The Coen Brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (In Competition)


Ever since they first started working together on 1981’s THE EVIL DEAD, the Coens and fellow director Sam Raimi had endeavored to write an ambitious screenplay about corporate fat­cats and towering Gotham spires they called THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. They had completed the screenplay as early as 1984, and tried to make it following their breakout with BLOOD SIMPLE., only to be told that their vision was too expensive. After the critical success of BARTON FINK raised their artistic profile to the level of the mainstream studios’ attention, producer Joel Silver managed to bring the brothers’ long­gestating business satire under the fold of Silver Pictures at Warner Brothers. Thanks to their cinematic reputation as well as Silver’s own clout as a massively successful producer, the Coens managed to achieve what so many emerging directors would kill for: complete artistic control on their first studio film. Released in 1994, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is the Coens’ love letter to the sentimental screwball comedies of yesteryear. It is the bastard child of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, whose existence marks the culmination of their early string of postmodern period pieces.

Shot mostly on the Carolco Studios sound stages in Wilmington, North Carolina as well as locations in downtown Chicago, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY finds the brothers working with major Hollywood stars for the first time, all of whom effortlessly fold into the wryly idiosyncratic nature of their artistic voice. Tim Robbins headlines the film as Norville Barnes, a plucky and naive small­town dreamer whose boundless optimism propels his rapid ascent to the top of Hudsucker Industries while also blinding him to the cynical manipulations by his Board of Directors, led by Paul Newman’s grumpy, cigar­chomping executive, Sydney Mussburger. One of the most venerated actors of his generation, Newman proves an inspired choice in a role that plays against the handsome leading­man roles he’s best known for. He easily connects with the Coens’ off­kilter sense of humor, turning in a dignified, winking performance that never descends into camp.

A fresh­faced Jennifer Jason Leigh steals the show as Amy Archer, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with a heavy Mid­Atlantic accent who initially endeavors to deceive Norville into leaking corporate secrets only to fall hard for his plucky brand of optimism. Leigh consumes all the energy in the room, redirecting it back out through her full­throated performance while subverting our expectations of the conventional love interest archetype. BARTON FINK’s John Mahoney and THE EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell join her in the bullpen as the hotheaded Chief and the rival reporter Smitty, respectively. Bill Cobbs, Peter Gallagher, and the late Anna Nicole Smith round out the cast while fleshing out some mid­century flavor beyond the confines of Hudsucker Tower. Cobbs plays Moses, a folksy clock tower mechanic and the source of the picture’s drawling narration. Gallagher mashes together the spirits of Dean Martin and Elvis Presley in his performance as a soulful crooner, while Smith plays to her strengths with a fictional take on Zsa Zsa Gabor. Of course, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY wouldn’t be a proper Coen Brothers film without appearances by members of their particular stock company: John Goodman, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi. Goodman makes a voice cameo as a newsreel announcer, while Buscemi plays the beatnik bartender of a juice bar. Polito’s cameo is even more brief, popping up during a throwaway gag in what seems to be a reprisal of his character from MILLER’S CROSSING.

Right away, we notice that THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has a highly-stylized Art Deco look, accomplished via imaginative skyline miniatures and elaborate sets designed by the Coens’ regular production designer, Dennis Gassner, as well as highly theatrical cinematography by returning Director of Photography, Roger Deakins. The soaring Gothic spires and their smoky, mechanical underbellies call back to Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 silent classic, METROPOLIS, presenting an extremely stylized and retro­surreal vision of 1958­era Manhattan. It’s into this cold, angular environment of straight lines that the Coens introduce a simple plot device: a circle, in the form of a hula hoop. As we all know, a circle has no straight lines. No beginning, middle or end. It’s a constant loop of maddening defiance. In the perfectly­structured world of industry, the circle is anarchy. On a fundamentally thematic level, it’s very fitting that something as innocuous as a circle turns the world so violently on its head. Deakins’ photography echoes this sentiment, imprinting a cold, desaturated aesthetic onto the 1.85:1 35mm film frame. What little color there is draws from a steely neutral palette­­ which makes the introduction of Norville’s hula hoops, rendered in brilliant primary colors, all the more disruptive. Precise dolly moves and one point perspective compositions reflect the calculating will of corporate forces, and are countered at nearly every turn by chaotic whip­pans, high­velocity push­ins, unbalanced low angle compositions, and a playful willingness to break the fourth wall. The Coens’ lofty, overtly theatrical approach to THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is matched by returning composer Carter Burwell’s operatic and lushly romantic score, which courses through the increasingly­absurd narrative with a building urgency and grandeur.

Considering how long the brothers spent working on the script, it should be no surprise that THE HUDSUCKER PROXY serves up a quintessential Coen experience. Their wry sense of humor is immediately evident, beginning with the folksy opening voiceover that muses about the film’s setting­­ a narrative device that the brothers have frequently employed throughout their work. Their uniquely sardonic stamp continues throughout the film, with cartoonishly exaggerated minor characters like the mail chief, the elevator boy, and the executive secretary, as well as an absurdist dream sequence that deals in the same “Hollywood musical”­based visual grammar as its 1998 counterpart, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The structural framework of a small town protagonist trying to make it in the big city stays consistent with the outsider’s perspective that the Coens regularly bring to their work, while their fondness for the iconography of midcentury Americana is brought out in the imagery of towering skyscrapers, vintage newsreels, and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY premiered at Sundance, and then went on to screen in competition at Cannes, ultimately losing the prestigious Palm d’Or to their insurgent generational peer, Quentin Tarantino, and his second feature, PULP FICTION. Like MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK before it, the film premiered with a resounding flop at the box office. Critics appreciated the unique visuals and the bold risks undertaken, but they deemed the element most lacking was the human element, and thus embraced the film only at arm’s length. The culminating chapter in the Coens’ triptych of postmodern period pictures, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has proved itself to be one of their most fantastical and imaginative films, and has gathered a devoted following of its own on home video. While their first mainstream studio effort might not have met their expectations, the Coens had laid the necessary groundwork to begin a new phase in their career­­ one that would see their fan base grow exponentially, along with their stature amongst the pantheon of great contemporary directors.


THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.