Albert Finney did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Leo in Miller's Crossing.
Like many of the Coen brother's films the film takes a risk in having an overt style that spreads to all facets of the film including the acting. Now this did not work all to well for them a few years later in the Hudsucker Proxy where the best performance was given by Paul Newman simply because he did not try to play the part in the style of a 40's screwball comedy. Well here the take is that of a 30's gangster picture and perhaps this is most noticeable in the performance I'm focusing on here by Albert Finney as the crime boss of the town, yep focusing on yet another mobster which I believe is the theme for the supporting actors of 1990. This performance is quite a bit different from Gary Oldman in State of Grace and Robert De Niro in Goodfellas though because Finney chooses to play the part with this very specific style. Finney uses a particularly booming voice, really not at all unlike Ralph Foody's gangster voice from Angels with Filth Souls in Home Alone, that seems to come right from that old style of picture. In addition just the way he sits and leans on his desk in that opening scene seems to come right out from the past once more.
Now all of this could add up to nothing or become grating, as some of the acting can be with this sort of approach when done wrong. Finney though is just brilliant in the realization of this style. In terms of the simple points of it Finney amplifies the whole atmosphere of the film with his work which seems to fits so well into the setting that the Coen's have constructed. I suppose most importantly though Finney is incredibly entertaining and it is fun to watch him as Leo. It's enjoyable to simply watch him perform as the character. I especially love the whole "Danny Boy" shoot out where Finney aptly fulfills the job of a 1930's gangster badass. Every movement in the way Finney conducts himself is perfection in terms of creating Leo as the character he should be for this sort of story. Of course all of this this plays into the key of Finney's work here which is though this is a performance that's fun to watch but this is not a comic performance by Finney. Finney does plays the part with a lot of style but he does not go too far with the style. He does not let the style overwhelm to the point that is all there is, and Finney never uses the style to override the need to give depth to the character.
In this regards Finney is also terrific since he essentially leaves enough room to develop Leo beyond just his gangster style. Finney is interesting in that on the surface he brings the needed commanding presence to go along with his gangster style. Within in that though Finney is excellent in bringing a though strong vein of vulnerability to Leo. It is not anything that Finney plays on as overt that would completely compromise Leo's position. Instead Finney keeps it an understated yet so very effective compromise in Leo, that is needed to explain why Leo makes the decision that technically creates the conflict in the film. That decision being refusing to let the head of the rival mob Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) kill a despicable bookie Bernie (John Turturro) because Leo is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Of course really Leo is being manipulated by Verna completely, but Fineny gives a why to this as he expresses just how infatuated with her he really is. Finney's particularly fantastic in the scene where his right hand man Tom (Gabriel Byrne) reveals he's been having an affair with Verna. Although Leo beats down Tom with a tough guy manner Finney portrays a devastation in Leo, showing just how meaningful the relationship is to him even though it is not to her.
Finney is outstanding here as he finds just the right tone exactly in which to play Leo, and I'd say he matches the style the film seems to be going for better than anyone else in the supporting cast. It's an incredible display of giving a pronounced style to his character, while never seeming to merely become a caricature. Really one of my problems with the film is that Leo exits the film not even quite half way through before reappearing for one last final scene. This is not even necessarily much of a criticism at what is there instead of Leo, but rather it's shame there is not more of Finney's great performance. Now to Finney's credit he certainly keeps Leo alive in the proceedings thanks to the considerable impact he makes in the first third where the majority of his screen time takes place. It is not until the very last scene of the film that he returns, but thanks once again to his earlier work it is an especially welcome one as Finney always manages to make the victory a satisfying one as he makes Leo such an oddly endearing gangster. Finney does not lose anything by his somewhat limited screen time though as he maintains his presence throughout. He makes Leo one of the most memorable aspects of the film as Finney works so eloquently with the material here. This is a performance I just love to watch and is the very best that I've seen from Finney.