Joel and Ethan Do Hammett and Chandler: Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, and the Hard-Boiled Tradition

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Raising Arizona was so different from Blood Simple that critics and audiences of the two films must have wondered just what kind of filmmakers the Coens really were. That confusion could then have only been heightened by the release of Miller’s Crossing in 1990. Despite having the same musical director and cinematographer as Raising Arizona and Blood Simple,the Coens’ third film looks, feels, and sounds unlike either of the first two. The geographical setting is also considerably different, moving from the Southwestern locales of the first two films to a vaguely Northeastern one, though for once the actual location of the film’s action is unspecified. Similarly, while the first two films are set in times roughly contemporaneous with those in which they were made, Miller’s Crossing is very much a period piece (and a lavish one at that), set vaguely around the end of the 1920s, though again the film’s exact placement in time is not entirely clear. Retrospectively, though, Miller’s Crossing fits very nicely within the Coens’ entire oeuvre, a fact, though, that only began to come clearly into focus some years later with the release of The Big Lebowski (1998), a film that also seems like something an odd duck among the Coens’ other films but that begins to make sense once it is read properly read within the context of the impact of hard-boiled detective fiction on the Coens’ work as a whole. Miller’s Crossing is strongly connected to the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, while The Big Lebowski has an important connection to the work of Raymond Chandler, thus bringing the Coens into contact with the two most important writers of hard-boiled detective fiction.[1] The addition of James M. Cain to this list of inspirations with The Man Who Wasn’t There then completed a sort of hard-boiled trifecta.

Miller’s Crossing: Hats Off to Hammett

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) is one of the monumental works of nineteenth-century French literature and one of the works that comments with particular acidity and bile on the growing power of capitalist consumerism that marked Flaubert’s contemporary France, particularly during the reign of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, singled out by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire as a paragon of bourgeois stupidity and mediocrity. Flaubert skewers the emergent consumerist culture of his society, including the use of consumerist objects to help us understand his characters, thereby suggesting their immersion in the world of consumerism. One of the novel’s most remembered scenes, for example, occurs at the very beginning, as Charles Bovary is introduced as a schoolboy in a sort of flashback scene. The narrator, one of Charles’s schoolmates, describes for us the new hat that was worn by Charles, a new student at the school:

It was one of those head-gears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton night-cap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face. Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then came in succession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band; after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the manner of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.[2]

This hat, clearly intended to impress Charles’s new classmates, does just the opposite, identifying him to them as a rube with no sense of style and as a philistine who believes that garish excess is a form of elegance. On the other hand, Charles is still young, and his obvious lack of sophistication in this scene wins for him a certain amount of sympathy from readers, if not from his classmates or teacher.

Hats, in fact, feature prominently as signifiers of class and character in modern literature—and even more so in a visual medium such as film, where the hats can actually be seen. By and large, this emphasis on hats in fiction reflects the role of hats in reality. Arthur Asa Berger, for example, singles out hats as being among the consumer objects whose particular branding and style have the strongest meanings attached to them, while also noting that Freud’s discussion of hats as phallic symbols suggests more symbolic significance: “If Freud is correct, the hat has, at a subconscious level, a much deeper and more profound significance for our psyches than we imagine and is connected with anxieties about castration.”[3]

Few films, of course, put more emphasis on hats than does Miller’s Crossing, in which hats are perhaps the most important visual motif, even if the significance of this motif is open to debate. I will, in fact, return to that debate at the end of this section. But first I will start with a consideration of the importance of the fiction of Hammett in that film, an importance that has been universally acknowledged by critics. William H. Mooney, for example, sees Miller’s Crossing as a “reading” of Hammett’s 1931 novel The Glass Key, as well as of the 1935 and 1942 film adaptations of that novel. For Mooney, however, Miller’s Crossing is far more than a simple remake, and a proper understanding of the film requires that audiences understand both its sources and its particular use of nostalgia as a cinematic tool. He argues that the film is successful because it

addresses the potential difficulties directly: nostalgia is always tempered with irony, the past viewed through the lens of the present even while the present offers a pastiche of the earlier works. The Coen brothers, withholding attribution of the film’s sources, insist on identifying them through a deliberate excess of narrative, visual, and verbal citation.[4]

At the same time, Mooney acknowledges that other critics have faulted Miller’s Crossing for being too directly evocative of its sources, as when Gary Giddins argued in the Village Voice that the film is “so clever about its sources … that it has little life of its own,” or when John Harkness wrote in Sight and Sound that it was a wonder the Coens hadn’t been sued for plagiarism by the Hammett estate.[5] As Mooney points out, however, such a charge would have been unfair because the Coens, despite leaving their debt to Hammett unstated in the literal sense go out of their way to call attention to Hammett’s fundamental influence.[6]

Jeffrey Adams also regards Miller’s Crossing essentially as an adaptation of The Glass Key, providing, in fact, significantly more discussion of the parallels between the two works than does Mooney.Indeed, Miller’s Crossing might very well be the most stylish—or perhaps stylized—of all the Coens’ films. Its characters and its plot seem drawn almost directly from Hammett, filtered through gangster films and film noir. And Mooney is certainly right that the basic plot of Miller’s Crossing owes more to The Glass Key than to any other Hammett work, but I would argue that the overall texture of the film owes almost as much to Red Harvest, the 1929 novel that supplied the title for Blood Simple. In fact, I would say that Miller’s Crossing as a whole derives more from a generalized Hammettesque vision rather than from any specific work by Hammett. It is almost as if this particular alternate reality were derived from a Star Trek episode in which the complete works of Hammett were inadvertently left behind on a developing planet, which mistook the works for a sacred text and then evolved an entire civilization based on the worldview of Hammett’s fiction.

The central character of Miller’s Crossing is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the right-hand-man of mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in a city that seems to have some things in common with Prohibition-era Boston and New York but doesn’t quite seem to be either. Actually filmed primarily in New Orleans, the city it resembles most, in fact, might be Personville (or Poisonville), the setting of Red Harvest, while the relationship between O’Bannon and Reagan has much in common with that between Paul Madvig and Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. The aging O’Bannon has been a dominant power in the city for years (and he is still a formidable force), but he has one major soft spot—his feelings for cold-hearted “twist” Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden). Among other things, these feelings cause O’Bannon to protect Verna’s brother, bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), from Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), leading to an inter-ethnic gang war that drives the main plot of the film. And yet this plot is almost beside the point in a film that is clearly so much more concerned with how it looks and the mood it projects than with telling a story.

