memmnmr through screwball comedy and gangster movie to prison-break
flick, the COEN BROTHERS have time and again re—written celluloid. Joel and Ethan reinvented The Big Sleep as The Big Lebowski, replacing Philip Marlowe with The Dude, relocated Homer’s Odyssey to America’s Deep South in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and revitalised film noir with existential angst in their latest, The Man Who Wasn’t There. As that film opens, we cast a critical eye over the Coens’ filmography,
and find ten idiosyncratic masterpieces.
As one of
our contributors says, we’re lucky to live in their time.
Blood Simple (1983)
Inspired by the hard-boiled novels of crime writers James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett. this atmospheric and visceral tale of illicit passions. murderous greed and bloody double- crossing was one of the most virtuoso and inﬂuential debut features in 1980s American cinema. The macabre storyline involves a Texan bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya). who hires sleazy private eye Vizzer (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his adulterous young wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz). Only Vizzer comes up with his own scheme: fake the couple's deaths and kill Many. leaving Abby and Ray as chief suspects.
The C oens mix the hoirifying — a live burial sequence — with the blackly comic and they give the audience far more knowledge than their hapless characters. who stumble uncomprehendingly ever deeper into their own personal mires. Equally impressive is the visual clan of the Coens: from the opening shots of an eerily deserted Texas. this is a work ﬁlled with startling. ominous images. captured by the swooping camerawork of Barry Sonnenfeld.
There‘s little warmth from the brothers towards any of their characters. but in Vizzer they've created a magnificently loathsome figure, whose gory demise — his hand jammed under a window-sill and impaled with a knife — provides a fittineg nightmarish denouement. (Tom Dawson)
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Crimewave (aka The XYZ Murders) (1985)
Joel and Ethan co-wrote this slapstick crime caper: the directing credit goes to third writer Sam Raimi. Though when it comes to contractual credits. the Coens play it fast and loose (it‘s not so much who does what as how much of each they do). C rimewave is probably the weakest film in the Coens” oeuvre. but it‘s got the advantage of being their most obscure (its altemative title lends it a further air of mystery), and it has moments of brilliance.
One of these is a stunningly choreographed sequence that falls somewhere between ballet and Tom And Jerry. In it nerdy security man Vic Ajax (Reed Birney) is pursued through an endless series of rooms by hulking ‘pest exterminator’ Faron Crush (Paul L. Smith). Ajax locks a door behind him, Crush breaks through it. Ajaz spins through the next closing it behind him. Crush follows. Repeat ad inﬁnitum.
The unrelenting and hysterically pitched slapstick action is loosely hung on a story about a businessman (Raimi‘s Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell) backstabbing his partner. It's ‘framed’ by scenes at the Hudsucker State Penitentiary (note the name which reappears later in the brothers‘ filmography), where Ajax is about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit (in itself a great pun: he's framed by the frames). (Miles Fielder) >
18 Oct—l Nov 2001 THE LIST 1 1