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Not much critical respect has been lavished on the adventurous neo-noir films of the early 1980s, when a few progressive filmmakers aspired to reawaken the rich atmosphere and compromised morals of the classic American style. Lawrence Kasdan's 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 that defies its humble origins, Blood simple launched careers and proved that there was plenty of oomph left in the old Double Indemnity formula.
The Coen brothers' story oozes laid-back, laconic Texan passion. Bartender Ray (John Getz) is helping his boss'es disaffected wife Abby (Frances McDormand) flee across Texas when they suddenly begin a torrid affair at a motel. Little do they know that Abby's husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) has hired detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to get the goods on them -- and then in a jealous fever hires the same detective to murder them as well. From that point forward the noir twists twist into double-crosses, as a sordid murder-for-hire becomes a study in desperate characters.
It's fun to look back at the first films by established directors. Blood simple confirms that many of the celebrated filmmakers' most familiar themes were already firmly in place. It shows us the clever, playful camera tricks of the brothers' first cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, such as the floating viewpoint that shadows a German shepherd down a hallway. Another show-off trucking shot follows the tennis shoes of bartender Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) and cruises down a long bar-top, soaring like a rollercoaster to avoid colliding with a passed-out patron.
The reissue also gave us 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. So did M. Emmet Walsh, whose weary, grudge-holding, Russia-obsessed detective is tone-perfect. As Loren Visser negotiates with Marty, the insects buzzing in his hair seem to be feeding off his insanity. Murder is fine with Visser; he's just concerned with the tendency of murderers to 'go simple' afterwards. From Arthur Penn's The Chase onward, many movies have pictured Texas as an alien planet where the heat makes lovers more desperate and villains more venal. Blood simple pegs the sour mood with the first look on every actor's sweaty face.
As narrative storytellers 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 Psycho's nervous strings but a droning Texas beat. Lean scripting limits the interior locations to a bar, a couple of residences and some incidental exteriors, but the wide-open highways and plowed fields keep claustrophobia at bay. Once the set pieces settle into place we're too busy watching every facial twitch of the characters to become overly concerned with production values. The final 2/3 of the show are non-stop tension scenes.
It's clear going in that this is a movie about killings and double-crosses, and the Coens entice us into their scheme with a Hitchcockian concern with incidental detail. Budding detectives should make note of the pearl - handled revolver. The envelope with incriminating photos. The cigarette lighter. Marty's fishing catch, rotting on his desk like the uncooked rabbit in Repulsion. The safe. The hammer. A shirt with bloodstains. The back seat of a car with more bloodstains. We watch the four characters interpret these objects, in a mystery for which none of them has a complete picture. Each acts in concert with their dispositions and natures. The slimy boss formulates his counter-extortion plan. The unethical detective uses his cackling laugh to cover up an inner rage. The runaway wife is desperately in search of someone trustworthy. The bartender becomes an accomplice to murder after the fact because he acts on a completely false set of assumptions.
Neatly tricked out with expressive (if sometimes gimmicky) camera angles, Blood simple almost looks too good to be an independent quickie. The Coens' storytelling instincts seem to have burst full bloom without need for development. The violent, funny and unpredictable chain of mayhem and misunderstandings has the feel of a demented episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Show, except that the ironic twist keep coming for 95 minutes straight.
MGM / Fox's Blu-ray of Blood simple is a distinct improvement on the grainy theatrical prints seen back in 1984. This noted independent success is beautifully shot, with dynamic color values. The HD format brings out the beauty in every scene, even when the characters speak from pools of relative darkness.
For a 2000 reissue the Coens reinstated some editorial differences that their original distributor had made them remove for clarity's sake. But they also added an annoying '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 an unwelcome in-joke, that makes fun of the audience's interest in restoration, missing scenes, etc..
Even less welcome is a bogus commentary by Kenneth Loring (a real person?) that plays like a humor-challenged version of a Monty Python sketch. The English-accented Loring ever-so-politely explains every ridiculous detail of the show, and we don't get very far before we realize that the track is an unfunny lump of performance art. "Loring" dryly informs us of 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 a dog is an animatronic figure. Savant once proposed recording a parody of pompous added-value commentaries and featurettes for MGM's Reptilicus, but this crafty Coen track demonstrates why it was a bad idea. The deadpan parody is more than a little contemptuous of the academic of commentaries to be found on discs by Criterion and others. It seems equally contemptuous of its audience. I think Loren Visser would shoot Kenneth Loring, just to shut him up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blood simple Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.