The brothers Coen stripped down the noir genre and reassembled it with their first feature film Blood Simple. Like Criss Cross and Double Indemnity, the narrative told a tale centered on conspiracy driven by greed and eros with a denouement in blood and death. But the similarities end there. The “conspiracy” is not planned and the principals are mostly improvising, badly, as they try to make money, get revenge, or get their freedom.
The Coens reimagined the genre in other ways, as well. Francis McDormand’s “Abby” looks nothing like Barbara Stanwyck and becomes a femme fatale mostly by accident. The tragedy is driven in part by the expectation that Abby is behaving in the manner of a noir vamp. But the ending results from the cyclical nature of violence itself and owes more to Shakespeare than to Robert Siodmak. Indeed, the outcome is “blood simple,” a term borrowed from mid-century novelist Dashiell Hammet (author of the novel, Maltese Falcon) to describe the confusion that follows acts of violence by people who have never engaged in acts of violence before.
The new Blu-Ray issue of the 1984 film stands up well after close to 30 years. You can tell this is a first feature film, as many of the shots simply don’t have the consummate authority and easy familiarity of the Coen’s best work. Even the nearly unbearable tension of the infamous burial scene feels like a formal experiment. But its certainly a highly successful experiment that points the way to their work in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, films that managed the high wire act of combining irony, excruciating violence and straightforward aesthetic delight.
This was also Francis McDormand’s first feature, a reason to watch this film if there were no other. Her portrayal of Abby is crucial to how the brothers turn noir on its head, successfully showing her as neither vamp nor victim and mostly just confused. McDormand would, of course, become a regular part of the Coen troupe. In 1996 she received an Academy Award for her performance in the Coen’s masterpiece Fargo. Incidentally, at the time of the making of Blood Simple, she apparently shared a rambling house in the Bronx with the Coen’s, Holly Hunter and Sam Raimi-a house that clearly needs a historical marker.
The Blu-ray transfer is an improvement over the 2001 DVD release. However, it does show the same limitations that a lot of ‘80s film stock seems to display. Scrubbed clean of grime and jitter, Blood Simple still doesn’t give you the crisp look you expect from Blu-ray. Where the release really benefits is in the lossless sound and the restoration of the original haunting score by Carter Burwell.
The big disappointment here is the extras, or rather the lack of any. The only supplementary material is the infamous commentary track done by “Kenneth Loring”, the fictional artistic director for the fictional film company “Forever Films”. This is actually a satirical spoof on commentary tracks in which “Loring “ (rumored to be Ethan Coen doing a British accent but apparently actor Jim Piddock) claims that the actors synced their lines to the glow of passing car headlights for aesthetic effect, that dialogue in some scenes was dubbed during post-production and that early forms of CGI were used throughout the film. At one point, he even claims that Marty’s dog was animatronic. In other words, it’s a near perfect send-up of the contemporary commentary track, a form that frequently drowns in a weird combination of technical jargon, irrelevance and self-indulgence.
This is great fun, no question, but it’s the same fun you had with the 2001 DVD release. A few of the extras that appeared in that release are actually removed here. Of course, the Coens themselves are known to be “anti-special feature” and so this probably explains the lean nature of supplementary material. The Coen’s fans, film geeks all, would have liked a bit more, especially with the film getting its much deserved Blu-ray transfer.
But the film itself stands all by itself and Coen fans will have to own this. The two brothers grim had all their road before them when this was first released. It’s a pleasure to revisit it knowing all the ways they will take us to the darkness on the edge of town in years to come, laughing with us as they go.