Ethan and Joel Cohen’s masterful film “Miller’s Crossing” opens with the two-bit gangster Johnny Casper struggling to explain to the big crime boss, Leo, how he’s been wronged by an associate mobster, Bernie Bernbaum.
“I’m talkin’ about friendship,” Johnny says, and the camera lingers on the frothy saliva forming in the creases of his thin, menacing smile. “I’m talkin’ about character,” he continues structuring and shaping his argument. “I’m talkin’ about—hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word—I’m talkin’ about etics.”
Johnny is, indeed, talking about ethics: “When I fix a fight,” Johnny proceeds indignantly, “say I play a three to one favorite to throw a goddam fight. I got a right to expect the fight to go off at three to one.” Then Bernie Bernbaum, the “scheeney shmata boy,” the lying cheat, hears of the deal, manipulates the situation, and the “odds go straight to hell.”
“It’s gettin’ so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight,” complains Johnny. “Now, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?” Without ethics, he concludes, “we’re back into anarchy, right back in the jungle… That’s why etics are important. It’s what separates us from the animals, from beasts of burden, beasts of prey. Etics!”
“Do you want to kill him?” asks Leo, coolly.
“For starters,” Johnny replies earnestly and without a hint of irony.
Listening to John Kerry preach about the moral obligation to kill—for starters—brings us face to face with Johnny and Leo. It’s all about ethics.