What better way to ice the cake that has been the Coen Brothers month here at MovieZeal than with a top 10 list of their most memorable scenes? Obviously, the challenge becomeswhich scenes to include, as the Coens have created nothing if not distinctly memorable characters and scenarios. Some films were easy exclusions (The Ladykillers) while some threatened to take over the entire list (Raising Arizona). After much furious and heated debate amongst ourselves (okay, I exaggerate a tad there), we’ve compiled a list that represents the most iconic images and unforgettable setups from their eclectic canon. Though none of you will likely disagree with the choices we’ve made, many may take umbrage with the scenes that are missing. Top 10 lists are nothing if not easy to disagree with, so let fly in the comments section!
10. Showdown With the Nihilists from The Big Lebowski
Every twisted, convoluted story needs a bizarre, confusing ending (just ask Raymond Chandler, who served as much of the inspiration for this film). On this, The Big Lebowskidelivers. This is the scene that left every (sober) person in the audience scratching their heads once and for all. There’s not a lot to be said about this one…just watch it and be amazed.
Most Memorable Line: “No Donny, these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Fun Fact: Gratuitous ear biting was invented just a year prior to this, by boxer Mike Tyson.
NOTE: The following clip has a lot of naughty language. Certainly NSFW, and certainly not good for the kiddies.
9. Hotel Shootout from No Country For Old Men
The film has been building relentlessly to this moment, when Chigurh finally catches up with Moss at the ramshackle hotel he’s hiding out in. I remember watching this in the theater, and it was as if the collective breath of the audience was being held. It is one of the finest examples of suspense that I have ever seen. The Coens decision to play the entire scene from Moss’ perspective, keeping Chigurh cloaked completely in shadow, gives the scene the feel of a classic horror flick. The unstoppable monster, seen only from underneath the door or heard from around the corner, is coming like the vengeance of God, and nothing can stop him.
Most Memorable Line: Like so many of the great Coen scenes, there is hardly a word of dialogue. However, a few scenes earlier, this exchange occurs over Chigurh:
“Just how dangerous is he?”
“Compared to what? The bubonic plauge?”
Fun Fact: Josh Brolin had his agents beg the Coens – repeatedly – in order for him to get the role. While on the set of Grindhouse, he even had Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino help him shoot an audition tape for the brothers with a million dollar Genesis camera. Joel and Ethan’s reaction when they saw the tape? “Who lit it?” Persistence obviously paid off and Brolin got the part, leading the Coens to joke in an article for Esquire that they had originally wanted James Brolin, but because of an epic miscommunication, they had gotten stuck with his son.
8. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse from Raising Arizona
It is, perhaps, a physical impossibility not to laugh at the visual image of Leonard Smalls – aka the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – executing small woodland creatures with extreme prejudice. Combining Rambo, Dogg the Bounty Hunter, and a bum who’s been left in the rain for too long, Smalls is a soft talking archetypal character of Biblical proportions, riding through the flames of hell and into H.I.’s restless dreams. The Coens would later revisit Smalls in the form of Anton Chigurh – the two are virtually identical. One, however, is played for guffaws, and the other…not so much.
Most Memorable Line: “He was especially hard on the little things, the helpless and the gentle creatures.”
Fun Fact: Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, who played Smalls, was a renowned boxer, infamous for stubbornly becoming heavy weight champion Larry Holmes’ 15 round punching bag in 1982. The fight led veteran commentator Howard Cosell to swear off boxing forever, calling it a “brutalization.” Video of the last two rounds can be found here.
7. Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski
What would a 90’s stoner comedy be without preening homoeroticism? The answer: I dunno, but we won’t learn it from The Big Lebowski, thanks to this iconic scene. In what is arguably the best character introduction of all time, the Coens establish one of their most memorable (though not necessarily for the right reasons) characters. John Turturro is apparently having more fun here than an actor should be allowed to, ever. You’d never guess that in a mere two years, he’d be playing a hayseed in O Brother, Where art Thou?
Most Memorable Line: Not repeatable here. This is a family blog for crying out loud!
Fun Fact: Famed producer (and frequent Coen brothers collaborator) T Bone Burnett dug up a Gipsy Kings cover of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (which had previously been buried on some obscure 40th-anniversary compilation disc for Elektra Records) for this scene…and made it famous.
6. Man of Constant Sorrows from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
What more can be said about the scene that almost single-handedly launched the turn-of-the-century bluegrass revival (paving the way for the popularity of artists like Nickel Creek and the Mammals)? Well, how about the fact that, music or not, this is simply a masterpiece of physical comedy? George Clooney’s only lip-synching here, which gives him a chance to show off his range of facial expressions…and, um, wow. As for Stephen Root as the owner of the radio station…just look at that guy. Just look at him. You really can’t have more fun than this at the movies.
