One of the things I love about the movies—hell, about literature as well—is the subtle homage, the one where you don’t even have to recognize it to get the sense of the scene, but that adds a special little tick when you do. The casting of Jack Elam and Woody Strode, for example, in small roles in Sergio Leone’s C’era una volta il West means nothing to most who see the film. To us who are fans of the Western, however, it states flat out that the filmmakers know the genre and will be using its motifs throughout—and that homage won’t end with the two characters.

The other day, I saw the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading. People haven’t been particularly kind to it, but I enjoyed it.

Only today did I realize that the film (as usual with Coen brothers movies) contained an homage to one of my favorite films, and that I had missed it completely.

At the end of the film, two CIA officers discuss events, deciding to do little about them (aside from paying for a bit of cosmetic surgery for Frances McDormand’s character). They are talking about people dying for unexplained reasons, going off to Venezuela, and other odd occurrences.

Today, I realized they were bowing to Alfred Hitchcock and North by Northwest, where there’s also a discussion in a CIA office:

Official #1: And the unsuspecting Townsend winds up
with a stray knife in his back.
Official #2: C’est la guerre.
Official #3: It’s so horribly sad. Why is it I feel like laughing?
Official #4: What are we going to do?
Official #3: Do?
Official #4: About Mr. Thornhill?
The Professor: We…do nothing!
Official #4: Nothing?
The Professor: That’s right. Nothing.

What goes on in Burn After Reading is very much what one finds in North by Northwest and a host of other Hitchcock films. I appreciate that the Coen brothers, through such homage, acknowledge the traditions they extend.