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By Adam Bouyamourn
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are responsible for some of the most original and idiosyncratic American movies produced in the last twenty years, each bearing a distinctive stamp. From the madcap energy of Raising Arizona (1987) to the lean and atmospheric No Country For Old Men (2007), their unique and unmistakable style is the product of their fascination with the cinema of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
As the brothers’ spiritual predecessor, writer and director Preston Sturges was responsible for some of the most subversive comedies of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’. Like Sturges, the Coens often reject a traditional hero in favour of a put-upon shlub played for a sucker by his craftier peers. In Sturges we can also trace the roots of the brothers’ passion for eccentric, high-flown dialogue, especially from pompous and self-important authority figures (“You dare to inform me you had vulgar footpads in snap-brim fedoras sluicing after my beautiful wife?”). And like Sturges, whose heroes included Trudy Kockenlocker and Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, they delight in creating characters bearing impossibly ridiculous monikers – Ulysses Everett McGill and Freddy Riedenschneider, for example. The brothers themselves acknowledged this stylistic debt in the title of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – the name of the movie which the protagonist sets out to make in Sturges’ most famous comedy, Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
The madcap screwball comedies of the 1930s are another obvious inspiration for the Coens, seen particularly in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). The film takes much of its plot from Frank Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936), most obviously in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s hard-nosed female newshound, played in the earlier film by Jean Arthur and cemented in screwball tradition by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940). Almost all of the Coens’ films are touched in some way by the screwball style, and the rat-a-tat verbal sparring of Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) is the direct descendant of the impossibly quickfire rapport which drives Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Thin Man (1934).
However, not all the brothers’ influences are cinematic. One of their strongest creative muses has been the pulp crime fiction of the inter-war period, characterised by snappy dialogue and a brutal moral outlook. Miller’s Crossing borrows its central characters, prohibition setting and juiciest lines from Dashiell Hammet’s The Glass Key (1931), whilst its labyrinthine tale of a city riddled with crime and corruption owes more to Hammet’s Red Harvest (1929). The cold-blooded double-crossing and moody pessimism of Blood Simple (1985) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2002), on the other hand, betray an obvious debt to James M. Cain and his novels Double Indemnity (1935) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). The brothers have also demonstrated a willingness to play with the genre, as with The Big Lebowski (1998), a bizarre pastiche of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 mystery The Big Sleep, updated to 1990s Los Angeles, with the original’s fedora-sporting tough guys replaced by aging hippies and Californian oddballs.