Soft-boiled cinema: Joel and Ethan Coens' neo-classical neo-noirs

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Author: Brian J. Snee
Date: July 2009
From: Literature-Film Quarterly(Vol. 37, Issue 3)
Publisher: Salisbury State University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,901 words
Lexile Measure: 1560L

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They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically--how the planets go 'round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap--well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn't a stuck in your goddamn schnozz. So there is no "what happened." Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds ... our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it "the uncertainty principle." Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's onto something. Freddy Riedenschneider, in The Man Who Wasn't There

It is fitting that this monologue is delivered in Joel and Ethan Coens' black-and-white homage to hard-boiled fiction and film noir. However "screwy" his philosophy may sound, Freddy Riedenschneider is correct about one thing: looking at something changes it.

Few people have understood this axiom better than the directors of film noir. The process of adaptation formed the foundation of the noir movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Film noir borrowed heavily from the American school of hard-boiled fiction, but found itself struggling to adapt to the screen its distinctive first-person prose. Looking at something does indeed change it, and of the many talented filmmakers who attempted to transfer first-person narration from page to screen within the rigid confines of the studio system and the classical Hollywood style, few if any managed to avoid a noticeable reshuffling of the relationships among author/director, characters, and reader/viewer.

This essay questions whether a recent and increasingly popular subjective approach to film narration, which I refer to as "neo-classical," permits filmmakers to adapt first-person prose to the screen without sacrificing or intruding upon the character-reader identification that was invited by the best hard-boiled fiction, but ultimately lost in the noir films inspired by that fiction. After a cursory review of both hard-boiled detective fiction and the film noir movement, I examine the highly subjective, self-conscious, and intertextual narration in Joel and Ethan Coens' contemporary neo-noirs. Specifically, I question whether a recent expansion in the range of cinematic address influences the relationships between and among filmmaker, characters, and viewers.

Pulp Fiction

Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett. James M. Cain. Cornell Woolrich. Nearly a century has passed since a group of writers created a publishing and cultural phenomenon with their bleak stories of crime and corruption, violence and romance, written in a signature style known as "hard-boiled."

The roots of the genre run deep and include, but are not limited to, James Fenimore Cooper's character Natty Bumppo of "The Leatherstocking Tales," various nineteenth-century gothic novels, European detective fiction in the tradition of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and the haunting stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Hard-boiled fiction crept up on an unsuspecting American public in turn-of-the-century low-brow pulp...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A204565670