Miller’s Crossing (1990) Directed by Joel Coen Shown from left: Gabriel Byrne (as Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (as Verna)

This concern with style was highlighted by Roger Ebert in his initial (lukewarm) review of the film, in which he complained that the set design of Miller’s Crossing was simply too designed. Concentrating in particular on O’Bannon’s office, Ebert notes that it is a “wonderful” room, but perhaps just a bit too wonderful:

I do not really think that Leo would have such an office. I believe it is the kind of office that would be created by a good interior designer with contacts in England, and supplied to a rich lawyer. I am not sure a rackets boss in a big American city in 1929 would occupy such a space, even though it does set him off as a sinister presence among the shadows.[7]

Ebert has similar complaints about other aspects of the film as well, noting that it seems altogether “like a movie that is constantly aware of itself, instead of a movie that gets on with business.” For Ebert, the set design, the wardrobe, the makeup and haircuts, and (perhaps especially) the dialogue are all extremely well-crafted—so well crafted that they make us aware of the craft and distract us from the story.

Ebert, of course, was a great fan of cinematic realism—his highest praise was always for films whose characters and plots were “believable.” Believability in this sense means the creation of a cinematic world that seems to operate very much according to the same principles as the real world, and this kind of believability is never high on the Coens’ list of priorities. It is understandable that this fact would be confusing in a film such as Miller’s Crossing, which seems to go so far out of its way to pay attention to even the tiniest detail in its quest to create an authentic-looking world, but the emphasis here is on “looking”—and this authenticity is of a sort that relies on internal self-consistency and not on any kind of consistency with the expectations we have gained from our experience of the real world. Put differently, Miller’s Crossing is not intended to provide audiences with an authentic vision of how real Prohibition-era gangsters might have looked and acted. It is intended to provide a highly self-conscious vision of how fictional Prohibition-era gangsters (filtered through the fiction of Hammett, but with new elements of postmodern play mixed in) should look and act.

Miller’s Crossing, despite the lavish attention to period detail, calls attention to its status as a work of fiction in a number of ways, including the insertion of several scenes and motifs that simply have no place in a realistic movie about gangsters at the end of the 1920s. Two of these occur within a few minutes of each other around a third of the way through the film—just in case some viewers were, this far in, still trying to view Miller’s Crossing as a conventional gangster film. In the first (and more spectacular) of these two set pieces, two henchmen working for Caspar invade the home of O’Bannon with murderous intent, Thompson submachine guns in hand. O’Bannon dives under his bed as they invade his bedroom, machine guns blaring. Somehow, the bed manages to shield O’Bannon from their bullets. He shoots and kills one of the gunmen (in a particularly colorful fashion), which sends the second gunman scurrying out of the room, giving O’Bannon an opportunity to escape out the window with the first gunman’s Thompson. When the second gunman re-enters the bedroom looking for O’Bannon, the latter ventilates him with a barrage of bullets from the Thompson that sends him into an exaggerated and protracted dance of shuddering death that lasts all of twenty seconds, while the gunman’s own Thompson goes off wildly, spraying bullets around the room, demolishing a chandelier, a painting, and even the gunman’s toes. The car that brought the two gunmen then speeds away, another gunman inside the car spraying Thompson bullets back at O’Bannon, who calmly walks into the street behind the car, seemingly impervious to the shower of lead around him, and returns fire, until the car crashes and explodes. To make matters even more theatrical and even surreal, this entire sequence is accompanied by the strains of the sentimental Irish ballad “Danny Boy” playing on the gramophone in O’Bannon’s bedroom, in a version recorded specifically for the film by the eminent Irish tenor Frank Patterson, just so the song could be perfectly synched with the bloody action.

This scene is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. It’s also ridiculous and entirely unrealistic, a fact that is quickly punctuated by the fact that it is followed only a few minutes later by another unrealistic scene in which Reagan confesses to O’Bannon that he has been sleeping with Verna, after which O’Bannon beats him mercilessly, sending him tumbling down not one, but two flights of stairs, finally winding up on the ground level of the Shenandoah Club, the elaborate speakeasy where O’Bannon’s minions serve illegal hooch to an affluent-looking clientele, generally dressed in formal attire. If all of this weren’t enough of a clue that this is not an ordinary gangster film, Reagan inadvertently winds up crashing into a matronly, but well-dressed customer at the club, who screams in shock and pummels the hapless Reagan with her purse. Reagan, in fact, is constantly being pounded on in this film. As Bergan points out, Hammett’s Beaumont gets beaten up quite a lot in The Glass Key as well, and it is certainly the case that being able to take a beating can be taken as an indicator of Reagan’s tough-guy status.[8] Still, the amount of punishment he absorbs goes well beyond reason. Like many Coen characters, in fact, he seems to have the ability of a cartoon character to take punishment, so he survives all of this intact.

In addition to such specific scenes, it is also the case that the entire plot of Miller’s Crossing doesn’t particularly make sense. O’Bannon and his Irish mob have been running the town behind the scenes for years, with the mayor and the police in his pocket. And yet, after the Thompson attack on his house (an attack, mind you, in which O’Bannon single-handedly demolishes four of Caspar’s top henchmen), O’Bannon is suddenly perceived as so weak that the city’s official powers-that-be (almost all of whom appear to be Irish) quickly shift their allegiance to Caspar’s Italian mob. Before we know it, O’Bannon has lost his public works contracts with the city, and the police are raiding the Shenandoah Club. Soon afterward, virtually the entire police force (accompanied and seemingly led by an Italian gangster, played by the Coens’ old buddy Sam Raimi) shows up to firebomb the Sons of Erin Social Club, an establishment owned by O’Bannon that is a favorite hangout for the Irish mob. The mobsters inside return fire, giving Raimi an opportunity to do the Thompson death dance himself when he is hit by a hail of bullets, but then the cops obliterate the club with a preposterously excessive show of firepower.

Meanwhile, Caspar smoothly slides into O’Bannon’s old position as the city’s top political boss. The vulgar Caspar does, however, lack O’Bannon’s class and style, a point that is driven home when we get a view of Caspar’s office, which looks downright cramped and seedy compared with O’Bannon’s roomy, well-decorated office. Never fear, though, Caspar simply boots the befuddled mayor out of his office and sets up shop there, though even the mayor’s office is no match for O’Bannon’s posh digs. Meanwhile, our trip to the mayor’s office provides another reminder of just how constructed this whole film is when we see the mayor’s secretary being played by Frances McDormand in a brief, but amusing cameo that is one of the highlights of the film, even though it contributes essentially nothing to the narrative.

