Upside-Down, Inside-Out, and Backwards: What the Hell is Coen-Noir?

Paper by Brianna Franklin.

While Joel and Ethan Coen use the conventions of film noir in their films, they also satirize the genre. The brothers use some of the classic themes of film noir, such as adultery, double crosses, alienation, and violence. The Coens take each of these themes and rework them into something both gory and humorous. In sticking with some of the film noir conventions, their stories often have a moral. In traditional film noir, humor and graphic violence are used liberally, if at all. At its core, classic noir films are morality stories, much like many of the Coens’ films. Like classic film noir, their works often include a male character who wants more than he has, and goes to extremes to increase his fortune. Ultimately, this man fails, and is either arrested or killed. Classic film noir also includes a femme fatale, a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, whereas in Coen films, the women do not act out of manipulation. The films where this brand of noir is most prevalent in Blood Simple (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen [uncredited], 1984), Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001). The three films have stylistic and thematic similarities; Blood Simple and Fargo are set in a similar time period, while The Man Who Wasn’t There is not. The Coen brothers use the conventions of film noir, such as shadow and light, as well as themes of adultery and alienation, while also deviating from the classic genre by using modern ideas of female characters and morality, and interspersing humor and violence into their films.

To identify classic film noir, one must know the main stylistic features of the genre. According to Mark Conard, author of “The Philosophy of Film Noir”, they include, “a variety of stylistic conventions: unsettling or otherwise odd camera angles, the dramatic use of shadow and light, hard-boiled dialogue, settings that emphasize isolation and loneliness” (Conard, 41). The idea of film noir is to make the audience a little uneasy, while also feeling for the protagonist. These methods are also common in the Coen brothers films. The brothers use the classic film noir mise-en-scène, for example by utilizing low-key lighting, venetian blinds, and wide-angle shots. In Blood Simple, the Coens, along with director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld, emphasize the use of shadow and light to accentuate feelings of alienation and fear. During the last scene, a showdown between Private Investigator Loren Visser and Abby, the culmination of Abby’s fear is shown through bullet holes. Abby manages to escape her apartment, to end up next door. Visser begins firing his weapon through the wall, in the darkness of the next door apartment, light pours through the bullet holes. It gives the audience a palpable sense of fear that pours off of Abby. Every marred bit of wall is one bullet that didn’t hit her. Similarly, in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the use of light and shadow shows up in a scene in a prison. Doris Crane has been arrested for a crime that her husband, Ed, committed. They are in a room with her lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider, light spills from the ceiling, creating a sense of isolation. The light represents the outside world, that Doris is no longer allowed to be a part of. Ed and Doris are hidden in the shadows, while Riedenschneider moves seamlessly between light and dark. Throughout the scene, he speaks of the ‘Uncertainty Principle’, which he explains as the idea that, “looking at something changes it”(01:07:41-01:14:11). The more one looks at the light source in this scene, the more it seems like a product of isolation. In Fargo, the stylistic similarities are not light-based. They are instead, based on wide-angle shots. Fargo is chocked full of shots of plains covered in snow, giving the audience feelings of loneliness and nothingness. The shots seem never-ending, perpetuating the hopelessness of the criminals. There is nowhere for them to turn, all there it is is snow. The Coen brothers use stylistic conventions of film noir to bolster feelings of loneliness and fear.

Thematically, film noir and Coen films share some common ground, but the brothers take those similarities and turn them upside-down. Film noir commonly features the theme of adultery, as do films by the Coens’. The difference between the two is the lack of femme fatale- esque characters in films by the Coens’. In classic film noir, the adulterous characters often consist of a regular guy and a femme fatale. For instance, if Blood Simple were a classic film noir, Abby would have been femme fatale. Traditionally, a femme fatale is a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate people (men, specifically) into doing what she wants. She often goes looking for money or other gains. A true femme fatale is morally ambivalent. Abby is no such thing. Jeffrey Adams, author of “The Cinema of the Coen Brothers”, describes her as, “…a major departure from the archetype…the fatal woman is endowed with a physical beauty that intensifies her powers of seduction…Blood Simple departs from the generic film stereotype… Abby simply does not conform to the conventions of film noir” (21). She seems like a normal housewife for much of the film, and finds hidden strength when her life is at stake, but she never acts out of manipulation. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Doris is closer to a femme fatale without crossing the line into true moral ambivalence. She is adulterous and looks for opportunities to promote herself into higher esteem and wealth, but she never does anything worse than ‘cook the books’. In both films, Abby and Doris cheat on their husbands, but not out of manipulation. They each commit adultery because they were bored with their lives and lacking affection. Abby turns to Ray because she knows how he feels about her and she wants to feel loved. Doris turns to Big Dave because she doesn’t feel anything towards Ed. While the theme of adultery is present in these films, the lack of a femme fatale gives the Coens a chance to carve out their own niche within the genre of film noir.

