Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Coen Brothers and Noir Conventions

The much-anticipated film True Grit is coming out in a couple-few days, so this seemed like a good time to talk about the Coen Brothers. I love these guys, I really do. In their long career (careers?)of movie-making they've seldom taken a wrong step (let's pretend The Lady-Killers never happened, okay?)
The thing I really enjoy about them is how they play with genre conventions while staying true to them, in their own way. These are two men who clearly LOVE story, and understand it. And a surprising number of their films have very distinct noir flavors.
Here's a few.

Blood Simple
Jealous husband hires a P.I. to murder his cheating wife; everything turns to shit almost immediately in the Coen Bros first outing. Classic noir elements with the usual Coen flair.

Miller’s Crossing
Great Depression-era gangster saga, with Gabriel Byrne as a conflicted Irish hitman, Albert Finney as his boss, and Marcia Gay Harden as the woman they both love. Gang war erupts amidst the personal drama. Also starring the terrific John Turturro.

Barton Fink
The follow-up to Miller’s Crossing is an uncomfortable black comedy with Turturro as a playwright trying to survive the Hollywood system and a bad case of writer’s block. Things get weirder when his hotel room neighbor, John Goodman, turns out to be a sadistic serial killer who likes to chop off his victim’s heads. Under-rated movie.

The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges is unforgettable in what has rightfully become a cult classic movie as Lebowski, otherwise known as The Dude. When he’s mistaken for a different (much richer) Lebowski, The Dude finds himself wrapped up in a complex case that would make Philip Marlowe proud. The movie is like a Raymond Chandler story, except with an aging stoner in the lead. Also starring a fantastic John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and John Turturro in a small but memorable role. Comedy Noir.

A classically-structured noir about a car salesman (William Macy) who pays some hoods to kill his wife, only to have the scheme backfire on him in the most horrible way. This would've been a fairly typical story, except for the setting (ice-bound Midwest), the hero (pregnant female cop) and the stunningly black humor.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane, a barber in Santa Rosa, 1949, who stumbles across a chance to make a change in his life. But to do it, he’ll have to blackmail his wife’s boss. Blackmail leads to murder, and murder leads to lies, and it isn’t long before the noose begins to tighten around Crane’s neck.
Beautifully shot in black and white, this is a stark, thoughtful existential noir in the classic mode.

Burn After Reading
Another comedy noir, although the comedy is distinctly black. It comes very close to being slapstick as circumstances veer wildly out of control for everyone involved. Great performances by George Clooney, John Malkovitch, and believe it or not Brad Pitt (the guy steals the movie).


  1. I wasn't too fond of Hudsucker Proxy either, but on the whole the Coen Brothers have given us more good movies than any other director over the last 20 years. IMHO>

  2. Burn After Reading went so under-the-radar, I'm not exactly sure why. It was brilliant. Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski are both all-time favorites. Only one I didn't watch on that list is Blood Simple.

  3. Raising Arizona is a crime movie. Noir? no, but crime, yeah.

  4. Damn, Jed, you're right. Can't believe I forgot about that one...