One of the great stylistic pleasures of Miller’s Crossing comes from the dialogue, which is just as constructed as the sets, just as artificial as the plot. Reagan’s tough-talking dialogue is particularly effective—and sounds very much like it might have come from a Hammett novel. His repeated declaration of ideas like “nobody knows anybody” not only reinforces his characterization as a cynic (“What heart?” he asks, as Bernie asks him to look in his heart just before he puts a bullet between Bernie’s eyes) but also adds to the film’s elaboration of the notion (first put forth at the beginning of Blood Simple) of the fundamental individualist isolation of one person from another in modern America.Importantly, though, these characters are not simply unknown to each other: they are all constantly plotting against and working to undermine each other, not only physically but verbally: each exchange of dialogue (even between friends or lovers) tends to turn into a battle for verbal supremacy.

Indeed, the whole verbal world of this film sounds like something from a hard-boiled novel—a genre to which an implied critique of the alienating effects of individualism is quite central as a whole. For example, multiple times in the film, one character asks another what is going on by inquiring, “What’s the rumpus?” This expression was, in fact, in use in America in the 1920s and 1930s, including once in Red Harvest. However, some of the gangster slang of Miller’s Crossing seems to have been entirely invented, as when various characters are told to “dangle” when someone wants to get rid of them. Other slang expressions are authentic, but sound made up because they are no longer widely used, as when a character being disrespected is said to be given the “high hat.”

This last expression sounds particularly artificial in this film, simply because hats in general are such an important visual motif running through the entire film. Indeed, hats are so important as to constitute a metafictional signal in their own right. American men often wore hats in 1929, and the main characters in 1930s gangster films and then later in film noir typically wore hats as well. As Bergan puts it, “hats are an essential part of the aesthetic of the gangster movie from the 1930s to the 1950s.”[9] Further, as Adams notes, hats are a particularly important motif in The Glass Key.[10]It is therefore perfectly understandable that so many of the men in Miller’s Crossing wear hats. What is not quite as easy to understand is the way the film continually calls attention to the hat motif, with the camera consistently focusing in on hats as if to say, “Look, a hat!” During his beating at the hands of O’Bannon in the Shenandoah Club, for example, Reagan manages to keep his hat with him the whole time, including his tumbles down flights of stairs. At the end of the scene, O’Bannon hands him his hat, literalizing a common metaphorical expression for firing someone or unceremoniously sending someone away.

This aspect of the film is so intrusive that it seems to demand interpretation. Why all the focus on hats, anyway? This demand for interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the hat imagery of the film revolves around one of the dream sequences of which the Coens make so much use in their films. Though it is not clear at the time, the opening title sequence (after a seven-minute prologue in which we are introduced to O’Bannon, Reagan, and Caspar and some of the tensions among them) consists, in fact, of this dream, which Reagan relates to Verna halfway through the film in one of the rare moments in which he comes close to opening up to anyone. In the dream, Reagan is walking in the woods outside town near Miller’s Crossing, when his beloved hat is suddenly blown off his head and carried away along the ground by the breeze. At least since the time of Freud (and maybe even since the Old Testament), nothing in Western culture invites interpretation more than a dream, and many moments sprinkled throughout the film have provide clues that this dream might be of crucial significance. Not only does the dream take place in the wooded area that gives the film its title, but this area is also the setting of some crucial moments in the film, as when Reagan fakes the execution-style slaying of Verna’s brother there and when Reagan is himself nearly executed in the same spot. Moreover, the very fact that the dream is about a hat seems to lend it extra significance, given the obvious way that hats are foregrounded throughout the film.

Immediately after the opening credits, Reagan is awakened from his dream, only to find that his hat is, in fact, missing, having been lost in a poker game the night before. It might well be, then, that the dream simply re-stages the loss of the hat in the card game, this time, for once, a cigar being pretty much just a cigar. But, for Freud, hats could also sometimes be a phallic symbol, and when we learn that it is, in fact, Verna who has taken away his prize hat, we are tempted to see the dream as symbolizing Reagan’s fear that his feelings for Verna will take away his heavily-guarded masculine independence. Verna herself gets in on the interpretive act after Reagan tells her the dream and seems to want to see the hat as a symbol of her, its loss in the dream signifying Reagan’s fear that she will be lost to him.Apparently, excited by this possible meaning of the dream, Verna (who clearly wants Reagan to love her though she feigns lack of concern) interrupts and guesses that Reagan chased down his hat and picked it up, only to discover that it had been transformed into “something wonderful.” However, much in the way that the Coens themselves often shoot down fancy symbolic or allegorical interpretations of their films, Reagan immediately deflates any expectation that this dream might reveal a crack in his affectless persona. It stayed a hat, he tells her, and in any case he didn’t chase it down: “There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat,” he grumbles, thus dismissing symbolic interpretations of the dream with a statement that itself could have a number of different symbolic interpretations.

The Coens, not surprisingly, would appear to side with Reagan on this one. In an interview, Joel Coen insisted that the hat has no particular symbolic significance: “It’s an image that came to us, that we liked, and it just implanted itself. It’s a kind of practical guiding thread, but there’s no need to look for deep meanings.”[11] Adams notes this dismissal of symbolic significance for the hat motif in Miller’s Crossing but concludes that, while the hat imagery in The Glass Key seems legitimately to lack such meaning, the hats in the Coens’ film do project significance, whether the Coens like it or not. Adams sees the hats in the film primarily as signifiers of social status and (especially) masculinity, with the loss of one’s hat being a sign of weakness or vulnerability, though he concludes that the hat imagery does not really support Freudian symbolic readings, despite its significance in terms of Adams’ gender-based reading of the film, a reading that, for Adams, could potentially lead to a much better appreciation of the homoerotic subtext that runs through The Glass Key.[12]

