Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the best American filmmakers ever. I’ve enjoyed their films over the years; they’re offbeat, humorous (especially at unexpected times), and noirish. One of Joel’s early credits was working as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead. After becoming friends with Raimi and Bruce Campbell, Joel and Ethan would start collaborating on screenplays. They would make their directing debut in 1984 with Blood Simple (until 2004, Joel would take sole director credit and Ethan would take sole producing credit). The Coen brothers have written, produced, and directed fifteen more features since then (they also edit their movies under the alias Roderick Jaynes). In honor of their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, I will focus this appreciation on all of the features they’ve directed (they’ve yet to make a bad movie): Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit.
1984’s Blood Simple centers on a sleazy bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Of course, nothing goes according to plan, with misunderstandings and murder ensuing. This neo-noir marked the Coen’s filmmaking debut as well as their first collaboration with composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. This was the first of several Coen films that McDormand would appear in (she also married Joel after the film was made). The film was re-released in 1998 in a director’s cut (which was actually three minutes shorter than the original theatrical version).
The Coens followed up Blood Simple with 1987’s Raising Arizona. Their comedic sophomore effort centers on a married couple, an ex-con (Nicholas Cage) and a police officer (Holly Hunter), who resort to kidnapping a baby (one of five sons of a local furniture magnate) after they are unable to conceive a child of their own. Things get complicated when two of the ex-con’s buddies escape from prison and try to lure him back for another score. Co-starring John Goodman, William Forsythe, and Randall “Tex” Cobb, this critically acclaimed film was a box office hit and has grown into cult status over the years. The Coens also worked with many of the same crew members that they worked with on their previous film.
1990’s Miller’s Crossing centers on a Prohibition-era power struggle between rival gangs and the man (Gabriel Byrne) who plays both sides. The film features an excellent cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi, Michael Jeter, Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand, and Sam Raimi. It also marked the Coens’ final collaboration with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who would soon embark on a directing career). The film was also influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key, its 1942 film adaptation, as well as partially influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.
1991’s Barton Fink centers on a young New York City playwright (John Turturro) who stays at a rundown hotel in Hollywood in 1941, attempting to write a screenplay while finding himself in some bizarre situations. Co-starring John Goodman, Oscar nominee Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi, this film marked the Coens’ first collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Supporting Actor) and picked up three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (Best Actor, Best Director, and the Palme d’Or).
1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy centers on a naïve business-school graduate (Tim Robbins) who is installed as president of a manufacturing company in 1958 as part of a stock scam being run by the company’s director (Paul Newman). Co-starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (in a terrific performance inspired by Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn), Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, John Mahoney, Charles Durning, Anna Nicole Smith, Sam Raimi, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, and John Goodman, this film was co-written by Raimi and the Coens back in the mid-1980s but couldn’t be made until the Coens were more popular. It was also inspired by Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1940s (especially the films of Preston Sturges).
(To be continued in: Joel & Ethan Coen: An Appreciation Part Two)