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.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.