How The Innovative Minds of the Coen Brothers Tackle Film Noir

Paper by Veronica Arvidsson.

“Noir” is the French word for black, film noir got it’s name from being characterized as dark films, dark stories and dark stylistically. ”A narrative structure emphasizing past transgression or traumas; a focus on crime that is both psychological and physical; an extensive use of low key lighting; an overall tone of threat, mystery, and fated action…” (Friedman et al. 504) that’s one way of interpreting what film noir is. The Coen brothers have used conventions of film noir, a genre which had it’s uprising and glory years between 1940 – 1959 (Friedman et al. 486), when creating films of modern society. Three of these films that I will look closer into are Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). By drawing examples from classic film noir films and readings from published books and articles I will prove my thesis that the Coen brothers are not only using conventions of film noir when creating these films but they are also renewing it and putting a modern face on the genre by adding their personal expertise and creative touch on it.


If you look at classical examples of film noir such as Double indemnity (1944), which was a popular and classic film noir, it ”portrays an adulterous affair that leads to murder” (Friedman et al. 491) Just looking at that sentence one could suggest it’s referring to Blood simple. The theme that is consistent through the film noir genre is crime. An article that explores the crime narrative in the noir genre closer is “Henry Hathway’s Rawhide and the Hermetic Frontiers of Film Noir” and this is being explained about the crime narrative: ”…Noir narrative is dominated by detailed views from alongside its virtuoso criminal protagonist, it must likewise admit the perspective of his oblivious and unscathed dupe, switching back and forth between these two contiguous worlds.” It would be opposing to the dark world of noir and the effects it’s trying to produce if you where to give an exclusive portray from one side of the story. (Manon 42) This is the narrative structure seen in both Fargo and Blood simple.

In Blood simple we follow a love triangle of Abby who’s having an affair with Ray who is an employee of her husband Marty. Marty hires a private investigator to kill them both. We as audience is not being kept away from any of these perspectives we know it all, the characters however are left with suspicion and unknowing about the others affairs and it all ends in a dramatic spiderweb with unloose ends for the characters who stay unknowing till the end.
In Fargo Gerry hires Carl and Gear to abduct his wife in an attempt to scheme his father-in- law of money. This story also untangles dramatically off course where we as an audience have overlooking view of the story from all perspectives while the characters remain clueless as to what’s really going on.
The Coen’s seem to like this aspect of noir film very much. The characters themselves don’t seem to know very much what’s going on at all, they think they do but we as an audience always know more.

The Man Who Wasn’t There differs from Fargo and Blood simple in terms of narrative structure in the way that it’s being retold to us through narration. It stays very true to how the classic film noirs where told. Just like ”The narrator of The Postman always rings twice, tells his story from death row as he awaits execution” (Friedman et al. 496) we find out that similarly Ed sits in a jail sell writing his story for a mens’ magazine, and shortly after that he enters a room with an execution chair. The narration definitely has a personal and renewing touch to it almost in a mocking tone aimed at the cluelessness surrounding the characters in most Coen films, and noir films for that matter. For example Ed says ”He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”


”The noir protagonist tends to be a victim.” (Friedman et al. 494) In Blood simple all of the protagonists can be looked upon as victims, Marty is being betrayed, Abby is looking for a way out of her doomed marriage and Ray is unsure if Abby’s’ feelings towards him are sincere. They are all clueless to each others intentions and brought behind the light of each other without really knowing it and this ends up getting most of them killed.
Similar parallels can be drawn to the protagonist Gerry in Fargo in the way that he also becomes victim of his own stupidity. He’s trying to scheme this masterplan of a fake abduction of his wife to lure money out of his father-in-law, but the plan he has set up is not thoroughly enough worked through and ends up only screwing himself over. Accordingly to film noir the protagonist is often a detective this is not the case in the Coen brothers’ films but just like a detective in film noir the protagonists of Coens’ films ”archives only a limited measure of success, if success at
all…” (Friedman et al. 497)

The difference between a gangster film protagonist and a film noir protagonist can be explained this way: ”The gangster, too, may fail, but his death tends to be a memorable one – even spectacular – in terms that provide a measure of his heroic stature. The protagonist in a film noir tends to be more introverted more passive, more acted upon and at most he or she hopes to avoid the snares that are closing in.” (Friedman 497) The Coen brothers are using these conventions of film noir protagonists and presenting him as a passive ”non hero-hero” and exaggerating this convention of their male protagonists to being not only victims of their own stupidity but in general being clueless, setting out to do something big but than lack capacity to finish it.

The characteristic of passive and ”non hero-hero” is taken up again in The Man Who Wasn’t There where the protagonist is a very quiet and passive man who’s portrayed as insignificant to his surroundings, he doesn’t amount to much and he doesn’t cause to much trouble but when he sets out to do something significant and bigger he is, in the world of Coen, doomed to fail based on the characteristics of the classic passive, ”non hero-hero” faith of a film noir protagonist.