Adams is right, but not entirely right, in the sense that his reading does not encompass anything like a complete understanding of the possible significance of the complex of hat imagery that runs through Miller’s Crossing, a complex that can have multiple interpretations. For example, if we refer back to my discussion of Madame Bovary above, we can see that the hat imagery of Miller’s Crossing can potentially be read as a critique of capitalism—and particularly as a critique of the rampant commodification of everything brought about by capitalism in its consumerist phase. After all, Madame Bovary is a novel that is chock full of manufactured objects, many of which are pursued by Flaubert’s haplessly oblivious characters with a desire so intense as to be indistinguishable from the erotic. Hats are particularly prominent in the novel in this sense—“emblematic,” says Edward J. Ahearn, “of a world overflowing with manufactured things.” Citing the prominent French critic Claude Duchet’s well-known suggestion that the famously eclectic hat worn by young Charles Bovary at school in the novel’s opening scene is “the quintessential manufactured object,” Ahearn concludes that the hat imagery of Madame Bovary dramatizes the way in which the consumerist desire created by commodities in the novel exerts a warping effect on interpersonal relations, with so much emotional energy spent on desire for objects that none is left for proper relationships with other people.”[13]

One might, I would suggest, read very much the same significance into the hats of Miller’s Crossing, which makes those hats an ongoing reminder of the materialist desire that is never overtly expressed in the novel. In The Sopranos Tony Soprano, following in the footsteps of The Godfather’sMichael Corleone, continually reminds his viewers that he is “runnin’ a business here,” that his criminal enterprise is all about making money. Miller’s Crossing provides no such overt reminders. Indeed, the gangsters of the film—especially those at the top, such as O’Bannon and Caspar—are certainly in the business of making money, but the cash they accumulate seems almost like an afterthought, more an indirect by-product of their desire to achieve power and respect (even love) than the direct object of desire in its own right. But the hats that run through the film serve as continual reminders of the kinds of consumer goods that can be bought with cash and that are required accoutrements of the well-equipped gangster.

This reading should not be surprising. Film noir, hard-boiled fiction, and the gangster film all quite commonly function as allegorical critiques of capitalism, suggesting that the dark side of the American consumerist dream as greed and corruption tends to overwhelm any sense of freedom and opportunity; the gangster film in particular quite typically suggests that corporate capitalism is really just another form of organized crime, this time operating in full view and with the full approval and support of American society. Hard-boiled detective fiction is often similarly cynical in its depiction of the consequences of capitalism. Yet, for most critics, Miller’s Crossing—despite its close ties to all of these genres—seems relatively uninterested in deploying the resources of these genres to conduct a critique of capitalism. On the other hand, it is certainly the case that the individualist loneliness and lack of mutual trust shown by virtually all of the characters of Miller’s Crossing could be seen as a result of precisely the sort of alienation that Marxist critics since Marx himself have seen as a central negative psychic consequence of life under the capitalist system, with its ethos of competition and its emphasis on specialization and division of labor.

Granted, the film does not overtly invite such readings, the isolation of the characters seeming more like an existential condition than a social or political one. Thus, I am not arguing that the hat imagery of Miller’s Crossing should be read as an allegory about commodification and consumerism, even though it clearly can be read this way. And I am certainly not arguing that the hats of Miller’s Crossing somehow constitute an oblique reference to the hats of Madame Bovary.What I am suggesting, though, is that Miller’s Crossing—and the films of the Coen Brothers in general—are filled with such a multiplicity of meaning and reference that no one interpretation of a Coen film (or of a specific motif within a Coen film) can generally be expected to be the correct interpretation. The Coens consistently construct films that reward viewers for knowledge and ingenuity, but they do not construct “puzzle” films in which audiences must decode clues in order to come up with the “right” solution to the various mysteries that the films convey.

The Big Lebowski: “There are a lot of facets to this.”

It is not difficult to think of Miller’ Crossing and The Big Lebowski as somehow going together because the first is so clearly influenced by the hard-boiled fiction of Hammett, while the latter is so clearly influenced by the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler (which itself was heavily influenced by the fiction of Hammett). In almost every other way, though, these two films could not be more different. Stylistically and generically, Miller’s Crossing is probably the most consistent of the Coens’ films, sticking to the same period look and gangster milieu throughout. The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, probably combines more styles and genres (and pop cultural references) than any other Coen film, employing a variety of looks, none of which are even close to that of Miller’s Crossing. Finally, it would be hard to imagine two film protagonists who are more dissimilar than the tightly-wound Tom Reagan and the laid-back Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges).

Christopher Raczkowski further notes that the two films seem based on fundamentally different aesthetic principles but argues that the difference between the films in this sense is similar to the difference between the aesthetic principles of Hammett and Chandler.[14] For Raczkowski, the central visual image of the tumbling hat in Miller’s Crossing functions via a metonymy in which the hat “refers to” Reagan through its continual proximity to him but does not stand as a symbol of him. The tumbling tumbleweed in the opening sequence of The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, has no direct association with the Dude, but stands as a symbol of the way he aimlessly drifts through life. Formulated by Raczkowksi in terms of the noir literary aesthetics of Hammett and Chandler, “the striking difference between the noir vision of Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski is the difference between a metonymic aesthetic of impenetrable surface and a metaphoric aesthetic of depth and identity.”[15]

The Chandler resonances in The Big Lebowski are clear, though (other than serving vaguely as a detective figure throughout the film) the Dude would seem to have little in common with Chandler’s Marlowe. Indeed, the one moment in The Big Lebowski in which the Dude overtly attempts to play sleuth turns out to be a parodic one. After watching a pornographer make notes on a notepad during a phone conversation, then tear off the top sheet and take it away with it, the Dude employs the age-old trick of shading the next sheet of the notepad with a pencil to reveal the imprint of the writing from the previous sheet. What is revealed, however, is simply a doodle of a man with a giant erect penis. This moment then resonates with the other moment in the film in which the Dude is identified as a private detective. Here, he encounters another private detective (played by Coen vet Jon Polito) who enthusiastically expresses his pleasure at meeting a fellow “dick.” For his own part, though, the Dude seems completely baffled by this greeting from a supposed professional colleague, clearly suggesting that he does not regard himself as a detective by trade.

Indeed, even Raczkowski grants that, while Miller’s Crossing seems to adhere to Hammett’s aesthetic quite closely (and is set in Hammett’s time-frame), The Big Lebowski’srelationship with Chandler is quite loose given that the film is set in the early 1990s and is informed by such an eclectic array of other influences as well. Multiplicity is, perhaps, the single most important defining characteristic of The Big Lebowski, a film whose mix of materials is drawn not just from hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, but also the Western, the buddy film, the stoner film, rock music, technopop, avant-garde art, interpretive dance, pornography, bowling, and German nihilism, among others.