Two of the Coen brothers’ defining, filmmaking traits are their uses of humor and of gore. In classic film noir, humor and gore are used sparingly. Conard describes film noir as, “Noir themes and moods include despair, paranoia, and nihilism; an atmosphere of claustrophobic entrapment; a nightmarish sense of loneliness and alienation; a purposelessness fostered in part by feelings of estrangement from one’s own past even as one seems driven to a compulsive confrontation with that past” (92). The Coens deviate from the endless pessimism. Their penchant for intense violence is always equally matched with slapstick comedy. On its own, the blood and guts would be overwhelming to an audience. The sheer amount of deaths in their films is more than a little shocking. In each of the three films mentioned before, there are graphic murders. In Blood Simple, three of the four main characters are gunned down. Even in moments of extreme violence, the Coens find ways of interlacing humor. When Ray finds Marty’s body in his office, he tries to mop up the blood with a windbreaker. It is the kind of ridiculous moment that has become a Coen signature. Similarly, in Fargo, when Marge finds Gaear pushing body parts into a wood chipper, she yells for him to stop and put his hands up, but the wood chipper is so loud, she can’t be heard. These small moments make Coen-noir different from classic noir.

Issues of morality are prevalent in both Coen films and in classic film noir. Even the so- called ‘bad guys’, have reasons for their actions, even though at the end of the films those people always pay with their lives or their freedom. The people with superior morality come out on top. The difference between the tales of morality in film noir and the Coen brothers’ films is small moments in which comedy, clarity, confusion, or all three come to fruition. In Blood Simple, as Visser is laying, shot and bloody on the floor of Abby’s bathroom, he stares up at the plumbing of the sink. There is a drop of water about to fall. This man is about to die, he has caused so much pain and suffering, and his last moments are spent realizing his insignificance through the comedy and clarity of watching a drop of water that may fall on his head. In Fargo, Marge experiences a sense of confusion. As she drives away from the crime scene with the suspect in her car, she says, “So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it” (01:29:32-01:31:35). Her superior morals mean that she has the luxury of not understanding the criminality of others. Jerry Lundegaard ultimately loses his wish for something better. Ed (The Man Who Wasn’t There) goes to prison, loses his wife, and is eventually executed. As always, in these films, the ‘good’ people win, and the bad guys lose, regardless of why they did what they did in the first place.

The Coen brothers take classic film noir and turn it on it’s head. They use the conventions of the genre and add their own Coen twist. The brothers use stylistic and thematic similarities, while adding their signature humor and violence, leaving out the femme fatale, and extending the meaning of morality. They utilize low-key lighting and wide-angle shots to enhance the themes of fear and alienation in keeping with the conventions of film noir. The brothers reframe the female characters by making them less manipulative. They also rebrand classic noir by making the characters more complicated. They have reimagined the genre into something modern, strange and beautiful. Joel and Ethan Coen are the pinnacle of individuality in filmmaking. Their brand of Coen-noir is especially recognizable, while still maintaining the themes and styles of the illustrious genre of film noir. This is, ultimately, what makes them auteur filmmakers.

Works Cited
Adams, Jeffrey Todd. The Cinema of the Coen Brothers : Hard-Boiled Entertainments. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Print.
Blood simple. Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Perf. John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan
Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh. Circle Releasing Corporation, 1984.
Conard, Mark T. The Philosophy of Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Web. Worldcat. 16 Feb. 2017.
Fargo. Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Perf. William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances
McDormand, Peter Stormare. PolyGram, 1996.
Snee, Brian J. “Soft-Boiled Cinema: Joel And Ethan Coens’ Neo-Classical Neo-Noirs.” Literature
Film Quarterly 37.3 (2009): 212-223. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Feb. 2017. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Perf. Billy Bob Thornton, Frances
McDormand, James Ganolfini, Tony Shaloub. Working Title Films, 2001.
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