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Miller's crossing pays a lot of attention to Gabriel Byrne's hat.

Does it symbolize anything in the movie or have any significance to the plot or is this a bit of a red herring?

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4 Answers 4

The hat is a tangible representation of Byrne's dilemma. The point to be noted is that his dilemma has so much prominence that it deserves a character of its own. There are many scenes in the movie when the hat disappears at moments of clarity and magically reappears on the stairs, exactly at the birth of some new confusion.
Choosing a hat was also a very wise decision as it is something very personal to a character, to the extent that it could define a person, just like the confusion in his head.

Just my tuppence worth

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A scene in the movie provides a lovely explanation of the hat:

Verna: What're you chewin' over?

Tom Reagan: Dream I had once. I was walkin' in the woods, I don't know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.

Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn't a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.

Tom Reagan: Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn't chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin' his hat.

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I've only seen the movie twice, but this is the impression I got from the hat. It represents composure and control. While Tom would never chase his hat through the woods, he does express a want for his hat every time he loses it. And he seems to lose it every time he loses control of a situation: someone ambushes him, he gets drunk and gambles it away, or he gets socked in the face.

The reason he wouldn't chase his hat is because he's very worried about the impression he gives others. He values dignity and the image of keeping a cool head even when he's in very hot water. If he has his hat, he's composed, and if he's composed, he's still got some control of the situation.

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To me, the hat symbolizes letting go of everything and being in the moment. In that moment, he doesn't chase the hat. He's out of hope, out of future, head full of static.

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