Most Memorable Line: The whole friggin’ song. Just try and stop singing it to yourself afterwards. Just try.
Fun Fact: The music of the Soggy Bottom Boys (an oblique reference to Lester Flatt’s 1940s group, the Foggy Mountain Boys) was provided by none other than Allison Kraus’s band Union Station, with Dan Tyminski on vocals.
5. The Coin Flip from No Country For Old Men
What will become the signature scene of No Country for Old Men is one lifted almost verbatim from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Without much background, the Coens plop right into a remote gas station as Anton Chigurh talks things through with the station’s elderly own. If Chigurh doesn’t kill you, he’ll certainly put the fear of God in your loins. This scene proves that even candy wrappers squirm in his presence.
Most Memorable Line: “Call it, friendo.”
Fun Fact: After reading the script, Javier Bardem told the Coens “I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.” The brothers responded: “That’s why we called you.” I think they found a winning combination.
4. The Woodchipper from Fargo
Just in case Peter Stormare taking an axe to Steve Buscemi wasn’t enough, the Coens throw in one of their most grisly scenes in all their movies by having Stormare feed Buscemi’s dead body into a woodchipper. Watching the scene, audiences are forced to contemplate a classic Coen conundrum: are we viewing something darkly hilarious, disturbingly grisly, or just a little bit of both? It’s yours to decide.
Most Memorable Line: Few things are said in the scene except for “STOP” and “Police!”, but Marge sums up the whole movie while talking to Stormare in the police car afterward: “All for a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day.”
Fun Fact: the Coens got their inspiration for Fargo from a news story concerning the disappearance of a woman in Connecticut. When she disappeared, her husband said that she was visiting her sick mother in Denmark. The family baby-sitter reported seeing a dark stain on one of their carpets. When the rug disappeared, a private detective found it at a local landfill. The stain was blood. The woman’s husband had fed her through a woodchipper more than a month prior. As the sheriff in No Country for Old Men would tell you: “You can’t make up such a thing as that. I dare you to even try!”
3. The Tommygun Hit from Miller’s Crossing
The Coens are consistently adept at subverting expectations, but here they’re at the top of their game. The scene begins in stereotypical Godfather fashion, with trenchcoated hitmen striding past a dead guard and into the mansion of gang boss Leo O’Bannon, tommyguns slung at their sides. Frank Patterson’s gentle crooning of “Danny Boy” plays in the background as the seemingly geriatric Leo turns the tables – spectacularly – on his would be assassins. In spite of the fact that the scene has little bearing on the complex movie surrounding it, it remains one of the most memorable in the Coen canon.
Most Memorable Line: There is no dialogue in the scene, but afterwards it is said of Leo, “The old man’s still an artist with a Thompson.”
Somber Fact: Trey Wilson, who played Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona, was originally cast as Leo. 2 days before principal photograph was set to begin, he died of a massive brain hemorrhage, and Albert Finney was quickly brought in to fill the role.
2. Evolution of the Hula-Hoop from The Hudsucker Proxy
If you can find a movie with a better montage, you buy it. Heck, if you can find a better use of Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” you let me know. More than anything, though, this sequence adds that all-important explosion to the film—and as Michael Bay would tell you, it’s just not a movie without explosions.
Most Memorable Line: “The Hoopsucker!”
Fun Fact: One of the silhouettes in the name thinktank is none other than Sam Raimi—who, of course, co-wrote the film.
1. Stealing Huggies from Raising Arizona
Nothing in the entire Coen canon can match the frantic memorability of H.I. McDunnough running through suburbia, panty hose over face and Huggies under arm, with slathering dogs, trigger-happy coppers, hand-cannon wielding clerks, and his own banshee-pissed wife in hot pursuit. The first time I saw it I couldn’t stop laughing. The second time I saw it I wet myself. The third time… best not go there. Sure they got Oscars for Fargo and No Country For Old Men, but this scene…this is their magnum opus, and incidentally the finest strip of celluloid Nick Cage has ever been committed to.
Most Memorable Line: “Boy, you got a panty on your head!”
Fun Fact: The convenience store clerk’s alarm button reads “Odegaard-Trend Security,” which happens to be the name of the security company in Sam Raimi’s 1985 Crimewave.Crimewave, written by the Coens and directed by Raimi, is quite possibly one of the worst films of all time, a cinematic endurance test not unlike being chased by dogs and Magnum waving vigilantes whilst wearing a woman’s stocking on one’s head.