The Big Lebowski functions largely as an eclectic collection of cultural references, its almost nonsensical plot serving merely as a framework designed to hold up its complex array of characters and allusions. Given the cult status of The Big Lebowski, this plot is well known:as befits his directionless lifestyle, the Dude careens wildly from one cultural context to another seeking retribution for the damages he has suffered in an unlikely case of mistaken identity as two not-too-bright goons accost him in his seedy apartment in an attempt to collect a debt owed by one Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the young trophy wife of an aging and disabled millionaire who also happens to be named Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). As a warning apparently meant to intimidate the Dude into coming up with the money, one of the goons pees on the Dude’s favorite rug, an accessory that really ties his shabby living room together—and that, as a sort of MacGuffin in the mode of Hitchcock, loosely ties together the film by providing the initial impetus for the plot.

It is worth noting that the other goon (who is busy dunking the Dude’s head into his not-too-sanitary-looking toilet) is played by Mark Pellegrino, who would play a similar dunder-headed thug a few years later in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), another film that takes place in a sort of alternate-reality Los Angeles (or perhaps in two different alternate-reality versions of Los Angeles). This bit of cross-casting was probably not an intentional nod to the Coens on the part of Lynch, but the fact that a similar character played by the same actor fits so nicely within the worlds of these two films suggests their mutual participation in a number of noir traditions having to do with the representation of Los Angeles in fiction and film. It also suggests the breadth of the Coens’ reach in terms of the different kinds of films and filmmakers with which their work shares common tropes and common interests.

When he realizes the case of mistaken identity that has led to the sad fate of his rug, the Dude—egged on by his crusty sidekick Walter Sobchak (John Goodman)—goes to the other Lebowski seeking recompense for the damage to his rug. The rich Lebowski rebuffs him, but the Dude for once shows initiative and takes an expensive Persian rug from the Lebowski mansion as compensation, anyway. Soon afterward, Bunny is apparently kidnapped, leading Mr. Lebowski seemingly to turn to the Dude to try to get her back—though we will eventually learn that he actually assumes that the Dude will bungle the task. The so-called kidnappers, meanwhile, are a group of German nihilists who have merely faked Bunny’s kidnapping (echoing the semi-fake kidnap plot the brothers used in Fargo two years earlier)to try to extract the ransom. More trouble then brews when Mr. Lebowski convinces the nihilists that the Dude has stolen the ransom money (though in fact the elder Lebowski has stolen it for himself). This maneuver puts the Dude in direct conflict with the nihilists, but then the Dude (despite his laid-back demeanor) seems to have an astonishing ability to get into conflicts in this film, largely because of the truculence and bad advice of Walter. These conflicts, in turn, are part of a series of complicated plots and counterplots, all involving strange encounters with characters so eccentric that they seem to be playing parodies of eccentrics. The episodic structure of the film (which resembles the episodic construction of most Chandler novels and especially of The Big Sleep) allows the Dude to move through a series of extreme and diverse cultural contexts, navigating most of them with the “help” of Walter, whose assistance invariably makes things worse. “There are a lot of facets to this. A lot of interested parties,” as the Dude says at one point.

The Big Lebowski (1998) Directed by Joel Coen Shown: Jeff Bridges (as Jeff Lebowski ‘The Dude’), John Goodman (as Walter Sobchak)

The film begins with a voiceover narration delivered by “The Stranger” (Sam Elliott), whose deep, folksy, cowboyish voice seems perfectly suited to the Western landscape that we see on the screen and to the opening music, the Western classic “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers in 1934. And the tumbleweeds in the song (and on the screen) do indeed serve as a metaphorical introduction to the directionless Dude. Otherwise, though, this entire opening sequence seems completely out of place in this film about a stoner in urban Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The Stranger himself seems to have wandered into this film from another one that is completely foreign to this one. As he himself says, introducing the film’s main character, “There was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lotta sense to me—and a lot about where he lived, likewise.”

As the Stranger continues with his opening voiceover, he explains that the story takes place during the American conflict with Iraq, which began with the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and ended as the U.S.-led coalition forces drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait at the end of February, 1991. This historical setting is worth mentioning, the Stranger adds, because it helps us to understand the Dude as “the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude. In Los Angeles.” Unfortunately, the Stranger never explains what this has to do with the conflict in Iraq, which seems to have little or no relation to how the Dude functions as a representative Angelino—other than the fact that he would presumably have virtually no idea what is really going on in Iraq. Indeed, the Stranger at this point loses track of his train of thought about the Dude and decides that “I done introduced him enough,” ending his opening voiceover in a haze of confusion—which is, of course, the Dude’s own natural condition.

The Stranger’s confusion might be attributed to the fact that he is so out of his element in the Dude’s world—which makes the two scenes in which he suddenly appears at the Dude’s favorite bowling alley and starts conversing with the Dude seem all the more absurd, while making the Stranger’s character label seem all the more appropriate. Indeed, the fact that these two characters are identified either primarily or exclusively by descriptive labels rather than actual names indicates the way in which they both function as essentially allegorical figures, representatives of particular cultural positions rather than fully developed individual characters. The Stranger comes from the world of the Western, perhaps the most traditionally American of all genres—and one that the Coens would explore in much more detail in future films such as No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010). In the case of The Big Lebowski, though, the evocation of the Western through the figure of the Stranger seems primarily designed as an indication of the foreignness of the world of the Western to the cultural world of the Dude, in which the values of heroism, rugged individualism, and violent solution of conflicts that are so central to the Western would seem to have little place.

But then the world of the Dude is itself a blurry one whose own values are ill-defined. While the role he plays in The Big Lebowski does indeed seem to have been derived from the fiction of Chandler, the Dude himself seems to have emerged from the stoner/slacker culture embodied in a series of films ranging from Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) to Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993). However, while the stoner/slacker characters in such films tend to be young people who have simply not yet found a path in life, the Dude is a middle-aged man (Bridges was in his late forties during filming, and the Dude seems to be about the same) whose path is quite well established, even though it leads nowhere—a situation with which he seems quite content. Once apparently an active member of the 1960s counterculture,[16] the Dude now seems almost entirely apolitical and has been happily going nowhere for quite some time, his development apparently having been arrested sometime around the late 1960s or early 1970s, the heyday of his favorite band, Creedence Clearwater Revival (active 1967–1972).

