Jesse Pasternack reveals how the Coen Brothers turn noir elements on their head with visual gags, a rambling voiceover narration, and the iconic, carefree protagonist at the center of it all.
There are few types of films which have as many distinctive characteristics as film noir. Just hearing or reading those words — “film noir” — probably brings to mind a host of images and sounds. Some of them may include black-and-white photography of Southern California, a world-weary voiceover, and a protagonist who is often a doomed criminal or a professional yet wisecracking private detective. But while a lot of those films, especially ones from the so-called “classic noir” period that roughly began in 1941 and ended in 1958, use these tropes faithfully, there are just as many which subvert them. Whether it’s to lovingly parody them like in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) or subtly critique their gender politics like in Bound (1996), filmmakers can’t seem to resist the opportunity to reshape the noir genre into a new image.
The Big Lebowski (1998) is one of the best and most original of these subversive films noir. Writers Ethan and Joel Coen (the latter of whom directed it) take the most famous elements of film noir and more often than not turn them inside out. But at the same time, their use of noir tropes also proves to be more faithful than you might expect it to be.
This movie is about Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a former political radical (he helped write the first draft of the Port Huron Statement) who spends most of his time hanging with his friends in a bowling alley. His lackadaisical life gets turned upside down when two men mistake him for another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a self-important millionaire nicknamed “The Big Lebowski.” One of the men pees on The Dude’s rug (which really tied the room together), which sends him off on an odyssey involving $1 million, three German nihilists/musicians (Peter Stromare, Torsten Voges, and Flea), The Big Lebowski’s eccentric artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), and a ferret.
The Coen Brothers subvert two of the most famous elements of classic film noir — Southern California locations and voiceover — in their first sequence. All the imagery is of Los Angeles, which is where many of the classic films noir were set. But the defining visual element is a tumbleweed, the kind you’d see in a cartoon from the 1930s, spinning through the streets of Hollywood, a freeway overpass, and a beach. This announces that the Coens are going to take tropes of classic noir and undercut them by filtering them through absurd comedy. They go on to do the same thing with this film’s use of voiceover. Instead of the hard-boiled interior monologue of a tough private detective or criminal, we hear the introductory musings of a character known only as The Stranger (Sam Elliott). His rich voice rambles amiably as he describes The Dude and Los Angeles, in words that owe more to the lengthy and lyrical side of Sam Shepard (think the “I knew these people” monologue from Paris, Texas ) than to the no-nonsense brevity of Mickey Spillane. There’s also a self-aware quality to it that you wouldn’t find in the voiceover of classic noir, especially when The Stranger concludes his monologue by noting, “I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”
The man whom he has finished introducing, The Dude, might be the most destabilizing element of The Big Lebowski when it comes to classic film noir. Most of the protagonists in films from that period were professionals. Whether it is Sam Spade’s devotion to the code of ethics of a private detective in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Walter Neff using the deep reservoir of knowledge he’s gained from being an insurance salesman to try to con his own company in Double Indemnity (1944), the classic film noir protagonist is defined by his — the protagonist is almost always a man in these films — relationship to work. Classic film noir protagonists also wear a suit and tie as a symbol of their professionalism, which is a quality that they prize.
The Dude, in contrast, is unemployed and probably will be for the rest of his life. He has no sense of professionalism, and The Stranger accurately notes that he is “quite possibly the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County.” He never wears a suit and his signature look involves a bathrobe. Many classic film noir protagonists were also prone to thinking up witty one-liners on the spot, while The Dude is so lazy that he often quotes other people and even news broadcasts during conversations. All these things help make him a very unlikely protagonist of a story influenced by classic film noir.
But while the Coen Brothers frequently disrupt film noir conventions throughout The Big Lebowski, they also show an unexpected amount of fidelity to them when necessary. The labyrinthine plot is straight out of Raymond Chandler (whom the Coens named as an influence in a making-of-documentary) and, while The Dude may be lazy, he’s not stupid. He sees through his best friend Walter Sobchak’s (John Goodman) bluster, shows a keen ability to read people, and ultimately solves the film’s central mystery. It’s not for nothing that the film’s only traditional private detective (Jon Polito) tells The Dude that he “digs [his] work.” This faithfulness makes The Big Lebowski more than just a parody of classic film noir stories. The Coen Brothers have a respect for the genre, but they do not let that respect act as a type of straitjacket on them. Instead, they use it to tie their story together, even as they reimagine what that type of story could be. In doing so, their subversive use of many of film noir’s classic tropes makes them feel as new as they did during the 1940s, and demonstrate that there is still a lot of originality left within this most distinctive of genres.
The Big Lebowski will be screened at IU Cinema on August 18 in a new 4K restoration. Costumes encouraged!