The Big Lebowski: five films that influenced the Coen brothers’ 20-year-old cult classic

Twenty years on, the Dude abides. Here’s some essential viewing for all Lebowski fans.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

It’s funny to think that it’s two decades since The Big Lebowski first rolled into cinemas, like the tumbleweed that blows down out of the canyons during its opening credits. Two decades is kind of the joke about Lebowski, see. That’s how many years out of his Creedence-soundtracked, fag-end-of-the-hippie-era natural habitat that we encounter the Dude (Jeff Bridges). The Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy is set in Los Angeles at the time of the Gulf war, by which time pot-addled pacifists like the Dude were a cling-on anachronism, just like – in a different way – his bellicose best friend Walter (John Goodman), the Vietnam vet.

If The Big Lebowski shows little sign of losing its appeal 20 years on, it too – as is said of the Dude – is of its time and place. Emerging from the shadow of the brothers’ Fargo (1996) to a become a cult favourite on video and DVD, it chimed with an audience softened up for po-mo, SoCal narratives by Pulp Fiction (1994) and its imitators. Of course, the Coens had been playing around with the conventions of film noir and pulp fiction since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, but by the mid-90s Tarantino had mainstreamed magpie moviemaking, and films as dense with references to what lawyers call ‘prior art’ as The Big Lebowski were the flavour of the moment.

With fresh audiences still discovering this 20-year-old modern classic, here’s a reminder of five key inspirations that might have shaped the Coens’ vision.

42nd Street (1933)

Director Lloyd Bacon

42nd Street (1933)

The Coens make no secret of their love for Hollywood musicals – witness the tribute to Esther Williams’ synchronised-swimming bonanzas in Hail, Caesar! (2016). The Big Lebowski may come on like a parody of film noir, but it also takes time out for an extended homage to the choreography of Busby Berkeley. In 1930s backstage musicals such as 42nd Street and Dames (1934), Berkeley drilled his dancers into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of geometric shapes and patterns, which he often filmed from directly above – an ‘impossible’ viewpoint made feasible by the camera. The Dude’s trippy bowling-alley dream, with its sky-scraping tower of bowling shoes and in which the Dude floats down a bowling lane under rows and rows of dancers’ legs, echoes exact shots from Berkeley’s heyday.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Jenny M. Jones’s exhaustive ‘annotated history’ of The Big Lebowski dedicates a page or two to viewing the Coens’ classic through the prism of The Wizard of Oz. In this reading, the Dude is Dorothy, who is plunged into a bizarre Technicolor world with by turns bumbling and courageous companions along for the journey and an all-powerful but ultimately fraudulent being (the Great Oz/the Big Lebowski) at its axis. Or else Bunny Lebowski is Dorothy, the girl from the midwest who’s far from home. And the ‘nihilists’ are Oz’s Flying Monkeys. Stretching the point? As Joel Coen himself once said: “Every movie ever made is just an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz.”

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director Howard Hawks

The Big Sleep (1946)

Lebowski’s title references the trend in classic film noir titles for The Big This or The Big That. There was The Big Clock (1948), The Big Steal (1949), The Big Heat (1953) and The Big Combo (1955). Most importantly in terms of influences there was The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’ immortal adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Philip Marlowe. Lebowski himself, the big Lebowski that is, the rich guy in a wheelchair, is a borrow from General Sternwood, the wheelchair-bound millionaire who hires Marlowe to track down whoever’s blackmailing him over naughty pictures of his daughter. The pornography angle is also taken up by the Coens in the form of muck magnate Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara).

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Director Robert Altman

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman annoyed many Chandler purists by updating the Marlowe archetype to hippie-era California in The Long Goodbye, which features Elliott Gould as the out-of-time private eye whose next-door neighbours are now incense-brained flower-children. With The Big Lebowski, the Coens took the joke several steps further, imagining a Chandler plot in which the Marlowe figure himself is now a casualty of one too many hits on the bong. To see an unkempt Gould, cigarette draped from his lower lip, shuffling around a supermarket in search of cat food is to see the acorn from which stoner Lebowski would grow. Jeff would certainly recognise this same milieu of louche beachfront homes and off-Hollywood glamour.

Cutter’s Way (1981)

Director Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way (1981)

An under-acknowledged model for the Coens’ classic is this superb thriller from the tail end of the New Hollywood period. Here’s the evidence: Cutter’s Way (aka Cutter and Bone) is a sunshine noir set in beachy Los Angeles in the vapour trails of the hippie era. It features Jeff Bridges playing an aimless beach bum who, together with his best friend (a Vietnam veteran, naturally), finds himself unexpectedly drawn into a murky criminal plot orbiting around a local business tycoon. In the case of Ivan Passer’s film, the crime is the murder of a young girl and – unlike in The Big Lebowski – there’s nothing funny about it. But the lived-in, deadbeat atmospherics of Cutter’s Way were clearly on the Coens’ mood-board.

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