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 Sleep, Touch of Evil, The Big Heat, D.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.
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.