“It Was A Wandering Daughter Job: The Coens, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Dashiell Hammett” (by Adrian McKinty)

Winner of the 2017 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original for Rain Dogs, Northern Ireland’s Adrian McKinty has swept crime fiction’s top awards in other parts of the world as well. His honors include the Ned Kelly Award, the Barry, Audie, and Anthony awards, and nominations for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. He made his EQMM debut in our May/June 2019 issue with the timely and haunting story “From Hell.” His new novel, entitled The Chain, has been called “incredibly propulsive and original” by Stephen King. In this post, Adrian examines the influences behind the creations of two of the most acclaimed filmmakers working in our genre, the Coen brothers.—Janet Hutchings

Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on their cult stoner movie The Big Lebowski was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. And from the title and structure of their film you can certainly see what they are talking about. Both works are classic visions of Los Angeles, and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man’s daughter, and a runaway who gets mixed up in pornography. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman’s 1970s remake of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye which gave us a slightly baked version of Marlowe played by Elliot Gould. So the Chandler influences are real and obvious, but I want to argue that there’s a deeper structure to The Big Lebowski which comes not from Raymond Chandler but from Dashiell Hammett. I’d also like to argue that Hammett’s influence also runs through the FX TV series Fargo, which ostensibly is based on the Coen brothers film by the same name but which actually draws deep from the well of the entire Coen canon.

Let’s backtrack a little first. The Coen Brothers’ first foray into Hammett country came with Miller’s Crossing. This is a fairly explicit remake of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which the Coens apparently became of aware through Kurosawa’s version Yojimbo (which later was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars and again by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing). Miller’s Crossing (and Red Harvest and the others) is a classic story of an outsider playing off two rival gangs for his own benefit. However, the Coens not only appropriated Dashiell Hammett’s plotline but also his entire argot: “What’s the rumpus?” “She’s just a twist,” “The high hat,” “We’re not muscle, we don’t bump guys,” etc. The Coens don’t seem to have read Hammett as much as digested him, absorbing his street talk, his cadences, his slang, his American-tough-guy voice. (As an aside here, I actually think their use of “What’s the rumpus?” as “hello” in Miller’s Crossing is a misreading of Hammett’s use of the phrase in Red Harvest.) The Coens, of course, are suburban college boys with little experience of the actual “streets,” but Hammett is authenticity in spades and we can trust him regarding criminal argot; he was a Pinkerton Detective for nearly two decades, investigating murders, robberies, and insurance frauds with a little union busting thrown in for good measure.

The Coens love Hammett as a touchstone for Americana, and the more you read him the deeper you see his influence on their work. Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men sometimes read like undiscovered Hammett screenplays, but also so do the comedies Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. Hammett and humor don’t seem to go together, but he could be very funny in both his private life and in his books: The Thin Man is as witty as any P.G. Wodehouse. And here’s an experiment: try rereading The Maltese Falcon as a black comedy, and you’ll get exactly what I’m talking about. Chandler has those great lines about a blonde so beautiful she would make a bishop kick in a window, but Hammett has those lines too, as well as a dark, satirical edge. It was Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse who were at the same school together, but it was Hammett that Wodehouse often read in his downtime.

Fargo the movie seems to be at least partly inspired by another classic 1940s writer, James M. Cain, in particular the movie version that was directed and written by Billy Wilder and cowritten by Raymond Chandler. Fargo is a very black black comedy that shades into pessimistic nihilism near the end. The TV series is inspired by the movie to some extent, but the writer and showrunner Noah Hawley isn’t merely delving into the Coen canon; he’s also having fun with Americana, noir, surrealism, and many other genres and tropes in an excellent series, now filming its fourth iteration. Fargo season one could be said to be a reworking again of Red Harvest, and you could even make that argument for season two. It’s season three, however, that I’d like to explore a little bit further here.

In the Fargo season three episode “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, after a brilliant chase scene through the Minnesota woods, an injured Nikki and Mr. Wrench end up at a bowling alley. The bowling alley from the outside has the same star patterns as the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski, and just as in Lebowski, Nikki has a conversation with a mysterious stranger who is a kind of storyteller. In Lebowski, he’s a cowboy narrating the tale of The Dude and the kidnapping and the missing girl. In Fargo, he tells Nikki her story and places it in a broader context of good versus evil. Evil is manifested by the Cossacks and their anti-Semitic descendants. Nikki is given an escape route from the bowling alley (which is really, I think, a kind of Sheol or purgatory) while her Cossack pursuer is confronted and killed by his victims.

Space doesn’t allow me to unpack all of that here, but suffice to say we’re a million miles from Hammett here, yet still under Dashiell’s spell—even in such a fantastic spin away from the source material.

To sum up then, yes, the Coens used The Big Sleep as their skeleton for The Big Lebowski, but the irony comes from Hammett: Donny’s death, The Nihilists, The Porn King, The Malibu Sheriff—these seem straight out of Dashiell’s playbook, not Chandler’s. The eccentricity and odd digressions are more like Hammett, and, of course, the snap of the dialogue is more authentically Hammettian too.

I think subconsciously the Coens knew this, and they either gave us a Freudian hint or a deliberate clue late in the film when Jeff Bridges as The Dude encounters a private detective working for Bunny’s parents, the Knutsons. “What are you following me for?” The Dude asks. The Private Dick, played by Joe Polito (who also played one of the rival gang bosses in Miller’s Crossing), shrugs and explains: “It was a wandering daughter job.” And of course, if you know your Hammett, you’ll recognize that as the opening line of the great Continental Op short story “Fly Paper.” The Big Lebowski was a wandering daughter job all right, and ultimately the daughter stays lost, an innocent guy dies, and the bad guy keeps the money, but what else would you expect in Hammett’s bleak, entropic and blackly comic universe?

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1 Response to “It Was A Wandering Daughter Job: The Coens, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Dashiell Hammett” (by Adrian McKinty)

  1. Sorry it took me so long to read this excellent piece. I have not seen Fargo, alas. Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite movies, but I see it as closer to Hammett’s The Glass Key, with the hero trying to mend relations with his boss. “There’s nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing his hat…”

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