The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have blazed a masterful and distinctive body of work that blends genres and themes brazenly, no matter how juxtaposed. With a trail of dark humour, gratuitous violence and lyrical screenwriting behind them, the Coen brothers don’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
From their 1984 breakthrough movie Blood Simple to 1990s classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ pictures never cease to captivate critics. To date, the pair have each been nominated for 14 Academy Awards and have won four: one for Fargo and three for No Country for Old Men.
Watching the Coen brothers’ movies, it’s easy to see that the pair draw their influences from an incredibly vast pool. In the past, they have asserted their undying love for the master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and the disgraced French-Polish director Roman Polanski.
“In regards to whether our background influences our filmmaking… who knows? We don’t think about it … There’s no doubt that our Jewish heritage affects how we see things,” Joel once stated when discussing his and Ethan’s vision.
Their diverse catalogue suggests that there is much more at play, but their Jewish heritage undoubtedly helped to establish admiration for the work of Polanski, the Holocaust survivor behind 2002’s The Pianist.
In a past feature for The Independent, Joel reiterated his love for Polanski’s work and cited the 1976 comedy-horror The Tenant as a personal highlight. “We’ve always been big Polanski fans, and this is one of his best movies,” Joel wrote. “He’s a great craftsman and storyteller, and he has a great sense of humour. It’s very wholesome, and that’s something you don’t see that often. Because The Tenant is a funny movie. At the time, everyone thought it was just creepy – it has been much misunderstood.”
Elsewhere, Mike Nichols’ work on the 1975 movie The Fortune was an evident inspiration behind the Coens’ humorous crime plots. More precisely, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty’s central characters in The Fortune undeniably guided the Coens when creating the character Jerry in Fargo.
In 1996, Ethan explained to the BFI that, when creating Jerry, they “were interested in the psychology of a person who constructs those pyramid financial schemes but can’t project themselves a minute into the future or imagine the consequences.”
Below, we list the five movies that shaped the Coen brothers’ career the most. All five have been listed among the filmmakers’ all-time favourites and carry distinctive threads of influence.