(Here is my Noir of the Week review on Blood Simple for Steve-O’s wonderful NoTW site.)
“The world is full of complainers. The fact is nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or man of the year. Something can all go wrong. Go ahead, you know: complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help and watch him fly. Now, in Russia they got it mapped out so everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.” – Loren Visser, Blood Simple
So begins the voice-over introducing us to Joel and Ethan Coen’s somewhere-in-Texas world of Blood Simple. On the face of it, Blood Simple is your basic homage to films noir in the grand tradition of Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. What the Coens deliver is a darkly humorous neo-noir so full of suspense, it would be at home on a shelf next to Hitchcock’s best. Everything you’d expect to see in a noir is here, as if the Coens were using a recipe to craft the film: an adulterous woman, seedy bars and motel rooms, frame-ups, and double-crossers. The Coens took their film’s title from Dashiell Hammett’s story “Red Harvest”: a term that describes the frame of mind a person is in after being exposed to murder or intense violence. The film itself explores the characters as circumstances turn them all blood simple, and is as neatly crafted as any Hammett or James M. Cain story.
Dan Hedaya plays Julian Marty, a dyspeptic Greek bar owner, who is having his faithless wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and his employee, Ray, (John Getz) tailed by sleazy private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh). Marty’s scheme is simple, but about as sturdily built as a house of cards. Visser double-crosses Marty, frames Abby, and plans to take the money and run, but crime is never that neat. What ensues is like watching Abbott and Costello play a round of Russian roulette while doing “Who’s On First?” A series of miscommunications, suspicions, and fatal assumptions have Abby and Ray eyeing each other warily while a predatory Visser circles on the outskirts of the plot. The viewer is left in a unique position for this type of film – most directors would leave out key bits of information for cheap thrills and plot twists, but the Coens show their hand: we know who murders who, and how the deed was done. The characters flounder and struggle while we look on, smug and full of dread.
The film’s small cast all fit comfortably into their roles, with Hedaya and Walsh being the standouts. Hedaya plays Marty as noir’s typical impotent, cuckolded husband, his rage over Abby’s infidelity steadily simmering just below the surface. He’s got a big house, a shiny car, a beautiful wife and absolutely no control over anything in his life, especially the rogue private investigator he’s just hired. Hedaya’s character is an obvious parallel to Nick Smith’s (Cecil Kellaway) Greek diner owner in Postman, but he’s not the poor, sad sap Smith could be. Marty is at all times smarmy and unlikable, unable to evoke any sympathy from the viewer.
As Abby, Coen brothers’ muse Frances McDormand is a modern noir female. She’s an appealing crossbreed of both ingénue and femme fatale. With her sweet, open face and big, guileless eyes we can see Abby may have once been naïve and idealistic, but a few years of marriage to Marty has distilled her Texan pragmatism. She carries a snub-nose in her pocketbook with a vague notion of using it on Marty, should the situation present itself.
John Getz is arguably the weakest actor here, but that’s not saying much. He’s not supposed to be the hero; he’s just trying to keep his head above water. Ray is a simple man with not much to like or dislike about him, and through the course of the film we see his nerves stretch taut and begin to fray as he desperately tries to make sense of the violence surrounding him. If inexperience keeps Getz and McDormand from fully evoking their characters’ emotions, the exceptional plot excuses them. Ray and Abby spend a lot of the film looking bewildered, but who wouldn’t, trying to untangle this mess of murder?
The knockout performance of the film hails from its villain, a role written specifically for the actor. Had the Coens produced Blood Simple on the heels of Fargo, it’s likely M. Emmet Walsh would have been given an Oscar nod. Watching Walsh settle in as the husky, dissipated Visser is a real treat for the viewer. With his high-crowned woven cowboy hat, chunky turquoise ring, and pastel yellow leisure suit, Visser borders on the comical but his calculating reptilian eyes veer him into the grotesque. At separate points in the film a beetle and a fly land on Visser’s face and explore the terrain. Whether it’s a bit of movie-making luck or orchestrated by the Coens, the viewer understands: here is a bottom-feeder; insects can smell the death on him. Walsh is so good at being bad that by the end of the film you may be rooting for him, or at least hoping he’ll go out in a blaze of glory. You will not be disappointed.
Fifteen years later the Coens would go on to write and direct The Man Who Wasn’t There, a send-up to noir so self-aware and referential that, in comparison, Blood Simple almost reads truer as a film noir. Instead of being constrained by color here, the Coens play with it in between scenes of drab Texas landscape: Visser is half-bathed in shadow, half-lit in buttery Texas sunlight, or harshly lit crimson billboards rising out of a dark desert. The cinematographer for the film was a young Barry Sonnenfeld, but the Coens meticulously storyboarded the story themselves. The result is a style that doesn’t speak particularly to Sonnenfeld, but one that is visible later Coen films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Stretches of highway and vaguely familiar landscapes make the film feel like a docudrama… this could have happened! After all, truth is stranger – and funnier – than fiction, and it’s the funny parts of the film that keep it relatable. At one point, as Ray struggles to clean up a bloody crime scene behind a two-way mirror, potential witnesses enter the bar and fire up The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.” It’s a dark, absurdist humor commonplace in Coen films, making the audience chuckle in dismay while they wait for the other shoe to drop. In a later interview Joel Coen would say Ray’s infamous burial scene would take just as much inspiration from Chuck Jones (creator of the coyote and roadrunner cartoons) as it did from Hitchcock suspense movies (one can almost see poor bungling Ray captioned in Jones’ pseudo-Latin: homicidius botchus.)
Like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Blood Simple is one of those films that movie-goers would revisit after the Coens’ commercial successes of later films like Fargo and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s sometimes judged harshly when standing alongside the Coen canon of work, but small filming mistakes due to lack of budget, time and experience do not detract from the film’s overall impact. Once the credits roll, the viewer will sit back and wonder at the richness of plot the Coens were able to build using only a handful of characters. Here is a film revolving around murder and not once do we see a police officer! Blood Simple opened in 1985, and though it took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year, it enjoyed most of its success much later amongst viewers willing to devote the time. Make no mistake: this film is dense and plods along fairly leisurely, but it packs a wallop of a sucker punch at the end. Put your feet up, nurse a drink and pay attention to the dialogue and small details… this film is worth the investment.
Blood Simple will be released on Blu-ray August 30, 2011.