Steve Buscemi as Carl Showalter, loquacious kidnapper
Minnesota, Winter 1987
Release Date: March 8, 1996
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Costume Designer: Mary Zophres
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy 65th birthday to Steve Buscemi, born in Brooklyn on December 13, 1957. After serving as a New York City firefighter in the early ’80s (and volunteering again the day after 9/11), Buscemi steadily became an increasingly familiar face in movies and TV, particularly films depicted by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. 1996 was a breakthrough year for Buscemi, who wrote and directed his first feature—the excellent Trees Lounge—and co-starred as the “funny-lookin'” crook Carl Showalter in the Coens’ acclaimed wintry black comedy Fargo.
Having previously worked together in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, Joel and Ethan Coen had Buscemi in mind specifically to portray the anti-smoking and anti-parking attendant Carl, who teams up with the dangerously silent Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) across a swath of the Midwest described by the Minnesota-born Coens on The Charlie Rose Show as “Siberia with family restaurants.”
Little of this “homespun murder story” is actually set in the eponymous North Dakota town, save for the opening where Carl and Gaear are contacted by the mild—and I do mean mild—mannered Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy), a spineless Oldsmobile salesman who has concocted a desperate scheme to have his own wife kidnapped in the hopes of splitting the $80,000 ransom to be paid by his wealthy father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell).
What’d He Wear?
All of Carl Showalter’s on-screen costumes fall along the yellow-to-brown scale, matching the “burnt umber” Cutlass Ciera he drives throughout Fargo. His wardrobe is anchored by a thigh-length coat made of shearling sheepskin, showing a walnut-dyed suede-like outer shell and a similarly toned fur reverse side that presents on the collar, along the vertical seams running down the front and back of the coat, and around the edge of the hem and sleeves.
One of the oldest outerwear cloths, dating back to the Stone Age, sheepskin’s naturally warm, insular properties would have made it a wise sartorial choice—indeed, probably one of Carl’s smartest decisions overall—in a Minnesota winter. The single-breasted coat has three large nut shank buttons, each with its woody finish respectively worn away in differing degrees. The two outer pockets are set-in with entries along the fur-trimmed vertical seams.
When we—and Jerry Lundegard—first meet Carl and Gaear at the King of Clubs dive bar in Fargo, North Dakota, Carl wears a butter-yellow ribbed-knit turtleneck with a chunky roll-neck and set-in sleeves.
Following his and Gaear’s enlistment into the Lundegard kidnapping, Carl wears a rust-colored ribbed-knit turtleneck made from a slightly lighter-weight cloth.
With this turtleneck, Carl wears a nearly matching pair of straight-leg jeans made from a rust-red pinwale corduroy. Styled like traditional jeans with a five-pocket layout, belt loops, and plain-hemmed bottoms, these trousers have a white Levi’s tab sewn along the back-right patch pocket, indicating a vintage product as Levi Strauss & Co. had used these white tabs on their corduroy products through the 1960s and ’70s.
To reward himself for a job… done, Carl hires an escort (Michelle Hutchison) and treats them both to a Jose Feliciano concert at “The Celebrity Room”. He dresses up for the occasion in a brown textured twill single-breasted sport jacket in addition to his usual combination of a near-matching turtleneck and corduroy trousers. The thin turtleneck is a silky golden-tan melange with dark streaks across the fabric.
Carl’s tan pinwale corduroy cotton trousers are uniquely styled with wide belt loops and six pocket. The patch-style front pockets have curved entries like jeans, each with an inset cargo pocket over the hip that closes with a single copper rivet button through a rectangular flap; the two back pockets are also flapped. The slightly flared bottoms are plain-hemmed.
The trousers have five extra-wide belt loops, the front left of which seems to tear away during Carl’s gunfight with Wade. He continues wearing his usual dark brown leather belt with indented edges and a brass-toned square single-prong buckle.
Carl wears black leather harness boots, a style characterized by the system of four non-adjustable straps and rings around the ankles of each boot. The style had evolved in the mid-20th century from the simpler engineer boots that had gained popularity with motorcyclists. Carl’s penchant for harness boots may suggest that he’s a biker, or he may just like the “bad boy” image they project. The high shafts and heavyweight leather would have also afforded Carl considerable comfort and protection from the snowy environment. Many bootmakers have specialized in harness boots of different colors and sizes since they were pioneered during the 1960s with makers including Ad Tec, Durango, Frye, and Harley Davidson.
In his more vulnerable moments where he’s been caught with his boots off—once while enduring a mid-coital beating delivered from Shep Proudfoot and again during an incident with a woodchipper—we see Carl’s plain white combed cotton crew socks.
For long hours behind the wheel of that burnt umber Oldsmobile, Carl appropriately wears black leather driving gloves—the type defined by holes cutout over the knuckles and the backs of his hands—and a pair of gold wire-framed sunglasses with rounded brown gradient lenses.
Carl wears a yellow-gold watch, or at least a watch made of gold-plated steel, on a metal expanding band. The light “champagne”-colored round dial has non-numeric hour markers and a date window at the 3 o’clock position.
Though they may have the coats and sweaters to dress for the cold, what truly differentiates Carl and Gaear as outsiders? They’re the only main characters to not wear hats with ear-flaps!
What to Imbibe
Carl and Gaear have more than a half dozen bottles of Grain Belt beer on their table when Jerry meets them at the King of Clubs in Fargo, having waited for him an hour due to a possible miscommunication via Shep Proudfoot.
The brew perfectly suits the setting, dating back to 1893 when Grain Belt Golden was introduced by the recently formed Minneapolis Brewing Company. The brewery encountered many of the same challenges faced by American alcohol manufacturers during Prohibition, though it was revived in part by the post-World War II introduction of Grain Belt Platinum and—later in the 20th century—when it was acquired and refreshed by the August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm to remain a mainstay in Minnesota and the Midwest at large.
Carl and Gaear arm themselves with a nickel-plated pistol that resembles a SIG Sauer P226, though the actual screen-used weapon appears to be what’s known as a “Non-Gun” rather than a true blank-firing firearm. Typically molded to resemble real-life firearms, electronically operated Non-Guns were developed by International Studio Services to provide a safer alternative for guns to be fired on screen with other actors in close range. When “fired”, Non-Guns emit a smoky flash that resembles a gun being fired, though they’re limited to this alone; due to their lack of movable parts aside from the trigger, Non-Guns can’t depict a revolver’s rotating cylinder or—in the case of semi-automatic pistols like Carl’s “P226″—slide recoil and a spent shell being ejected.
The SIG Sauer P226 that Carl and Gaear are meant to be using can trace its origins to the 1970s, when German weapons manufacturer SIG Sauer introduced the innovative double-action P220 that was quickly adopted by the Swiss as the “Pistole 75”. Nearly a decade later, SIG Sauer rolled out the P226 variant that accommodated double-stack magazines to carry more ammunition than the single-stack P220 magazines.
SIG Sauer had developed the P226 in response to the U.S. Army’s XM9 Service Pistol Trials seeking a replacement for the venerable M1911A1 pistol. Though the Army eventually chose the Beretta 92-series, SIG Sauer recognized the potential of the P226 and brought it to market in 1984, eventually catching on with the U.S. Navy SEALs, who adopted it as the Mk 25 Mod 0 five years later.
The P226 was primarily chambered for the universal 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition at first, though variants were also offered to fire .357 SIG and .40 S&W as those respective cartridges were introduced in the early ’90s.
My biannual Car Week focus is technically over, and there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera that Jerry Lundegard procures for Jerry and Gaear… which makes it just the ideal car for their purposes (and their mediocrity.) Though Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) refers to it as “tan”, Jerry more colorfully describes the sedan as a “brand-new burnt umber Ciera”.
A base model ’87 Cutlass Ciera four-door sedan, rather than the Brougham or GT trim options, would have been available in either the the 2.5L “Iron Duke” straight-four engine, mated to a three-speed GM Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission and churning out 98 horsepower, or the 2.8L V6, which generated 125 horsepower and was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
I remember my grandfather had driven several of these in the early ’90s before he switched to his final Buick. Grandpa’s Cutlass Cieras were comfortable enough rides, but he never had reason to test them against a Minnesota winter.
How to Get the Look
Carl Showalter dresses for his wintry crimes in a shearling coat, turtlenecks and nearly matching corduroy trousers, and black leather harness boots.
- Brown sheepskin shearling thigh-length coat with notch lapels, three-button front, and vertical fur-trimmed seams with set-in side pockets
- Warm-toned turtleneck
- Tan or rust pinwale corduroy cotton jeans with large belt loops and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown dented-edge leather belt with brass square single-prong buckle
- Black leather harness boots
- White cotton crew socks
- Wire-framed sunglasses with brown gradient lenses and gold arms
- Black leather driving gloves
- Gold-plated wristwatch with round champagne dial with non-numeric hour markers and 3:00 date window on gold expanding bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
The Coens also had a hand in adapting their masterpiece into a continued series helmed by Noah Hawley on FX, essentially an anthology series set in a shared universe but with each season depicting mostly new characters in different locations at different eras.
That’s the first thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s a… that’s fountain of conversation, man. That’s a geyser. I mean, whoa daddy! Stand back, man. Shit. I’m sitting here driving. Doing all the driving, man. The whole fucking way from Brainerd driving. Just trying to… chat, you know. Keep our spirits up, fight the boredom of the road, and you can’t say one fucking thing just in the way of conversation. Oh fuck it. I don’t have to talk to you either, man. See how you like it. Just total fucking silence. Two can play at that game, smart guy. We’ll just see how you like it. Total silence.