Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Body Heat may have officially kicked off neo-noir three years earlier, but Joel and Ethan
Coen's debut sizzler shifted the form into high gear. Wittily scripted,
cleverly directed and given a production gloss defying its humble origins, Blood simple
launched careers and proved that there was plenty of oomph left in the 'Double Indemnity'
Bartender Ray (John Getz) is helping his boss'es disaffected wife
Abby (Frances McDormand) flee across Texas when they decide to stop at a motel instead and begin
a torrid affair. Little do they know that her husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) has hired detective Loren
Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to shadow them - and then in a jealous fever hires the same detective to
kill them both. From then on it's noirish twist upon twist upon doublecross as a murder-for-hire
becomes a study in desperate characters.
It's fun to reassess established directors by looking at their first films. Last year's theatrical
reissue of Blood simple with some editorial tinkering done to bring it back in line with
the Coen's original intentions confirmed that many of the celebrated filmmakers' most familiar themes
were already firmly in place. It showed us the camera tricks of frequent Coen cinematographer
Barry Sonnenfeld, such as the floating viewpoint shadowing a German shepherd down a hallway, or following
the tennis shoes of bartender Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) or cruising down a bar-top, lifting up
like a rollercoaster to avoid colliding with a passed-out patron.
The reissue also gave us all a chance to see everyone's favorite Fargo police
chief in her first role: Frances McDormand is arrestingly good as the harried spouse of the weasley
bar owner. Dan Hedaya, he of the permanent five O'Clock shadow, got everyone's attention with
this role, as did M. Emmet Walsh, whose weary, grudge-holding, Russia-obsessed detective
is tone-perfect. As he negotiates with Hedaya the insects buzzing in his hair seem to be feeding
off his insanity. Murder is fine with him; he's just concerned with people's tendency to 'go simple'
afterwards. From Arthur Penn's
The Chase onward, a lot of movies
have tried to convey Texas as an alien planet where the heat makes lovers more desperate
and villains more venal. Blood simple pegs the mood with the first look on every actor's face.
Coen & Coen have us in their power from the beginning. Carter Burwell's music
syncs up with the windshield wipers of the lovers' car, not with nervous strings as in Psycho,
but instead a droning Texas beat. Lean scripting limits the locations to a bar, a
couple of residences and some incidental exteriors, but the wide-open highways and plowed fields
keep claustrophobia away. Once the set pieces settle into place (the final 2/3 of the
show are non-stop tension scenes) we're too busy watching every detail on screen and every facial
twitch of the characters to be concerned with production values.
It's clear going in that this is going to be a movie about killings and doublecrosses, and the Coens
exercise a Hitchcockian concern with incidental details that pays off nicely. There is the pearl -
handled revolver. The envelope with incriminating photos. The cigarette lighter. Marty's fishing
catch, rotting on his desk over the course of several days like the uncooked rabbit in
Repulsion. The safe. The hammer. A shirt with bloodstains. The back seat of a car with bloodstains.
We watch these props and objects intensely while four characters all
try to deal with a mystery for which none of them have a complete picture. All of them act in
concert with their dispositions and natures: the slimy boss and his counter-extortion plan, the
unethical detective with his cackling laugh that covers up an inner rage, the runaway wife desperately
in search of someone trustworthy and the bartender who becomes an accomplice to murder after the fact
under a completely false set of assumptions.
Neatly tricked out with expressive camera angles that stylize scenes without becoming too gimmicky,
Blood simple looks too good to have been shot as an independent quickie. The Coens' instincts
seem to have burst full bloom without need for development, as this thriller has a sure touch with
character, plot and sharp first-person storytelling. The violent, funny and unpredictable chain of
mayhem and misunderstandings has the feel of a demented episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Show
where one ironic twists build for 97 minutes straight.
Universal's DVD of Blood simple is a distinct improvement on the grainy theatrical prints
seen back in 1984. I was told that for the reissue last year, the Coens were able to reinstate some
editiorial differences that their original distributor had made them remove for clarity's sake. But
they've gone a bit further than that with the addition of a 'Forever Young' preface, a talking-head
introduction that confused theater audiences. In this strange sixty seconds of film, a gentleman identifies himself as
Mortimer Young and lets us know how happy he is that this masterpiece has been restored for mankind:
"digitally swabbed" and with the "boring parts taken out and replaced with other material." It's
plenty weird, an in-joke or a rib that we aren't quite in on.
Even more weird but less welcome is
the 'commentary' by Kenneth Loring (a real person?) that plays like a low-key version of a Monty
Python sketch. The English-accented Loring ever-so-politely explains every ridiculous detail of the
show, and we aren't very far in before we realize that his whole commentary track is a gag. He dryly
informs us of intricate technical reasons why the very first car interior scene
had to be shot upside down and backwards, with the actors learning to say their lines in reverse. He
tells us that the dog is an animatronic figure. Savant wanted to do a parody of pompous added-value
commentaries and docus on MGM's
Reptilicus, so I guess the
crafty Coens have beaten me to the
I hope they don't alienate viewers who might expect a real discourse on the making of the movie...
this deadpan parody is faux-cute but more than a little contemptous of the academic kind of commentaries
to be found on discs by Criterion and others. It also seems intentionally/unintentionally contemptous of
its audience, if only in a vague sense. On the other hand, it's no more insulting than most
television sports commentaries ...
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blood simple rates:
Supplements: feature commentary with Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films; trailer, production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2001
1. the upcoming docu for
Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension
will have some surprises along these lines.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson