Is The Big Lebowski a Great Noir Film? A New Way to Look at the Coen Brothers’ Iconic Movie

The Big Lebows­ki, Joel and Ethan Coen’s sev­enth and most polar­iz­ing film, has raised every feel­ing in its view­ers from imme­di­ate and utter devo­tion to sim­ple puz­zle­ment. When some­one says “I don’t get it,” fans may find them­selves tempt­ed to quote Louis Arm­strong on the nature of jazz — but they’ll prob­a­bly quote Wal­ter, Don­ny, or the Dude him­self instead. The film’s very quota­bil­i­ty, longevi­ty, and ambi­gu­i­ty have enthralled some and frus­trat­ed oth­ers, sug­gest­ing that, as with any impor­tant work of art, you can see The Big Lebows­ki in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. The Film School’d video essay above exam­ines one of those ways with the ques­tion, “Is The Big Lebows­ki a Film Noir?”

“We know film noir for its black-and-white cin­e­matog­ra­phy, grit­ty voiceovers, venet­ian blinds, detec­tives in trench coats, trou­bled dames, and femme fatales with legs that go all the way up,” says its nar­ra­tor, begin­ning in an imi­ta­tion of the mid-Atlantic accent so often heard in movies of the noir era. “But what if a film does­n’t imme­di­ate­ly qual­i­fy as film noir? What if that film uti­lizes all the major ele­ments, but car­ries a sar­don­ic tone that, at times, still takes itself very seri­ous­ly? What if that film does­n’t real­ly look like a film noir right away? What if, on the sur­face, that film appears to be an absur­dist ston­er com­e­dy about mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty, bowl­ing, and a stolen rug?”

We’ve cov­ered lists of the essen­tial ele­ments of film noir here at Open Cul­ture, and this video essay does a com­par­a­tive study, lin­ing aspects of The Big Lebows­ki against those of such clas­sics of the genre — or maybe move­ment, or maybe just fad — as The Big SleepTouch of EvilThe Big HeatD.O.A., and Mur­der My Sweet. Like those pic­tures, Lebows­ki also uses the much-pho­tographed city of Los Ange­les in a strik­ing­ly dif­fer­ent way from its con­tem­po­raries, and it pro­vides the Coen broth­ers a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to indulge their skill for repur­pos­ing 20th-cen­tu­ry genre con­ven­tions (most recent­ly on dis­play in the 1951 Hol­ly­wood-set Hail, Cae­sar!).

The Big Lebows­ki is about an atti­tude, not a sto­ry,” wrote Roger Ebert , who also once drew up his own list of the rules of film noir, upon induct­ing The Big Lebows­ki into his pan­theon of great movies. “It’s easy to miss that, because the sto­ry is so urgent­ly pur­sued.” He could have said the same about the pic­tures in the core film noir canon, which you can kick back and catch up on from the com­fort of your own pad with our free film noir col­lec­tion. The Dude, and Ebert, would most cer­tain­ly abide.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

60 Free Film Noir Movies

The Essen­tial Ele­ments of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Info­graph­ic

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

Roger Ebert Lists the 10 Essen­tial Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Noir Films

The Two Gen­tle­men of Lebows­ki: What If The Bard Wrote The Big Lebows­ki?

The Big Lebows­ki Reimag­ined as a Clas­sic 8‑Bit Video Game

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Garrett Traylor says:

    It is no coin­ci­dence that The Big Lebows­ki is named as it is next to The Big Sleep. The film cer­tain­ly draws on noir con­ven­tions. Always a fun angle to take in ana­lyz­ing the film!

  • pete gerard says:

    “Hulot’s Hol­i­day” fits some of the noir criteria.…so do “Zabriskie Point” and “Pun­ish­ment Park”. But hey.…that’s just me talk­ing’.

  • James says:

    I picked up a ref­er­ence the last time I viewed “The Big Lebows­ki,” but I don’t know what film it’s pay­ing homage to. In the Lar­ry Sell­ers scene, the father is con­fined to an iron-lung. When I por­trayed, “Stone” in a pro­duc­tion of the musi­cal, “City of Angels,” there was a scene that includ­ed an iron-lung. So, what film or films of the “Film Noir” era include an iron-lung?

    Enjoyed the video,


  • John says:

    What you’re high­light­ing here for The Big Lebows­ki is the def­i­n­i­tion, not of Film-Noir, but of Neo-Noir, which keeps much or most of the abstract noir struc­ture, but often aban­dons the dark B&W visu­als for col­or, and in some cas­es the pho­tog­ra­phy fram­ing and light­ing.

    Purists will insist upon the cyn­i­cal detec­tive, the Eve-like femme fatale how takes the pro­tag­o­nist down to com­plete ruina­tion, the book-end nar­ra­tive start­ing at the trag­ic end and nar­rat­ing the sto­ry explain­ing it back around to the end, etc., etc., etc. The result is a hand­ful of films that qual­i­fy (e.g. Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty). I’m will­ing to accept Neo-Noir, and you make a good argu­ment for The Big Lebows­ki being Neo-Noir in an abstract sense. The Coen Broth­ers have been much clos­er to Noir with their 2001 “The Man Who Was­n’t There”, which is clas­sic Film-Noir down to its late-1940’s plot set­ting and being con­vert­ed to B&W from the col­or film stock in post-pro­duc­tion. Your video has giv­en me food for thought. At the least it pays much homage through­out to clas­sic Film-Noir plots, but is it, in itself a Neo-Noir? Hmm­m­mm.

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