Meanwhile, the Dude’s closest associate is Walter, a Vietnam vet who never tires of reminding everyone he meets of his former military service, an experience that seems to have left him so tightly wound that he flies into violent furies at the slightest provocation. In terms of personality, then, Walter and the Dude are about as odd a match as a couple can be, while it should also be noted that Walter somehow manages to own and operate his own small business (a security company). Walter thus has a number of skills that would seem to be useful in a story of this kind, but his anger issues, combined with his generally distorted vision of the way the world works, means that his “assistance” invariably makes the Dude’s life more difficult, especially as the Dude, always seeking the path of least resistance, tends to take Walter’s advice even when it seems wrong to him (and for him).

Walter and the Dude would seem to have only two things in common. The first of these is a shared interest in bowling, which in this sense functions as a sort of utopian enclave where bowlers from diverse cultural, religious, and ideological backgrounds can for a time come together to participate in the sport they love. Cultural critics who have studied sport in general have, in fact, often seen it in this way, and the bowling alley—with its fundamentally working-class intonations—would seem to have a particularly strong utopian potential as a communal gathering place, something along the lines of the bar in the classic television series Cheers (1982–1993). Peter Körte gives this idea a more philosophical spin, suggesting that the bowling alley in the film is to the bowlers “what the Doric temple was to the ancient philosophers. This is the navel of the world, a place where a quote from Lenin is no more unusual than a chat about the next tournament.”[17] The problem is that the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski functions more as a locus of conflict than of community, and the always-on-edge Walter seems constantly primed for violent confrontations with other bowlers. In one early scene, for example, he pulls a gun on a rival bowler during a scoring dispute. Walter is even constantly hostile and abusive toward Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), the third member of the league bowling team that also includes Walter and the Dude. In one of the film’s many running jokes, Donny can hardly get a word in edgewise because every time he opens his mouth, Walter screams at him to “shut the fuck up, Donny!” Walter’s silencing of Donny is so abusive, in fact, that it is only funny when read in combination with Buscemi’s performance only two years earlier in the Coens’ Fargo as small-time hood Carl Showalter, who practically never stops talking through the entire film, until he is finally axed to death and fed into a wood chipper by his partner Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare).

The other thing that Walter and the Dude have in common is that Walter, too, seems to have stopped his intellectual and emotional development some time during the last years of the war in Vietnam—which also turn out to be almost exactly the same time period as the active years of Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). This sense of a lack of advancement beyond the late 1960s and early 1970s in fact informs the entire texture of the film. It is not insignificant, for example, that the film’s opening titles play over scenes from the bowling alley, with Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” (1970) providing musical accompaniment. The Dylan song (which is also used later in the film to accompany one of the Dude’s dream visions) is an indication of the extent to which the eclectic soundtrack of the film relies on relatively well-known popular hits in a variety of genres but mostly originating in the 1960s and 1970s—though the versions used in the film of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (1971) and the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (1977) are actually covers (by Townes Van Zandt and The Gipsy Kings, respectively) from the 1990s, providing a sort of musical reminder of the way in which the historical context of the film seems to be a sort of mashup of the late 1960s/early 1970s and the 1990s. As Körte puts it, in this film we are “in a peculiar time warp where the 1970s are struggling under the weight of the 1990s, and where the pop culture icons of the recent past are shot through with allusions to the literary noir of the 1940s.”[18]

Again, one reason why the cultural context of the film seems to conflate the 1990s with the 1970s is that both Walter and the Dude, while physically living in the early 1990s, seem mentally to be living in the early 1970s. But, once the condition of these two characters is extended to the film as a whole, one is tempted to read this collapsing of historical periods in a broader sense as an allegorical suggestion that American society as a whole progressed very little between the 1970s and the 1990s. By this reading, Walter’s arrested development could be taken as an emblem of the failure of American society adequately to cope with the phenomenon of Vietnam and thus to move beyond it. Similarly, the Dude’s failure to advance beyond the early 1970s could be taken to suggest the failure of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s to transform American society in the way it had originally hoped.[19]

The mixture of cultural timeframes in The Big Lebowski is presented most clearly in the soundtrack, which features period songs selected by T Bone Burnett, while the original music was composed by Carter Burwell, so that the soundtrack combines the talents of the Coens’ two most important musical collaborators. The combination of such a wide variety of musical styles nicely parallels the eclecticism of the film as a whole, though the music is matched with the film’s scenes in sometimes surprising ways—as when the relatively wholesome “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” the 1968 pop hit by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition,[20] plays during a drug-induced dream in which the Dude imagines himself as the star of a pornographic movie.[21]

Music is also used in the film as a form of characterization. Thus, allegorical characters such as the Dude and the Stranger evoke not only specific film genres but also specific musical styles. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and the musical genre it represents thus serve as a sort of musical emblem of the Stranger, while the Dude’s musical alter ego is the songs of Clarence Clearwater, of which he carries around a liberal selection on cassette tapes in his beat-up car. Other characters also have such musical leitmotifs, as when pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) is represented by Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” (1961), the sensuous song that plays in his pad as he hosts the Dude, drugging him and triggering a vision in which the Dude envisions himself as the star of one of Treehorn’s productions (set, of course, in a bowling alley). This dreamwork is not very pornographic, though. It is marked mainly by an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style production number that anticipates the similar numbers in Hail, Caesar! It also features the German nihilists (who had earlier threatened to cut off the Dude’s “Johnson”) wielding giant scissors. Meanwhile, the German nihilists themselves are associated in The Big Lebowski with the 1970s technopop music of Kraftwerk, which became an international sensation with their 1974 album Autobahn—which also happens to be the name of the technopop group to which Uli Kunkel, the leader of the nihilists, had belonged “in the late 1970s.”[22]

Kunkel (aka Karl Hungus, a part-time porn star in Treehorn’s stable) is played by Stormare, who returns for his second outrageous role in a Coen film. Other than Polito’s brief cameo, the smallest role filled by a true Coen regular in The Big Lebowski is that played by John Turturro, as the hilarious Jesus Quintana, who elevates bowling to the level of pansexual religious ecstasy, but who is also a convicted pederast who is easily able to match Walter at making violent threats (though Quintana’s are more obscene). Turturro’s brief-but-audacious performance as Quintana is one of the highlights of the film, while his leitmotif—the Gipsy Kings’ Spanish-language cover of “Hotel California”) provides one of the film’s funniest self-reflexive jokes by indirectly associating the “pervert” Quintana with the Eagles—though this joke fully pays off only later in the film, when the Dude famously declares, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man.”

