‘Raising Arizona’ Brings The Coens Brothers Their First Mainstream Hit

In Hollywood, most filmmakers only have enough clout based on their previous movie to do their next thing. For their first movie Blood Simple., Joel and Ethan Coen spent about a year or so traveling around and meeting with potential investors by showing them a promo trailer. They only had $1.5 million which was still cheap by mid-1980s standards. The movie earned about twice as much but was a critic’s darling.

This sometimes is enough to do something “more commercial.” And Raising Arizona is the perfect movie to follow up Blood Simple. with its complicated plot of murder and double-crosses. In many ways, it’s the same, but in other ways, it’s totally different. Some people might have a hard time noticing the comedy in Blood Simple., but Raising Arizona starts off telling the audience this is a lighter more comic movie so they can relax.

It begins with a long opening sequence in which we’re introduced to Herbet I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), otherwise known as H.I. or “Hi.” He’s a young career criminal being processed at a police department when he flirts with the young officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) otherwise known as “Ed.” After serving some time, H.I. finds himself back in jail but Ed is sad after being dumped by her ex-fiance. H.I. expresses feelings for her and Ed is smitten with his concern.

Again, H.I. does some time incarcerated but is released only to find himself arrested again for holding up a convenience store which is his usual M.O. But this time, he decides it’s best to straighten up, go right and he proposes to Ed once he’s released on parole. They get married and H.I. gets a job working drilling holes in sheet metal at a factory and they’e living in a mobile home somewhere in the Tempe, Ariz. area.

They try to have a child but Ed discovers she’s barren. They can’t adopt because of H.I.’s criminal history and both become depressed and down. Then, one day, they hear on the news that Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife had quintuplets. His wife, Florence (Lynne Kitei), had been taking fertility medication because she was having a hard time getting pregnant too. Nathan is a millionaire businessman as he has several chain furniture stores Unpainted Arizona throughtout the Southwest.

When Nathan jokes to the media that they have too many kids to handle, H.I. and Ed, in a Lady MacBeth manner, decide that they will take one of the children. Granted a story about a desperate couple kidnapping a young baby seems more like a Lifetime movie. Yet, the absurdity of the idea is what makes it a Coen Brothers movie. After “testing” each of them out, H.I. decides to take Nathan Jr. (T.J. Kuhn Jr.) even though he initially tried to leave empty handed by Ed told him to not return without a baby.

But there’s problems brewing. The same night that they kidnap Nathan Jr., Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), two brothers who did time with H.I. break out of prison. They tunnel out of the prison septic area and are more of less born from the ground. Thery come to his mobile home. Despite Ed’s objection, they stay overnight but leave the house the next day when H.I. invites his supervisor Glen (Sam McMurray) and his wife, Dot (Frances McDormand), to visit.

The problem is Glen and Dot are horrible parents and let their kids, all adopted because Glen repeatedly tells H.I. “something went wrong with my semen,” run wild, writing profanities on the walls and beating on H.I. and Ed’s station wagon with sticks. It turns out Dot only likes children when they’re young so she has something to “cuddle.” And Glen’s okay with it because she lets him have an open marriage. He propositions H.I. about wife-swapping which H.I. takes offense and punches him telling him to keep his hands off Ed.

This causes tension between H.I. and Ed as he refuses to tell Glen about the wife swapping. She’s already mad at him over Gale and Evelle, who have actually come to get H.I. help them rob a bank in a nearby town that will have a lot of cash on hand for farm subsidy checks. And soon they will also find out they are being tracked by Leonard Smalls (Randal “Tex” Cobb), a gruffy bounty hunter on a motorcycle, who H.I. says he had a nightmare about but doesn’t believe is real.

While what H.I. and Ed have done is wrong, the other people themselves are worse. Even though his own son has been kidnapped, Nathan manages to plug his stores to the press. But he can’t even identify which child was taken. Despite his jovial appearance in the commercials, he’s very short tempered and ugly toward people, criticizing a worker on the phone. He later gets mad at the authorities when he thinks they’re not doing enough, yelling and swearing at them.

When Gale and Evelle double-cross H.I. and take Nathan Jr. back for a $25,000 reward Nathan has posted, Ed realizes all the wrong she has done. Even though she has resigned from the police department, she puts on her uniform as her and H.I. track them down. She admits that as a police officer, she should have known better and admits she pushed H.I. into taking him while H.I. tries to deny it. In the end, both of them have realized that the most important thing is Nathan Jr.’s safety and getting him back to his parents.

Both Cage and Hunter seem perfectly cast. The Coens said they cast Cage based on his strange performance in Peggy Sue Got Married. They had wrote the role for Hunter as they had known her for years. This is also their first collaboration with Goodman and they had previously worked with in Blood Simple. as she fallen in love and married Joel. Her performance here is smaller but it shows how she’s able to stand out.

Even though it’s only their second movie, it shows how the Coens are at making each character stand out. Take the two scenes in which M. Emmet Walsh appears as H.I.’s co-worker telling a gruesome story about a traffic accident or a pick-up truck driver (John O’Donnal) who H.I. hitches a ride with while being chased by the police. He utters the classic line “Son, you got a panty on your head” when he notices H.I. is wearing panty hoses as a disguise. Then there’s the feisty elderly hayseed (Rusty Lee) who says they’re all confused by Gale’s instructions to “Freeze” or “Get down on the ground.” These characters stand out while other filmmakers wouldn’t bother and just use them as extras without lines.

One of the most memorable moments in the movie is when H.I. in desperation tries to hold up a convenience store but Ed sees him and leaves him stranded but not before the clerk triggers the silent alarm. Then, H.I. finds himself running from the police and the clerk who’s got a hand cannon himself. He then is chased through the suburbs (backyards, a person’s house and a supermarket) by authorities and several dogs as bullets are whizzing by him. It’s a silly absurd moment but it’s one of the funniest movie moments of the era if not all time.

Produced on a budget of $5.5 million, it was released on this date, March 13, 1987 and made about six times that amount with $29.2 million. It’s not a lot of money even for 1987 but it was the most a Coen Brothers movie would make at the box office until Fargo in 1996. But what is most enduring of the movie is how like a lot of Coen Brothers movies, it delivers a bunch of characters who seem too absurd to be real but almost everyone watching knows someone like the characters on screen.

Going back to Blood Simple., there’s a short scene in which Ray (John Getz) is driving early in the morning and tired, not aware he has his car lights still on. A motorist in the oncoming lane flashes his lights telling Ray they’re still on. He turns them off and as they past, the motoist gives Ray a smile and a friendly gesture. I’m sure in Texas just as many other parts of the country, you’d pass by a friendly motorist like this. Other directors would be more interested in how tired Ray is. The Coens are more interested in the friendly motorist.

That is what made the Coens different from everyone else. And as of this posting, they have stopped making movies together with their last being 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Joel directed The Tragedy of MacBeth by himself in 2021. As I’ve said, Raising Arizona does have similarities with MacBeth, but does have a happier ending. And like a lot of Coen Brothers movies, it starts off one way before slowly transitioning into a different direction. While this can sometimes be seen as a cheat, here it works smoothly that when H.I. and Ed are trying to save Nathan Jr. from Smalls, you’re not questioning how it got this way where as other movies that take a darker turn leave you scratching your heads.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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