7 Classic Movies that Influenced the Coen Brothers

Private Dicks, Screwball Comedy, and a Spy Thriller

The Big Sleep
Warner Bros.

The two-headed filmmaking team of Joel and Ethan Coen are renowned for their dark humor, labyrinthine plots, and detailed period settings. Coen films can generally be classified as either crime films (with a nod to film noir) or screwball comedies. The pair operates as true auteurs, writing (or co-writing), directing, co-producing, and editing nearly all of their films. Although notoriously reluctant interview subjects, the brainy brothers credit literary influences such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and William Faulkner. The classic movies that influenced the Coen Brothers are scholarly, too.

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Sullivan's Travels - 1941

Sullivan's Travels
Sullivan's Travels. Paramount

Burned out on comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan aspires to make a “serious” film (called O Brother, Where Art Thou?) about modern social problems. He sets out on a Steinbeckian cross-country journey to learn how the simple folk live, and along the way, realizes the power of laughter to transcend poverty and hardship. Preston Sturges wrote and directed this favorite of the Coen Brothers, which provided them with both the road-trip theme and the title for their 2000 musical comedy.

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The Third Man - 1949

The Third Man
The Third Man. London Film Productions

At the invitation of old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), down-on-his-luck novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-war Vienna to start a new job. Shocked to learn that Harry was just killed in a suspicious accident, Martins begins to investigate his death, and uncovers some disturbing truths about his friend. With a taut screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel. In preparation for shooting their inaugural feature Blood Simple, the Coens went to see a revival of this classic noir thriller, with their cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld in tow.

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The Big Sleep - 1946

The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep. Warner Brothers

Humphrey Bogart stars as private dick Philip Marlowe in this complex Howard Hawks mystery. Marlowe is hired by a wealthy old man to investigate the blackmailing of his morally dubious younger daughter. While hot on the perp’s trail, sparks fly between Marlowe and the General’s other daughter, the spirited Vivian (Lauren Bacall). William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay, based on Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novel. About their inspiration for The Big Lebowski, Joel Coen says, “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story — how it moves episodically and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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Advise and Consent - 1962

Advise and Consent
Advise and Consent. Columbia

Based on actual events, this film follows the public and private dealings that take place as the U.S. Senate holds confirmation hearings on a controversial Secretary of State nominee (Henry Fonda). Blackmail, smear tactics, and political trade-offs are par for the course. As kids, the Coen brothers staged their own version of this film on Super 8mm, which they edited in-camera. This early foray into political melodrama would lay the groundwork for Burn After Reading.

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Hell in the Pacific - 1968

Hell in the Pacific
Hell in the Pacific. American Broadcasting Company

An American pilot (Lee Marvin) is shot down over a remote Pacific island during World War II. He soon discovers that he shares the island with a stranded Japanese officer (the iconic Toshiro Mifune). As the tagline boasts, “They hunted each other as enemies...they tormented each other as savages...they faced each other as men!” The Coens’ abandoned remake of To the White Sea bore striking thematic resemblances to this film, as does their acclaimed No Country for Old Men. Joel cites the similarities as “almost no dialog, a bizarre score, and guys fighting and doing lots of stuff with their hands."

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The Long Goodbye - 1973

The Long Goodbye
The Long Goodbye. United Artists

Robert Altman’s clever update of Raymond Chandler’s mystery is set in Los Angeles circa 1974. Hardly a pure adaptation, Elliot Gould gives the best performance of his career as a wry, laconic version of sleuth Phillip Marlowe. Like all of the characters found in The Big Lebowski, Gould’s Marlowe occupies a time and place in which he is obsolete. Says Joel, “The Dude is obviously a classic sixties burnout case, but Goodman’s character too identifies himself as a Vietnam vet. Julianne Moore is that kind of Fluxus artist who’s passe now. So they’re all meant to be anachronistic in a way.”

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‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’ - 1936

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Columbia

When he inherits a relative’s fortune, small-town tuba player Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) heads to New York City. There he is preyed upon by a gaggle of greedy unsavory types, including sexy reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who uses Deeds’ attraction to her as a means to manipulate him. You will recognize the influence of Frank Capra’s charming screwball comedy on the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy.