To celebrate their three decades of moviemaking, a Blood Simple first-timer offers his thoughts on the Coen brothers’ debut.
It starts here, then. 30 years of the Coens and it all started here, with Blood Simple, the duo’s debut feature. In honour of the brothers’ 16 features, here’s some scattered notes after re-watching the film:
1) Firstly, what an assured debut. Has a first film ever so concretely established the director’s (or in this case, directors’) vision? From the delicate interplay between light and dark (both visually and metaphorically) to the meticulous attention to detail (both narratively and technically), Blood Simple always feels like it’s a Coens film. Nothing seems unusual for the pair, and there’s nothing notable here that feels out of place in the canon. It’s all there: The desperate band of losers in way over their heads; the rational reactions to irrational circumstances; the perplexing web of misunderstanding that binds the film’s key players.
2) If it was ever in doubt that the Coens’s principal influence was film noir, then one only need revisit Blood Simple to see just how embedded into their style it is. Whilst later Coens films have used the genre either intermittently (The Big Lebowski, which is basically ‘Raymond Chandler in a bowling alley’) or for something more approaching parody (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Blood Simple is, other than Miller’s Crossing perhaps, their most straight noir – or neo-noir – picture.
3) That’s probably neo-noir, though, because, for all its classic noir plot machinations, Blood Simple is simply too violent to be suggested as a film that could’ve sat alongside the likes of Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep etc. Consider the finale, which ingeniously sees Visser’s (Emmet T Walsh) hand driven into the windowsill by a knife as he leans in from the parallel room, his ear slicing against the broken glass as he struggles, his hand leaking blood as he tries to shift it. This, along with something like the nose-slit sequence from Chinatown, are defining examples of noir’s revisionist era: too bloody for the 40s, but perfect for the 70s (or 80s, in Blood Simple’s case).
4) Chinatown. I can’t find evidence of it anywhere, but I’m convinced that Visser, the Machiavellian PI of the picture, is, in some way, a recreation and inversion of John Huston’s Chinatown character, Noah Cross. He dresses the same, looks the same, and has the same low, slack-jawed drawl prone to eruptions of demonic laughter. He even has key scenes involving fish, bringing to mind the dinner that Cross and JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) share in Polanski’s film. That scene has Gittes bemoaning the fact that the fish still have their head (a delicacy Cross enjoys), whereas Blood Simple sees Visser laughing off comparisons to Greek messengers who were beheaded after bringing bad news. Coincidence or not, the two films feel linked.
5) Performance-wise, Blood Simple is a mixed bag. The aforementioned Walsh, one of cinema’s premier character actors, gives his greatest performance, owning the film as a jowly, sweat-covered monster. Credit too to Dan Hedaya, who does a nice line in sleazeballs and is always good as the sinned against, but equally sinning, husband. It’s in lead character Ray (John Getz) that things feel a bit off. It’s not that Getz is bad, just that when he’s put against some of the Coens’s other leading men he feels a little ordinary. Frances McDormand, in her first starring role, is brilliant. Naturally.
6) As with all Coens movies (and even in this, one of their darker pictures), there are flashes of humour, of fancy. My personal favourite comedic moment in Blood Simple is the tracking shot of Meurice’s (Samm-Art Williams) high top converse-clad feet as he strides to the jukebox to play a Four Tops song, to the chagrin of a bar full of rednecks. The little shimmy his feet give on the bar-top is inspired.
7) There’s an arresting visual style to the picture, and DoP Barry Sonnenfeld repeats images to amp up the tension. There are shots that will later be referred to in the Coens’s canon, too, like the highway shots that recall Fargo and even Inside Llewyn Davis.
8) Blood Simple contains one of the greatest of all Coens sequences, in which, for 13 minutes, Ray attempts to dispose of Marty’s (Heyada) body, taking him from office, to car, to highway, to upturned field. There’s no dialogue. Like so much of what the Coens would go on to film, it’s masterful.
All images: Circle Films