The Big Lebowski (1998) Directed by Joel Coen Shown: John Turturro (as Jesus Quintana)

Given his love for CCR, this animosity toward their more commercially successful rivals is understandable. The Eagles, Adams notes, represent a “belated and commercially diluted imitation of the roots rock revival led by CCR.”[23] Thus, the Dude’s distaste for the music of the Eagles comes about as close as anything in the film as a political statement on his part. He clearly sees CCR as an authentic expression of the worldview of the counterculture of which he was once a part, while viewing the Eagles as participants in the commodification of that counterculture, converting it into just another case of capitalist marketing. In this sense, the Dude seems rather perspicacious. One might compare here Frank’s argument that the counterculture of the 1960s was quickly appropriated by American consumer capitalism (which then used the energy and imagery of the counterculture for its own purposes) or Dick Hebdige’s well-known argument that youth “subcultures,” if successful, tend to be appropriated by the mainstream culture and put to commercial use. For Hebdige, “youth cultural styles may begin by offering symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones.”[24]

Walter is one of the few characters who lacks a specific theme song from the soundtrack, perhaps because he lacks a coherent character and is so full of contradictions. He is, for example, a stickler for the rules of bowling but flagrantly breaks the rules of league play when he pulls a gun on a member of an opposing team. At times a supporter of political correctness, Walter chides the Dude for calling the thug who peed on his rug a “Chinaman” and points out that the preferred term is “Asian American.” Yet Walter’s racist animosity toward Arabs seems to know no bounds, and soon afterward we find him referring to Saddam Hussein as “that camel-fucker in Iraq.” Still later, Walter waxes poetic about what worthy adversaries the Viet Cong had been in Vietnam, but then concludes that America’s current enemies, the Iraqis, are just a “bunch of fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads and trying to find reverse on a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy fucking adversary.”

Perhaps some of Walter’s animosity toward Arabs is related to his devotion to Judaism, to which he converted (from being a Polish Catholic) when he married his now ex-wife. He staunchly observes the Jewish Sabbath (though his description of himself as “shomer fucking Shabbos” seems of questionable piety) and quotes from Theodor Herzl (the father of the modern Zionist movement). Yet, despite his claims of devotion to Judaism, Walter (a lover of systems and rules, and thus again the antithesis of the Dude) expresses a certain admiration for Nazis. When he learns that the Germans who have been threatening the Dude are not Nazis but nihilists, he finds that to be far worse. “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism,” he opines. “At least it’s an ethos.” Finally, the fact that he apparently regards Moses and Sandy Koufax as the two greatest figures in the Jewish tradition seems questionable at best.

Though he doesn’t have a song, Walter does have a specific work of pop culture with which he is associated—the 1960s television series Branded (1965–1966), created by the Coens’ near-namesake Larry Cohen, perhaps best known as the writer and director of a series of classic horror films in the 1970s. When Walter and the Dude go to the home of a fifteen-year-old they think may have stolen the missing ransom money, we learn that the boy is the son of one Arthur Digby Sellers, once a prominent television writer but now reduced to life in an iron lung because “he has health problems.” According to Walter, the elder Sellers wrote 156 episodes of Branded, a claim that seems unlikely, given that the series actually had only 48 episodes. In any case, Walter is reduced to tears as he relates to Sellers that “Branded, especially the early episodes, was truly a source of inspiration.”

Branded was a Western series about Jason McCord (Chuck Connors), a man unjustly expelled from the U.S. Cavalry on false charges of cowardice under fire. He then spends the entirety of the series trying to prove his manhood in the face of this history. As the theme song of the series (which Walter and the Dude both seem to know by heart) puts it, “Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you must prove you’re a man.” This song and this series thus both resonate with one of the central concerns of The Big Lebowski: embattled masculinity, a theme that is particularly reinforced by the many images of threatened castration that run through the film, from the threats of the German nihilists to cut off the Dude’s “Johnson” to the near attack on that same organ by the nihilists’ ferret (which the Dude thinks is a marmot). The would-be severing of Bunny’s little toe can also be taken as a castration image of sorts. This concern with (a possibly endangered) masculinity is foregrounded very early on, as “The Man in Me” plays over the opening credits. Almost all of the film’s male characters are ineffectual, though Walter certainly works hard to try to establish his masculine power. Yet, he remains henpecked by his ex-wife, and the fact that he dog-sits for her while she goes off to Hawaii with her boyfriend is a strong indicator of just how precarious his masculinity is in this film. His penchant for violence and his seeming pride in his military service are taken to such a level that they seem like some sort of compensation, and the fact that he comes to tears when thinking of McCord’s shaming in the military makes one wonder just what Walter really experienced in ’Nam.

The Dude fares little better in terms of his masculinity. It is, after all, his penis that is the object of most of the threatened genital violence in the film. Moreover, in one of his dream sequences, we see him flying through the air—according to Freud a dream image that frequently signifies an erection. But then, suddenly weighed down by a bowling ball, he plummets to the earth, obviously signifying the loss of that erection. Granted, the Dude is the only male character who successfully participates in an act of sexual intercourse in the film, but that intercourse occurs at the instigation of the rich Lebowski’s daughter, Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), who only wants the Dude’s sperm so she can conceive a child and then cast its father aside so he doesn’t impinge on her life. Through most of the film, though, the Dude seems almost asexual, so much so that, when he complains, in the light of the nihilists’ threats, that he needs his “fucking Johnson,” Donny replies (without irony) by asking, “What do you need that for, Dude?”

The Dude is also highly incompetent at conventionally masculine tasks, such as driving nails with a hammer. Meanwhile, Treehorn (whose name certainly sounds phallic enough and who seems to be a stand-in for Hugh Hefner) comes off as more of a pretender than a stud, his claims to being an artist with high standards belied by the one example we see of his work, the clichéd porn film Logjammin’, which stars Kunkel and Bunny (as Bunny LaJoya).[25]Even Mr. Lebowski, the film’s patriarch figure, is hardly a carrier of masculine power. Unable to control his young wife (who turns out really to be just a runaway Minnesota cheerleader), he is disabled and confined to a wheelchair.[26] He is able to function at all only with the aid of his effeminate assistant Brandt (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).[27] He isn’t even really rich. All of the family money (which came from his wife’s side of the family) is tied up in a trust controlled by Maude, who gives her father a meager allowance and allows him to live on the family estate in order to keep up the appearance of being wealthy.

