The Coen Brothers' 'Blood Simple' Beginnings

by Brice Ezell

25 October 2016

Don't let the word "simple" in the title fool you: even with their debut feature, the Coen Brothers were already refining their idiosyncratic calling cards.
 
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Blood Simple

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams

US DVD: 20 Sep 2016
UK DVD: Import

Woman cheats on husband. Husband seeks revenge. Revenge goes wrong.

These plot points exist in any number of noir tales. Look within the spines of books by great noir novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy, and Elmore Leonard: some version of them will crop up. The great noir directors, from Alfred Hitchcock to Jean-Pierre Melville, explore morality’s gray spaces with similar ingenuity. At its base, Blood Simple is built on those noir plot features, and many other tropes of the genre: heavy shadowing, bloody violence, and existential despair. But in the hands of the then-young directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple evolves from what could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of betrayal and blood into an oddball mélange of crime cinema, horror, and black comedy.

The Coens would venture into stranger territory (The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy) later in their career, not to mention more refined explorations of film noir (Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There), but in Blood Simple the brothers proved themselves to be directors in which conventions like genre are but putty to be stretched about any number of directions. Anyone looking for a noir fix will be happy with Blood Simple, but there’s plenty that’s not simple in this non-audacious debut. The devil, an omnipresent figure in the noir universe, is in the details.

The story of Blood Simple is just that: bloody, and simple. After becoming dissatisfied in her marriage, Abby (Frances McDormand, a frequent Coen player) begins a relationship with Ray (John Getz), a man who works at her husband Julian’s (Dan Hedaya) neon-lit Texas bar. Blood Simple begins with an ominous sequence: as Abby and Ray drive down a lonesome country road, Ray’s windshield is intermittently illuminated with the headlights of oncoming cars, which in their brilliance look as if they will overtake Abby and Ray—but they never do. Speeding into the night, these soon-to-be lovers are always on the precipice of destruction.

The sequence ends with Abby and Ray beginning their affair in a motel room striped with shadows. Not far from that consummation, Julian broods. He calls the hotel room the next morning, hanging up before saying a word. As soon as he intuits the betrayal at hand, Julian summons the private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), the cro-magnon iteration of Coen eccentricity. The camera first introduces Visser to the audience through a shot of his cowboy hat set on top of a desk, one of the many instances of Blood Simple‘s usage of synecdoche via mise-en-scene.

It would be proper etiquette to announce spoiler alerts ahead, but in the world of noir it’s safe to assume that many if not most of the main characters will die. As much as the Coen brothers toy with many of the genre’s characteristics in Blood Simple, they also know the rules of the genre’s game, and the eerie conclusion to this film follows the dictums of noir: blood must be shed, and few if any can survive. Julian initially hires Visser to trail Abby and Ray, but in the end he asks the private investigator to perform a more lethal task: the execution of his wife and her lover. Julian’s only mistake in this execution order is assuming that Visser has his best interests at heart: after duping Julian into believing he has performed the execution, Visser pumps him full of lead.

The normally meticulous and plain-spoken Visser leaves one loose but vital thread in his killing of Julian. To ensure Julian’s alibi, Visser tells him to leave town and head to the costal city of Corpus Christi, where he should “go fishing” while the hit is performed. Julian returns with a few fish strung together on a rope—which in the Coen’s subtle scene staging, foreshadow the deaths to come in the film. As he sets the fish atop his desk, he covers up Visser’s engraved lighter, which like the killer’s hat is a synecdoche for the killer himself. Despite the lighter’s iconic value, Visser quickly forgets it after he shoots Julian in cold blood, in his mind cauterizing any loose ends. For the remainder of the movie the mystery lingers: when will anyone lift up the fish carcasses and find the incriminating evidence underneath?

The Coens let the camera linger over the lighter’s steely glint beneath the fish, the grenade pin that threatens to blow up Julian’s murder. Yet when Blood Simple comes to its conclusion following 95 zippy minutes, the abandoned lighter is not the source of Visser’s undoing. Abby, with the help of a pocketknife and a well-timed gunshot, brings about his death at the film’s conclusion. Writing for the Atlantic, Christopher Orr notes that the lighter is a “a red herring literally hidden under fish.” The Coen brothers effectively capture the spirit of film noir with Blood Simple, but more than anything else they emphasize the attention to detail, a feature necessary to one of noir’s primary figures—the detective—that also regularly goes overlooked by the characters in the noir genre. Pay attention to the wrong thing at the wrong instant, and you’re likely to end up in a grave of someone else’s making. The fishy foreshadowing that lays atop the lighter is actually the more valuable piece of information for the unfolding of the narrative. The obvious clue obscures the slimy hint of what’s to come.

Character and plot-wise, there isn’t much going for Blood Simple, but the Coens bring this bare-bones story to life with all of the aforementioned mise-en-scene misdirection, as well as some sterling cinematphotography by Barry Sonnenfeld. The shots of Visser’s bullets boring through a wall of an empty room, of Ray burying the almost undead Julian in an anonymous Texas farm field, and of signature Texas locations like Austin’s Mount Bonnell are important shots in the Coens’ early career. Viewers are given a unique look into the composition of these shots in the characteristically outstanding bonus features to this Blu-ray edition of Blood Simple provided by the Criterion Collection.

Augmenting a series of interviews with cast and crew is a filmed conversation between the Coens and Sonnenfeld, wherein the directors and cinemaphotographer draw over a continuous commentary of the film with Telestrator technology. (Those who have seen football commentators draw lines over a slow-mo replay of a football game will be familiar with this software.) This allows the three filmmakers to pinpoint the most distinctive elements of Blood Simple, well over 30 years after its creation. The amount of information about the movie’s production that the Coens and Sonnenfeld are able to recall after that time is remarkable. Criterion’s interactive form of director commentary on this special release is one of the strongest special features it has introduced, a considerable feat, given how high a bar it has already set for the home video market.

The seemingly quotidian final shot of Blood Simple—a floor-up view of sink pipes from the perspective of the dying Visser—is at first a strange place to conclude this film. But it’s the left pipe that Visser gazes upon, which bears a striking resemblance to the barrel of a Colt .45, that delivers one of the central messages of this movie, one which links it right back into the noir pantheon. No matter who you are, you’re liable to end up on the wrong end of a gun. The Coen brothers are hardly the first artists to make that point, but with Blood Simple they do so with a cinematic inventiveness that has since become their calling card. Blood Simple may not be quotable like Lebowski or Oscar-winning like No Country for Old Men, but it’s an indispensable feature in the catalogue of two masterful filmmakers.

Blood Simple

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