The Coen brothers’ feature debut wasn’t just a reinvention of the noir thriller, it marked the arrival of two exciting voices in US cinema.
Jealousy and desire are the staple elements of film noir – the genre that grew out of post-World War Two US cinema – and in Joel and Ethan’s feature debut as writer-directors, it’s the force that drives the motivations of the principal characters. John Getz plays Ray, a bartender at Marty’s, who is having an affair with Abby (Frances McDormand), the boss’s wife. Marty (Dan Hedaya) has hired Lorren (M. Emmett Walsh) to follow the couple and on finding out about the relationship, to kill them. But all these characters’ plans don’t quite come together as planned.
With more twists than a country road, the Coens’ script is as rich in characterisation and detail as it is surprises. The filmmaking siblings have always been masters of genre cinema, but even here, so early in their careers, it’s obvious that straightforward parody was never their endgame. Like subsequent films, from Millers Crossing and Barton Film through to The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men and True Grit, the Coens employ the staples of genre to explore the darker recesses of human behaviour. And more often than not it’s accompanied by pitch-black humour.