“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.”
Once upon a time, there were two brothers living in Minnesota. The two loved movies and aspired to be filmmakers. Their path to that endeavor began with a Super8 camera, filming a Tarzan movie as it played on television. Their other early films were better planned. The two attended different colleges, one studying filmmaking, the other philosophy. The one who studied film went on to serve as an assistant editor on a couple low-budget horror films; the philosopher, to serve as a statistical typist. In their spare time they wrote screenplays, and even raised the money from independent investors to film one of them, a sordid tale of double-crossing and murder. It was the start of a wonderful career. The two have gone on to film eight other movies to date. The brothers were Joel and Ethan Coen, and that debut film (the real one, not the filming of Tarzan) was Blood Simple.
Abby (Frances McDormand) wants to leave her husband Marty (Dan Hedaya). She enlists the help of Ray (John Getz), who works in the bar Marty owns, to help her move away. The two become lovers. Suspecting that his wife is up to something, Marty hires a low-life private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on her. The detective snaps pictures of the two in a seedy motel, and when Marty sees them, he hires the detective to kill Ray and Abby. The conniving detective double-crosses Marty, and an intricate web of deception threatens the lives of all involved.
Let’s just get one thing straight. The Coens are my second-favorite filmmakers, behind Tim Burton. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing all but one of their films on this site — someone beat me to Raising Arizona. I love their offbeat flair, their stylized dialogue, their unusual stories. Unfortunately, I discovered them a little late, maybe around the time of Fargo. I still haven’t seen Barton Fink or Miller’s Crossing, mostly because I cannot bring myself to see the lauded films for the first time on VHS. It took me a long time to see Blood Simple. It wasn’t until the new “director’s cut” of the film made a limited run last year that I had a chance. In Eugene, Oregon, where I live, there aren’t many choices for movie theaters. There’s the big 17-screen stadium seating multiplex. There’s the 12-screen bargain theater. There’s an 8-screen theater I hate because of its poor sound system, inflated ticket prices, and curious tendency to leave the theaters completely in the dark, even when the movie isn’t running. And then there’s the arthouse, appropriately named the Bijou. It’s nearby the University of Oregon campus in a run-down neighborhood, and it is housed in an old gothic building that used to be a mausoleum. I’ve lived here (in Eugene, not in the mausoleum-turned-theater) since I was three years old, and Blood Simple was the only movie that has ever attracted me to that creepy place. But I digress.
Joel Coen worked as an assistant editor for Sam Raimi on his low-budget debut, The Evil Dead. The Coens approached their first feature in a similar fashion as Raimi. Raimi filmed a short film, “Within The Woods,” as an example to show to private investors to raise money for filming the full-length Evil Dead. Similarly, the Coens filmed a 30-second trailer that advertised the film as if the entire thing had been shot. The scenes in the trailer are the defining moments of the full film — a man being buried alive, and bullet holes creating eerie shafts of light through a wall. The brothers were able to raise over $1 million for the film. They storyboarded the film in intricate detail so that the filming would go as smoothly as possible and not a dollar would be wasted.
The Coens assembled a fantastic cast: John Getz as the laconic Ray, Dan Hedaya as the fiery Marty, M. Emmet Walsh as the slimy P.I., and Frances McDormand as the heroine. The leads had previous screen experience, with the exception of McDormand, making her screen debut. She shines in the role, bringing the combination of strength and vulnerability that would mark her later roles in Fargo and Almost Famous.
As for the story, it is a potboiler in the tradition of the best film noir. The acknowledged inspiration is James M. Cain, the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It is an intricate weave of deceit and avarice…and when I say intricate, I mean confusing. There’s the urban legend — I don’t know how true it is — that while filming The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart argued over how one of the characters died. They consulted Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel, and he didn’t know either. I’ve seen Blood Simple a few times, and I still cannot keep straight the chronology of the events.
Though perhaps no one in the reading audience is begging that I answer this question, I beg that I answer it for myself: Where does Blood Simple fit in the pantheon of the films of the Brothers Coen? Stated simply, it is a nice start. Some critics have claimed that it has little heart, that it is just a calling card to Hollywood, that it is all style and no substance. On that last point I may concede; the brothers use unusual camera moves and angles that seem somewhat gratuitous. In particular, they reuse the low rushing camera move that Joel must have picked up from Sam Raimi whilst editing his Evil Dead. They sometimes do things in a self-consciously unusual way, and oftentimes the dialogue has an unnatural ring. These complaints can be leveled against many of their films, but I think the criticisms are rendered moot by the sheer force of their creativity. That said, Blood Simple is my least favorite Coen Bros. film. They did not have the experience to pull off a serious film, which they had gained by the time they filmed Fargo. I think their strength lies in their comedy, where their idiosyncratic filming techniques and stylized dialogue seem less out of place. Fargo, inexplicably, is sometimes categorized as a comedy by those that find pulverized body parts in wood chippers to be delightfully droll. Raising Arizona seems a better mark for the beginning of their careers, having the most in common with their later, better comedies. This leaves Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing out of the equation, but I have to do that for reasons stated previously. I’m rambling.
Blood Simple is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image has an unmistakably low-budget look to it and the undersaturated patina of an early 1980s film. It can have an occasionally pixely look due to its low average bitrate of 5.52MB/sec, but edge enhancement is not visible and the image is free of source defects. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, and is adequate but hardly exemplary. It suffices for the dialogue-driven film.
As typical for DVD releases of Coen Brothers films, extras are rather sparse. For the first time, however, one of their discs is graced with a commentary track. The track (ostensibly) is provided by Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films, responsible for the restoration of this film. His commentary is the very definition of non sequitur, having hardly anything to do with the film. His comments are completely ridiculous, like his assertions that the producers wanted to cast Rosemary Clooney in the M. Emmet Walsh role, or that the German shepherd dog is animatronic (it’s not), or that the fly buzzing on M. Emmet Walsh’s face in one scene was digitally created by a large team of computer animators, or that the opening scene in the car was filmed upside down and backwards so that the actors’ lines would coincide with the car lights going by. Just between you and me, Kenneth Loring is as real as Roderick Jaynes, the Brit often credited with editing the Coens’ films. A studio insider told me under conditions of extreme anonymity that Loring is an actor, and that the Coens wrote the script for the commentary. This is about as close as you’ll ever get to the Coens recording a commentary track. It is also about as close as you’ll ever get to a commentary track that you’ll want to watch repeatedly for its extreme hilarity.
The other extras are sparse, so I’ll give them but a brief mention. There is a theatrical trailer, bios of the principal cast (and in this film, that’s pretty much the entire cast) and the Coens, and a handful of production notes.
Universal typically produces great DVDs, but I think they bobbled the ball a bit with Blood Simple. The low video bitrate is attributable to this being a single layer disc, almost unheard of nowadays for high-profile releases. I’m not sure where the cover artwork came from, if it was used for the theatrical re-release in 2000 or if it was created specifically for the DVD. I vastly prefer the original video box artwork, a pair of blood-red stiletto heels next to a pair of cowboy boots, which you can see on the second page of the production notes on the disc. It’s one of those video covers that I remember from my sheltered youth. I’d see it in the video store with that lurid title and wonder what wonders such a movie could hold. Why replace that with a picture of M. Emmet Walsh?
At last the Coen Brothers’ first feature is available on DVD. Fans of their work will undoubtedly want to add it to their collections, as will fans of the neo-noir subgenre that Blood Simple heralded. Even if you find the film a little dry and plodding (which it can be at times), the Kenneth Loring commentary is worth the price of the disc.