Based on Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground sees violent, jaded city cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) emotionally transformed by a case he’s assigned to in rural upstate New York as punishment for viciously beating suspects. Investigating the murder of a young girl, Wilson joins a retributive manhunt across snowy terrain led by the victim’s revenge-fuelled father. After learning that the killer is mentally ill, after meeting the suspect’s blind, caring sister, Mary (Ida Lupino), Wilson undergoes a redemptive change in temperament. As Fargo would over 40 years later, On Dangerous Ground plays with, and upends, the traditional conventions of film noir.
Director Jacques Tourneur
A love of and fascination for film noir clearly runs through much of the Coen brothers’ output, and Jacques Tourneur’s adaptation of David Goodis’ 1947 novel of the same name is an overt influence on Fargo. Written for the screen by Stirling Silliphant, this nifty, gripping tale features several elements that would later crop up in the Coens’ classic: two vicious but bumbling crooks, a bag of stolen cash, and a rural, wintry setting. Though Nightfall’s wrong man in the wrong place James Vanning (Aldo Ray) is drawn into danger for different reasons from the desperate Jerry Lundegaard, both men subsequently find themselves in way over their heads.
High and Low (1963)
Director Akira Kurosawa
Loosely based on the novel King’s Ransom, a 1959 entry into Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is a tense crime drama much admired by Joel and Ethan Coen. Though Fargo would contain a comedic streak absent from Kurosawa’s lengthy police procedural, High and Low’s basic plot devices and character types were an evident influence. A botched kidnapping, a wealthy and stubborn businessman, dogged law enforcement officials and a perpetrator turning on his accomplices sound familiar? Jealousy rather than financial necessity may spawn High and Low’s crime, but the end results here, as in Fargo, are still incarceration or death.
Twin Peaks (1990-91)
Okay, so it’s not a film, but Lynch’s cult TV series cannot have failed to be assimilated by the Coens into their wide-ranging list of influences, especially in relation to Fargo’s pervading leftfield atmosphere. The small-town American setting, memorably strange characters and a loveable law enforcement official as a key figure are intrinsic to the success of Lynch and the Coen brothers’ respective works. Lifting the lid off homespun Americana to uncover dark secrets lurking underneath is also key to the appeal of both. A nod is also due to CBS’s Alaskan-set Northern Exposure for a cast of oddballs, many of whom would have been at home in rural Minnesota.
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Bearing the Coen-esque tagline ‘A Heartwarming Tale of Murder’, it’s perhaps no surprise that Joel and Ethan chose Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s award-winning documentary as one of their 30 favourite films. The geographical, mental and emotional distances separating the residents of rural America from their urban counterparts are thrown into stark relief when one of four poorly educated, semi-literate brothers living in Munnsville, New York is charged with carrying out a mercy killing on a sibling. The accusatory views of the law and the media portray a very different, detrimental image of the downtrodden Ward brothers from the more affectionate, non-judgemental tone expressed by the tight-knit local community.