In one scene, Mr. Lebowski openly poses the question of masculinity—and in a way that might suggest that he finds his under threat. “What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the price? Isn’t that what makes a man?” We will eventually come to realize that Lebowski is here trying to rationalize his own attempt to steal Bunny’s ransom money (which he embezzled from the trust), but the Dude responds with characteristic literalness: “That, and a pair of testicles.” This seemingly straightforward biological addendum, however, comes under question when we realize that, except for the stereotypically masculine Stranger (who is so out of place in this film), Maude might very well be the most effectively masculine character in the entire film—though the most effectual male character might be Quintana, a convicted pederast of questionable sexual orientation. Strong though she may be, though, Maude is herself a rather pretentious figure, apparently inspired by the experimental Fluxus art movement that involved a variety of media—including painting, video art, music, and various forms of performance art—and that was at its peak (of course) in the 1960s and 1970s.[28]

Maude views herself as a feminist, and she notes to the Dude that her art “has been commended as strongly vaginal.” It is not at all clear, though, just what feminist values her art represents or just what feminist agenda it promotes. In fact, Maude’s art would appear to do for women exactly what Barton Fink’s art does for the working class—nothing whatsoever. Artists and their art, from the phallic porn of Treehorn, to the vaginal paintings of Maude, to the ludicrous interpretive dance of the Dude’s neighbor/landlord Marty (Jack Kehler), to the video art of the Maude’s giggling friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), do not come off well in this film. Here, all forms of art seem to be pointless and pretentious, especially in comparison with bowling, which comes off as the true art form of the film.

Artists, The Big Lebowski seems to want to tell us, tend to take their art far too seriously, whatever their level of talent—though we see little evidence of true artistic talent among the characters in the film. What we do see, though, is a clear attempt on the part of the Coens not to fall into this trap by taking their own art too seriously. Among other things, this means that their critique of other art is not to be taken seriously, either. Granted, Matthew K. Douglass and Jerry L. Walls have outlined the ways in which the Dude’s devotion to laziness can be seen as an entire philosophy of life. And this philosophy is apparently an attractive one, given the legions of the Dude’s devoted followers who have made The Big Lebowski into a genuine cult phenomenon. Meanwhile, the Dude’s hatred of the commodified art of the Eagles (which matches the contempt for commercialized art that was central to the Fluxus movement) combines with his love of laziness to suggest that his personal philosophy is essentially the antithesis of the Protestant work ethic that drives capitalism. Conversely, Mr. Lebowski functions almost as a cartoon capitalist, his ineffectuality serving to undermine the notion of capitalist efficiency, his lack of ethics or empathy reminding us of the cutthroat nature of the capitalist system. However, by offering its critique of capitalism in a mode of absolute silliness, while offering no alternatives to the ethos of capitalism other than the laziness of the Dude or the pretentiousness of artists such as Maude, The Big Lebowski ensures that no one will mistake it for a serious statement about politics or art or anything else. Here, as elsewhere in their films, the Coens abide.

Notes


[1] I have already noted the importance of James M. Cain, probably the third most important writer of hard-boiled fiction, to The Man Who Wasn’t There, though the overall impression of that filmis dominated by its visual connection to film noir.

[2] Flaubert, p. 13. I quote here from first English translation (1886), by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a connection that suggests the effectiveness of the novel as a critique of consumerist capitalism.

[3] Berger, p. 84.

[4] Mooney, p. 159. Mooney goes on to draw upon Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the particularly postmodern form of nostalgia involved in the relationship between neo-noir film and film noir, concluding that Miller’s Crossing is not merely an adaptation of The Glass Key but engages in an active dialogue with it, one that requires our awareness in order to be effective.

[5] Cited in Mooney, p. 161 and p. 193n7.

[6] Mooney, p. 161.

[7] Ebert, “Miller’s Crossing.”

[8] Bergan, p. 113.

[9] Bergan, p. 115.

[10] Adams, p. 57.

[11] Allen, p. 44.

[12] Adams, pp. 59–63.

[13] Ahearn, p. 60.

[14] Raczkowski, p. 99.

[15] Raczkowski, p. 101.

[16] The Dude claims at one point to have been one of the authors of “the original Port Huron Statement” (though he was cut from the second draft). He also claims to have been a member of the “Seattle Seven,” a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors that included Jeff Dowd, whom numerous critics have identified as the model for the Dude (see Blevins). When picked up by the Malibu police, meanwhile, the Dude demands to speak to a lawyer, preferably Bill Kuntsler or Ron Kuby, both of whom became known for their defenses of countercultural figures, Kuntsler being particularly well known for his defense of the Chicago Seven.

[17] Körte, pp. 199–200.

[18] Körte, p. 200.

[19] This prominence of 1970s culture in The Big Lebowski also places it in the company of a number of 1990s films—including Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) that, as I have noted elsewhere, significantly draw upon the culture of the 1970s in their music and otherwise in what amounts to “a wave of nostalgia for the 1970s—or perhaps of 1990s nostalgia for 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s” (Booker, Postmodern Hollywood, p. 64).

[20] This song, meant to mock the drug culture of the 1960s, was quickly appropriated by that culture, phenomenon that is echoed by its use in the film.

[21] The psychedelic dreams of The Big Lebowski are typical Coen fare, but they also have a parallel in Chandler when Marlowe is abducted and drugged in Farewell, My Lovely.

[22] The Big Lebowski shows us a mock-up of the Autobahn album Nagelbett (“Bed of Nails”), the cover design of which clearly resembles that of the 1978 Kraftwerk album The Man-Machine. The soundtrack of the film also features a selection of a song called “Technopop,” presumably by Autobahn (though actually composed and performed by Carter Burwell).

[23] Adams, p. 128.

[24] Hebdige, p. 96.

[25] Even Treehorn admits that “standards have fallen in adult entertainment” now that professionals like himself are forced to compete with amateurs who are ruining the art form.  One might compare here Paul Thomas Anderson’s near-contemporaneous Boogie Nights (1997), which details the decline of standards in the porn industry from its Golden Age in the 1970s to its debased condition in the 1990s.

[26] Note that the only other father figure we see in the film is Arthur Digby Sellers, who is even more disabled and confined. Patriarchal power is under extreme pressure in this film.

[27] In one of the strongest testaments to the strength of the cast of The Big Lebowski, Hoffman—one of the finest character actors of his generation—goes almost unnoticed here thanks to the outrageous performances that surround him.

[28] Adams specifically suggests that Maude was inspired by Fluxus artist Carolee Schneeman (p. 129).