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Blood simple

Blood simple
1984 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 95/97m.
Starring John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams
Cinematography Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Designer Jane Musky
Film Editor Roderick Jaynes (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen), Don Wiegmann
Original Music Carter Burwell, Jim Roberge
Writing credits Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Produced by Daniel F. Bacaner, Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

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' formula.


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 draw.  
1 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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