The confidence and command of the medium with this very first feature film from the Coen Bros is kind of astounding. The loosely documented story behind the making of this film has it that Coen Bros made a short demo, or trailer for the film as a pitch to some family friends to invest in their feature version. With their meticulously detailed story board, the maximized their million and a half budget instantly launching their successful career.
Blood Simple (1984) dir. Joel Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M Emmett Walsh
By Alan Bacchus
It’s a remarkably precise execution of their for the brothers . Despite some rough-around-the-edges cinematography Blood Simple is tight as can be. No shot seems wasted. An artfully rendered jigsaw puzzle, full of crafty shadowy characters all of whom with their own dispicable agendas. We’re not even sure who to root for. The thrill is in the clever unveiling of this dynamic anti-morality tale of greed, desire and a little bit of chance.
Most of the familiar Coens’ motifs are present in this first outing. The opening shot for instance features a car speeding down an open road at night, visuals cues prevalent in Fargo, Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men. Even M Emmett Walsh’s lazy, heavily-accented narration told with the simplicity of a fairytale forecasts it’s use in Raising Arizona, Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and more.
The story, a deliciously plotted pot boiler, bringing to mind the best of Hollywood noir of the 40’s and 50’s. Ray and Abby (Getz and McDormand) are lovers hiding out from Abby’s husband Marty (Hedaya), who also happens to be Ray’s boss in the local saloon. Marty suspects something and hires an old private dick (Walsh) to confirm his suspicions. The detective even offers to kill them both for a tidy sum. After Marty’s double-crossed and left dead, in order to properly clean up the trail of evidence he has to kill Abby and Ray.
But the detective finds an unusually strong opponent in Abby, resulting a remarkable cat and mouse chase in her loft apartment, a memorable blood curdling finale to an ice cold nihlist thriller.
The Coens are not shy to put their cinematic style in front of content and character. But it’s a noir film and the genre requires this kind of panache and swagger. The Coens have it spades, impressing us with clever camera moves, including their famous bar tracking shot which has their camera creep along the thin rail of the bar then literally move up and over a drunkard passed out on a stool. The more erratic camera moves seem to be influenced by Barry Sonenfeld, their first DOP, who would go on to direct his films and use similar expressive moves. But the Coens also know when to slow down and hold our attention. Numerous scenes use excessive silences to amplify the tension before unleashing it’s force. The sniper scene is remarkably tense, a Hitchcockian scene through and through, one short moment drawn out by creative editing for a long as possible to maximize the shock value.
The Coens revel in the detailed procedural actions of their characters. When Ray discovers Marty's dead body in his office for instance, it begins a lengthy sequence showing his disposal of the body. Again, as influenced by Hitchcock, the steps taken by Ray to clean the scene, and transport the body into the car along the highway and eventually to it’s final destination in the shallow grave of a farmer’s field is remarkably involving, like Norman Bates' removal of Janet Leigh's body in Psycho, or the famous sack of potatoes scene in Frenzy. Though Marty’s body never moves at any time, in the back of our minds, we expect him to come back to life and attack Ray.
And remarkably it isn’t until the final act when the Coens find their true hero, Abby, the meek unassuming female victim, who at first is characterized as a femme fatale, another recurring theme for the Coen's, a resourceful everyman or woman who trumps the miscreants at their own game.
Blood Simple is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment