Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Opening Titles and Song: Fargo (1996)

As Spring is about to be sprung, and we’ve lost another hour of sleep1, a certain film is soon to reach its 25th anniversary. Due to this, thought to make Fargo (1996) the first Opening Titles and Song post for 2021. Timely since the film’s snowy scenery and unlawful nature is center stage right from the outset. Bequeathing the audience a stark preview of what’s to come in all its cold white sublimity care of the Balsmeyer & Everett Inc. title design and less than truthful opening title card2.

Even before Fargo‘s distinct titles start their march through the snow, Carter Burwell’s score permeates the proceedings right from the start as the MGM/Polygram logos splash past. The haunting Fargo, North Dakota track picture perfect for the desolate Winter wastes of the Northern Midwest landscape about to come into frigid focus3. A simply superb mix of languid instrumentality that sets the tone, ahead of the arriving pathos, in clear Coen Brothers context.

The accompanying titles then begin to etch across a dour, frozen field of view. Almost like cracks on thin ice, as those soon to be plotting to gain misbegotten funds, it is actualized onscreen by the uniquely offset rubrics. Much of this covered by Lucy Hickling in her 20th anniversary analysis of the film in 2016, which I’ll quote from. She nailed why this sequence is keen in understanding what’s to come:

“The font used for the titles in this opening sequence is a basic black sans serif font that fades slowly in and out. There aren’t many titles spread throughout this opening, reflecting the simplistic camera work, simple and understated with an impact. The way that the font fades in and out compliments the editing style and mise-en-scene, because everything flows smoothly but the fog also adds a hazy and distorting feeling. I think that the simple font style works well with the thriller genre because it isn’t too ‘typically thriller’ that boarders on the horror side. Also the black text stands out well on the whitewashed background.”

Since it’s unfolding across a destitute wintry vista, shrouded by snow and fog, the font used (the appropriately named Interstate) is given a distinct emphasis by the designers. Telling in its application within the title sequence:

Each title, save for FARGO, never appears on the same level onscreen; their place is always out of line. A motif that accents the counterpoised subsequent word or name; which is evenly but distinctly letter spaced4 compared with the first. In typographical terms, it’s the opposite of kerning5, which adjusts the space based on “character pairs.” And that’s what Fargo is all about in terms of its story. What happens to the movie’s cast, both good and bad, between specific duos.

Visually, the lettering in the title hints at the story’s characters, care of their later actions. They are outside the norm. What was once close, now separated in men’s hearts via typeset. The spacing in the credits, along with the coldly bleak backdrop, exaggerates the sense of loneliness and peril.

“The use of mise-en-scene plays an important part in this opening sequence because the setting is what makes it eerie and mysterious, which is a typical way to open a thriller. The setting is very whitewashed and foggy because of the snowy landscape, which makes everything more difficult to fully focus on, distorting the audiences mind, making them think. The truck is the only ‘prop’ in this opening scene, focusing all of the audiences attention on that. The truck is old and rusty creating a rural and enigmatic image.” ~ Lucy Hickling

The spare, straightforward opening titles sequence, with its slow title transitions, paired with a vapory and icy location, creates an eerie atmosphere. The heightened sense of it all, like the car barreling through the barren snow-laden waste, gives off a whiff of suspense and dread, which surely encapsulates the style and progression of these filmmakers. Especially, given their history and way with the crime thriller genre to date6. It is elegant and foreboding in equal measure.


  1. The folly of Daylight Savings Time is once again upon this… and it needs to stop
  2. Contrary to the opening graphic that states, “This is a true story…” , it’s not. “[The story was] completely made up. Or, as we like to say, the only thing true about it is that it’s a story.”, per the Coen Brothers. 
  3. Director of Photography, Roger Deakins, said, “We had to wait weeks and weeks before we got our first snowfall and the day it really snowed we were actually shooting on the 14th floor of a tower block — a different sequence — so I sent out my assistant to shoot this shot [laughs] with the transport guys, and off they went. We had scouted the locations and we knew exactly the camera angles so off he went and shot this really lovely material. But neither Joel or Ethan or myself were actually there.” 
  4. Letter spacing is also known as “tracking” in typography. 
  5. Tellingly, it’s referred to “kerning perception lost“, which is what Jerry Lundegaard loses touch with in the film as he has his wife kidnapped so he can collect the ransom money from his father-in-law. 
  6. Fargo at 25: The ‘True Story’ That Wasn’t (vulture.com) 

7 Responses to “Opening Titles and Song: Fargo (1996)”

  1. johnrieber

    This is terrific…not only is the film brilliantly acted, written and directed – but there are deep, meaningful decisions like the ones you share here that give it another layer of depth…a great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Oh, thank you very much, John. Upon my recent re-screening of the film, it just gets better with repeat viewing. As you say, “… brilliantly acted, written and directed”.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • johnrieber

        I love and watch it every year or so…also giving another of their classic a rewatch: “Barton Fink!” When my wife goes into the studio to film her TV show, I always tell her: “give ’em that Barton Fink feeling!”

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
  2. Cinematic Delights

    Nice choice, Michael. I’ve only seen Fargo once so had forgotten the opening titles and song. I enjoyed watching/listening to it again so thanks for including the YouTube clip. It’s a great piece of music.

    Have you watched the TV series adaptation?

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Claire. The film is a devilish delight and the Coen Brothers treatment of crime film is just sublime. I’ve seen some of the Fargo series, but not all of the seasons. So much on good things TV, cable, and movies these days that it’s hard to get to it all. 🙂

      Like

      Reply
  3. Paul S

    The opening of Fargo is a great moodsetter, I’d go as far as to say it’s my favourite part of the film. As someone who finds opening titles and fonts fascinating, I was interested to read your (and Lucy’s) thoughts on the use of kerning and the font in the title sequence here. It’s something I’d never have thought about before reading this piece. Thanks for opening my eyes.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

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