I Can Get You A Toe: Noir in The Big Lebowski


In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.

If you don’t already know, there’s a little secret ’round these parts. I’ll trade you for an oat soda. Aw hell, you look like kind enough fellers, I’ll give you one on the house. The Big Lebowski is a noir, and it’s no longer a cult movie. There I said it. So sit down with your favorite beverage, throw some Creedence on the stereo, and join me for a little discussion on this quietly large film.



Ethan and Joel Coen, expert craftsman of such films as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Hudsucker Proxy, cast their nets wide in this 1998 “bowling noir”, rounding up a cast of characters that include a Jewish Vietnam vet with anger issues, a group of nihilists that record German House records, and a well-known pornographer named Jackie Treehorn. And that’s not the half of it. There is a pedophile latino (scene-stealer John Turturro) in the local bowling league, a gruff wheelchair-bound millionaire that shares the name of our protagonist, Jeffrey Lebowski, and modernist painters that explore their canvas nude and suspended from a trapeze-like harness. It is possible to watch the entire film and never figure out what you spent the last two hours doing, but the film actually holds up well if you follow the convoluted plot.

If you have been following Noir Week at Flixist, you may already be familiar with Howard Hawks The Big Sleep, in which a private eye (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by an old, wheelchair-bound millionaire to investigate the behavior of one of his reckless daughters. But Bogey soon realizes there is something amiss, and falls deeper into a strange plot full of shady characters and misdirection. Well, here’s Lebowski. A unemployed loafer (Jeff Bridges as The Dude) is asked by a wheelchair-bound millionaire to track down his missing, reckless trophy wife (Tara Reid), who is thought to have been kidnapped. The Dude runs into trouble and falls deeper into a strange plot full of shady characters and misdirection. Both movies feature a subplot of drugs and pornography, and the instigating characters in TBS are mirrored almost exactly in TBL.

I say that Lebowski is no longer a cult film because the tremendously quotable dialogue in Lebowski has spawned a resurgence in the film’s popularity over the past few years, due in no small part to the Internet. Screenings of the film, complete with costume contests and trivia, are springing up across the country. There is even an annual Lebowski Fest (this year in Philadelphia) that celebrates all things Dude. T-shirts, figurines, and apparel can be purchased all over the Web, and someone even went to the trouble to rewrite the story in Shakesperian vernacular. Over half of all the lines spoken in TBL by the titular Lebowski are spoken by other characters at some point during the film, resulting in hilarious, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue. Quote a few lines around any Lebowski fan and you are sure to get lost in a back-and-forth of movie banter.

With the recent success of Coen Bros. movies such as No Country for Old Men and True Grit, many film aficionados have found themselves drawn back to the Coen’s earlier works. They search out the films missing from their private collection, but eventually return to Fargo and The Big Lebowski (1996 and 1998). Both films encapsulate elements of film noir, but each attempt reinvents the detective role in a new way, Fargo‘s private eye protagonist is a pregnant policewoman, and Lebowski‘s detective Dude is a directionless dope-smoker. Each takes the characteristics of the strong, driven male detective and flips it on its head, often for humorous effect. It is because of this lazy, aimless attitude that The Dude has time for such outrageous antics. His eclectic friends Walter and Donny round out this motley crew, and peripheral characters keep this film from drifting at sea, but Bridge’s Lebowski is the ship’s captain. These polar forces, those of apathy versus action, keep the film moving along at a brisk pace. Beneath it all, however, is a sense that as long as you keep on keeping on, things will work themselves out. Well, mostly.

Another staple of the film noir, the private detective, does make an appearance in Lebowski. Jon Polito, a Coen Brothers staple, plays a private eye that shadows The Dude in an old jalopy, reminiscent of Bogart’s Marlowe in TBS. Here the Coens lay it on the table, this is a noir, albeit a mixed up one. Our private eye smokes pot, drinks too much, doesn’t have a job, and makes the bowling alley his second home (although he never actually bowls). We even get a strange dream sequence, courtesy of a drugged drink, harking back to the dreams that terrorize Marlowe himself in 1944’s Murder My Sweet.

One of life’s great pleasures is the fantastically bad appearance of TV edits, and this film does not disappoint. When you can’t cut around a line, the only thing left to do is substitute funny words in to make the program “family safe”. Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s terrific Vietnam vet who does most of the film’s “heavy” work, has arguably the best TV edit line to date. Narrowly edging out “Yippie-Kai-Ey Mellon Farmer” and “I’ve had it with these monkey fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane” (both actual lines btw) is a line with so much huh? it’s not worth thinking about. “This is what happens,” Walter warns a young high school teen, “when you meet a stranger in the Alps!” Indeed Walter, indeed.

Unlike a lot of noirs (think The Thin Man series), there isn’t a quick recap of the mystery and its solution. At the end of the first viewing, it isn’t uncommon to be left thinking “what just happened?”. But watch it again and it will become apparent this is a mystery of the highest order (pun intended). What begins innocently enough as a carpet-pissing incident regresses into some strange form of cavalier get-it-done gumshoeing that  brings the laughs throughout. Part frat-boy anthem, part stoner Valhalla, part old-fashioned noir, The Big Lebowski is sure to please most of the Flixist audience. If this doesn’t do it for you, you may have had one too many White Russians.