First Draft: Lessons in Plotting Film Noir, From The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski and The Nice Guys

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski is also inspired by Chandler’s work, taking similar Film Noir plot elements to The Big Sleep: An outsider protagonist takes on a case for a rich and wheelchair-bound old man, leading him into the seedy L.A. underbelly and to encounters with the man’s rogue daughter and a dangerous pornographer. It also adds in the genre of the stoner comedy. Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, aka “The Dude,” who is mistaken for an elderly millionaire who shares his name.

When Bunny, the wife of “The Big Lebowski,” is then kidnapped, the Dude ends up commissioned to deliver the ransom. Again like The Big Sleep, this leads into a seriously complicated plot with many tangents, as all sorts of characters—the Big Lebowski’s artist daughter, the porn baron Jackie Treehorn, a gang of nihilists, a private detective working for Bunny’s family, and even a kid who steals the Dude’s car—are introduced into the story.

The same main point applies here: Of course it’s not the details of the plot that elevated The Big Lebowski to cult status. Similar to the The Big Sleep’s “harsh and treacherous landscape,” here it’s the zany comedic landscape which is the true appeal, in particular the nonchalance with which the Dude bumbles through his investigation and his bickering with Walter, his bowling buddy who becomes a sort of sidekick. Joel Coen himself has described Lebowski as influenced by Chandler in that it has a “a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.”

Julianne Moore in the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski

And yet, taking heed of Chandler’s rules, the Coen brothers did indeed put a lot of care into the plotting, with all characters having their own motivations, and essential elements such as Bunny’s green-painted toenails and her nihilist friend planted early on, their importance hidden through the veil of humor.

If one part of the film’s first act doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s the millionaire Lebowski choosing to hire the Dude, a situation which stretches credibility and almost breaks Chandler’s first commandment. But this quirk is satisfyingly explained in the final act’s twist—the old man is, in fact, not in charge of his company’s money and wanted the Dude to screw up so he could embezzle it for himself.

And, importantly, these plot twists all work to develop character and build the world; Bunny’s chopped-off toe is important to the film not because it escalates the kidnapping plot but because of the Dude and Walter’s over-the-top reactions to it.

The Big Lebowski’s secret motive is important not because of the satisfaction of the plot falling into place (though it does work on that level), but because it concludes the theme of everyone in this world working against the Dude. He’s an ordinary, honest guy in a world full of treachery and lies.

Knowingly, the Coens allow both the Dude and Walter to acknowledge the increasingly convoluted nature of their circumstances. “This is a very complicated case, Maude, lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, lotta strands to keep in my head, you know,” says the Dude, lying to cover up having lost all the money.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude, John Goodman as Walter Sobchak and Steve Buscemi as Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos in The Big Lebowski

And, of course, when the plot’s taken a dark twist and it’s all getting too much for our heroes, Walter decides it’s not worth the effort any more: “Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.” Just how, as Chandler’s third rule puts it, a real person in a real world might react.

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