MOVIE OBJECTS (4)

By: Christopher Orr
April 10, 2020

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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TOM’S HAT | MILLER’S CROSSING | d. JOEL COEN | 1990

“I was walking in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came whippin’, blew me hat off.” Thus does Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) explain a dream he once had to the woman sharing his bed, Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden) in the Coen brothers’ brilliant third feature, Miller’s Crossing.

As it happens, we have already seen a version of this scene in the title sequence: a hat, resting on the forest floor, lifted by the wind and twirled out of sight. (This shot, and the entire hat motif, may be a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1963 film, Le Doulos, which ends with the dying protagonist’s hat tumbling off his head.)

The hat, we will discover, is Tom’s armor. The metaphor is apt, because Miller’s Crossing makes much of the conflict between Tom’s “head” (or “brain” or “smarts”) and the “heart” that it is repeatedly suggested he lacks. (The Coens’ jokey working title for the film was “The Bighead.”) With his hat, Tom is the guy who “knows all the angles, Christ, better than anyone” as his boss, the gang lord Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) describes him.

Without it, however, he is uniquely vulnerable. The camera takes pains to note that every one of the many beatings Tom suffers — from Frankie and Tic-Tac in the warehouse, Leo at the club, Terry in the phone booth, Lazar’s men outside his apartment — takes place when his hat is absent or knocked off. When, in the woods at Miller’s Crossing, the Dane throws Tom’s hat away contemptuously before cocking a gun in his terrified face, it appears that he is headed for the same fate as the protagonist of Le Doulos.

Nor is the hat’s defense limited to physical danger; it also protects Tom from compromises of the heart. The first time he sleeps with Verna, it’s because she’d won his hat at cards: The scene of them in bed opens with a shot of it on the dresser. The second time, she flings it off as they kiss. (The echo with the Dane suggests that, for Tom, death and love are comparably disastrous outcomes.) The third time, he tells her of his dream. The film’s final shot, after Tom has lost both Verna and Leo, is of him lowering his hat over his eyes. In the end, this brittle shield is all he has left.

There’s plenty more that could be said of hats in the film. Tom’s remains on when Verna threatens him with a gun because she was never really going to shoot him. The only times we see the relentless, implacable Dane without his hat are when he reveals his “thinking” to Tom on the ride to Miller’s Crossing and when Johnny Caspar turns on him lethally in his home. Rug Daniels is rendered bareheaded too upon death, when a street urchin steals his toupee. And so on. But I’ve said enough. As Tom himself explains, there’s “nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

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