaps the most celebrated scene is the one with Leo mowing down his would-be assailants with a Tommy gun to the tune of Danny Boy. Possibly the best use of a Tommy gun in any film ever? 
  • Excellent use of the autumnal colours of the forest to frame the incongruent image of the urban and urbane gangsters (cf The Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, season 3). 
  • The character who is the catalyst behind the action is Mink (Steve Buscemi). He appears briefly as Tom is passing through the speakeasy. With a ratta-tatt-tatt flow of dialogue and invective he provides exposition by way of implication.
  • Sam Rami (Evil Dead) has a cameo in the scene where the police shake-down the ‘Sons of Erin Social Club’ with bombs and a Gatling gun.


GAMEABLE

The Coen Brothers are known for their twist and tuning plots and Miller’s Crossing is no exception. Fortunes of the characters bounce up and down in a matter of moments. Their approach inspired FIASCO (Bully Pulpit Games, 2009) a story telling game designed by Jason Morningstar, which won a Diana Jones Award for its innovative approach to story-telling game-play. It aims to emulate Coen movies “inspired by the cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong”.

It’s not a game that I’ve played, but I think it offers an interesting prospect as the game is motivated by relationships and objects and work through a Three Act Structure where every character has four scenes. A tilt table is used to manage the beats of success and failure in a scene. Sometimes the tilt elements generated by the dice may not appear until later in the game.

Plot twists and turns are probably more associated with the film-noir crime genre rather than gangster films in particular. The crossing and double crossing may emerge from play, but unless there are specific mechanics (like those described in FIASCO) it may not be a feature of a prepared scenario. The twists need to be player led and unless there are mechanics to compel them towards doing it, they’re unlikely to emulate the rapid twists and turns apparent in the cinematic experience. 

Why would you want to any way? Games are not cinema.

For my games, I’m more interested in the use of set-pieces. The Coen-Brothers set up situations very carefully, the inter-dependences between the NPCs and the PCs are woven together with relationships and connections. Reactions have a consequences depending on their feelings towards each other.

However, the most important element I want to take away is what @dailydwarf refers to as its unique vernacular. “What’s the rumpus”, “Always put one in the brain”, “take your flunky and dangle” and, of course, “the high-hat”. I’d like to bring that to my GangBusters game. It would be good to introduce the Dying Earth RPG/Skullduggery  mechanic of quote cards. If the player is unable to come up with some clever word-play then they can use a card with a relevant and cutting quote to get a bonus.

Next: Gotti (1996)

One thought on “Miller’s Crossing (1990) MOBTOBER

  1. Sacha says:

    FIASCO is a magical experience with the right group. We’ve played it a few times and, as soon as we lean out of our comfort zones, it’s been nothing but brilliant. I’d not seriously considered the Gangster genre in relation to it, but a set-up akin to ‘Pine Barrens’ could reap massive rewards.
    Great series of posts you’re running here, can’t wait for the next one.

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