By presenting their male characters this way not only do they bring the genre into modern society by but also leave a comment on the male portrayal in todays film which are not usual similar to the Coens’ approach at all and by doing so they are renewing film noir in their own way.
Femme fatale is a classic female character of film noir (Friedman et al. 498) The Coen brothers again use a commonly used character from the classic noir and experimenting with the concept in modern style. The femme fatale is supposed to be: ”the deadly but seductive woman who manipulates her lover into committing a crime and may even lead him to his death” but what the Coens do is that they have a female character in all these films that is not only the love interest of the protagonist but she’s the character that most of the story evolves around. But unlike the femme fatale she doesn’t use her beauty in order to manipulate people or use her sexy attributes to get what she wants, but the men in her world base their actions on her much like the men around a femme fatale would, the difference is that the women of Coens’ films never intend for this.

In Blood Simple for example Abby is the main source to the drama that will play out so her actions could be considered the trigger causing the trouble that leads to the death of Marty and Ray, but she can hardly take the blame because she never set out for it to happen. (Adams 21)
Much in the same way the drama surrounds Ed’s wife in The Man Who Wasn’t There but she never intends any of it, she’s not even responsible for what she’s accused of.
The Coens are making a thoughtful decision on how to portray this character not as lethal but as an excuse for men to let loose their stupid innovations based on crisis of their masculinity which then could result in their death.

It’s an exciting time to write female characters and renew the stereotypical portray of them and the Coen brothers are very much a part of that process when using these femme fatale basic conventions and making them into something else that can only be related to femme fatale to a certain extent.

Gerry’s wife in Fargo however is not significant to the story in any other way than as a tool in Gerry’s plan, she can not be familiarized to a femme fatale at all because she has no intentions of anything, unlike Abby and Doris who still make personal actions.


The Urban environment that is classic for film noir (Friedman et al. 486) is of course used in The Man Who Wasn’t There but interestingly enough the Coens took a step a way from that when making Fargo and Blood simple. Fargo is set mostly in open landscapes of Minnesota outside of Fargo and Blood simple use the setting of a small town in Texas.

Here one could argue that the Coen brothers have used the element of atmospheric importance that urban locations provide in film noir and transferred it away from the classic setting into the open landscape and small towns seen in Fargo and Blood Simple. So once again the Coens are staying true to the genre in the sense that the location is very much essential to the atmospheric feeling and look of the film, but they are renewing it by taking that characteristic film noir setting to it’s entire opposite. Where as in The Man Who Wasn’t There they are intentionally setting out to recreate a classic film noir which puts the setting of course in a city.
Bars, nightclubs, cafés, neon signage, apartment buildings, and city landmarks are said to be strong iconography of film noir (Friedman et al. 505). We see very much of this in The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s set in a city and encounters between characters happens in bars and in the hair salon etc.
Even though Blood Simple is not set on urban locations it still brings in the elements of the bar which is a location of importance throughout the story. Marty owns the bar which he has his meetings with the detective and Ray and it’s the place where he’s being shot. The bar is also rich with neon signs strategically put out not only for the iconic noir homage but stylistically purposeful when trying to create the black and white effect of noir in color film. Filmmakers working with noir in color have trouble reaching the same effects of black and white lighting, ”Their scenes may take place at night and be lit in a low-key fashion, but inevitably they convey a greater range of visual information than did noir in it’s earlier period.” (Friedman et al. 509) Neo-noir became the new sub genre for noir with color. This is what the Coens used with very much awareness in Blood Simple, where for example the scenes of the bar are shot at night, in low-key and the light sources are the very strong iconic neon lights. This is one way to renew the conventions of the genre, aiming towards the visual effect of film noir but install a new way to do it.
The Man Who Wasn’t There of course was shot in black and white and there are some terrific moments in which they recreate the look of film noir. In the hearing room, close to the end, where one single light source from the roof shines light on restricted area of the frame and brings incredible contrast between black and white with the symbolic question of what is kept in the dark.

Conclusion When classic film noirs like Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My sweet came out 1944 a critic described them as ”representative of a new trend of crime film, more psychological in focus, more hard-boiled and more Freudian. In calling them Freudian, he was emphasizing their interest in neuroses and anxiety” (Friedman et al. 501)

This way of looking upon the genre can be applied on the Coens’ recreation of it. They are innovatory, interesting and deals with the same themes as then but in relations to modern society. This is relevant for filmmakers of today that to use conventions of classic film noir and create the same kind of discussions of social pessimism for example but developing concepts like femme fatal, neo-noir, landscapes instead of urban settings to interest audiences of today and putting a new face on the genre with their personal touch.

This is how the genre is kept alive. The Coens’ noirs are influenced by the classic film noir conventions and are being adapted to modern society with energy, irony and passion of their own taste. In all it’s aspects from iconography, characters and narrative structures they are renewing the genre and at the same time stay true to the roots of classic film noir.

Works cited
Friedman, Lester, David Desser, Sarah Kozloff, Martha P. Nochimson, Stephen Prince. An Introduction To Film Genres (W.W Norton and Company, 2014)
Adams, Jeffrey. The Cinema Of The Coen Brothers, (Colombia University Press, 2015)
Manon, Hugh S. “Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide And The Hermetic Frontiers Of Film Noir.” Film & History (03603695) 33.2 (2003): 36-47. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
Blood Simple. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, performances by John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, River Road Productions, 1984.
Fargo. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, performances by William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Frances McDormand, PolyGram, 1996.
The Man Who Wasn’t There. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, performances by Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Gramercy, 2001.
Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, performances byFred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Paramount Pictures, 1944.


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