The Coens get neck-deep in noir for their astonishingly assured debut feature
On January 18th, 1985, The Coen Brothers unleashed their first full-length feature, Blood Simple. The film would introduce audiences to the Coens’ uniquely imagined brand of reverential genre subversion and would herald the brothers’ emergence as maverick filmmakers with an established visual and narrative aesthetic entirely of their own making. For their first foray into the realm of indie film, aware of the limitations placed on first-time filmmakers, the brothers would make use of the practical noir templates showcased in classic crime films of the 30s and 40s, as well as their love for the works of crime writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. There would be limited players involved in the film, which was one of the practicalities inherent in the genre. There would also be limited effects shots; locations would be kept to a minimum; the shoot would be rigorously planned. In order to drum up the necessary budget, the brothers would shoot a dummy trailer on 16mm with fresh-faced cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. They would shoot the trailer with Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame in the Dan Hedaya role of Marty, which they would then show to potential investors with a view to acquiring half of the $1,500,000 necessary to make the movie.
The film would ultimately be shot over a period of eight weeks, adhering to the meticulously developed storyboards the brothers created to facilitate a smooth production. It would also be shot in a variety of locations familiar to Joel from his time spent at graduate film school in Austin, Texas. Post-production would take up the best part of a year as the brothers took their time editing the final cut. They would then engage in the thankless task of flogging it to distributors, who were initially reluctant to get involved due its unconventional and difficult-to-classify genre infusion. In an interview for The Guardian, Barry Sonnenfeld noted that it wasn’t until the film screened at the New York Film festival that distributors, who had previously baulked at the idea of shouldering marketing responsibilities, started to sit up and take note. Ultimately, indie distributors Circle Films would pick up the film, which would go on to make $2,150,000 against an estimated final budget of $1,500,000 ― a satisfactory payday for anyone smart enough to have invested in it.
In the end, the Coen’s would write, produce, direct and edit Blood Simple, which would take its title from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, in which the author used the phrase to explain how people behaved illogically after committing murder. Ultimately, with the history of crime cinema at their backs, the brothers would craft an impressively alternative neo-noir that would pay homage to the classics, whilst simultaneously seeking to nudge the genre in unpredictable new directions. Typically, the film handles the usual Coen themes of betrayal, despair, greed, lust, cruelty, amorality, selfishness and cause and effect (the effect usually being some form of incredibly creative punishment) with aplomb. It is an extraordinarily assured film, particularly given it was their first ever feature. The Coen worldview, which at times can seem uncaring and askew, (depending on what frame of mind they’re in on a given project) arrived fully formed in Blood Simple. Though rough around the edges when compared with stylistically superior fare such as Fargo and No Country for Old Men, it remains a thrillingly conceived blueprint that is every bit as aesthetically and narratively pleasing as the films that succeeded it.
Abby : He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary.
Ray : Uh-huh.
Abby : Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him. I don’t know how you can stand him.
Ray : Well, I’m only an employee, I ain’t married to him.
Blood Simple functions as both nihilistic morality-play and Texas neo-noir, though the set-up is classic noir. Cuckolded bar-owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) pays sleazy Private Investigator Lorren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his cheating wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her loser lover Ray (John Getz). Unfortunately for the characters, it all goes a bit awry and as with Fargo in 1996, Blood Simple’s amoral ensemble wind up doomed to the sort of horrifyingly conceived fates usually reserved for teenaged slasher fodder. That said, there is enjoyment to be derived from witnessing the wheels come off. There are a number of pitch-black comedy moments, such as Abby whip-kicking her assaultive husband in the nuts during a failed kidnap attempt, that help mediate the cruelty. Still, despite breakout moments of absurdist humour, Blood Simple remains one of the Coen’s most unforgiving pictures. As any viewer who has ever sat through the spine-chilling, dead of night, middle of nowhere, buried alive sequence can attest, there are sequences of genuine terror in the film that are difficult to stomach and not for the faint of heart.
Unlike future Coen dramas such as Fargo where there is a sympathetic Marge to keep the viewer on board, no such character exists in Blood Simple. The fact is, all the key characters in this film are deceitful. There are the adulterous lovers at the film’s commencement, whose decision to engage in an illicit liaison triggers the series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings that subsequently transpires. Then there’s the murderous cuckold and the double-crossing PI. Inevitably, (this is a weightier Coen Brothers film after all) most roads lead to ruination. The Four Tops loving bartender Meurice, played by Samm-Art Williams, escapes unscathed, though most likely this is down to the fact that he doesn’t do anything that warrants punishment in the eyes of the film’s creators and so is spared an ignominious demise.
Loren Visser: [to Marty] Stick your finger up the wrong person’s ass?
Plaudits for acting in the movie are due all round. Frances McDormand, in her first ever screen role, does an exceptional job of depicting atypical femme-fatale Abby, whose drift into a loveless affair helps kick-start the narrative. Dan Hedaya gives an unsettling performance as the cuckolded bar owner Marty, resorting to murder to exact revenge. John Getz, meanwhile, as ambivalent adulterer Ray, portrays his character’s gradually escalating paranoia and agitation marvellously. Finally, there’s M. Emmet Walsh, starring as the larger-than-life, yellow-suited, Stetson-wearing, flyblown sweat-monster Loren Visser, who, like the best of the Coen’s villains, is an unscrupulous revelation. It’s hard to imagine Walsh being flattered knowing the role had been written for him. Visser is unsavoury and opportunistic, one of cinema’s sleaziest and most repellent supporting characters.
As well as being the first time on set for director Joel and Frances McDormand, Blood Simple was also the first time cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld had shot a major feature. Reports claimed Sonnenfeld was a nervous wreck. He would often vomit during filming due to the anxiety of shooting his first movie. He was so green going into Blood Simple that he claimed, during an interview with The Guardian, that he had to be shown where the On-Off switch was on the 35mm camera. Not that it shows in the finished product. If anything does, it’s Sonnenfeld’s night-time photography that sets the tone of the piece. Neon splashed bars and darkened highways vie for space with motel rooms and poorly lit automobile interiors. Whenever the film switches to daytime scenes normality’s onset is jarring, to say the least.
Similarly, Carter Burwell’s piano score, his first for the Coens but by no means his last, is as sparse and unsettling as the photography is textured. As a compliment to some rather ingenious sound design and nocturnal camerawork, it is perfectly pitched and never overused. Burwell would go on to score almost all of the Coens’ films. His music would become indelibly linked with the brothers’ cinematic expression in the way John Williams conjures images of Spielbergian wonder and Bernard Hermann is synonymous with the suspenseful pictures of Psycho-era Hitchcock.
Joel Coen has gone on record as stating that he thought Blood Simple was ‘pretty damn bad’. However, as a b movie showcase for emerging talent the movie remains an impressive calling card. Noir fans and cineastes generally agree that Blood Simple holds up well 35 years on from its release. It certainly holds up better than Zhang Yimou’s unnecessary remake A Simple Noodle Story from 2009. Ultimately, the brothers’ first foray into the realms of creative violence, weird morality, smartly scripted dialogue and horror tinged absurdity remains crucial. Joel Coen may not be happy with the movie but then some filmmakers go their entire careers without creating anything anywhere near as impressive or unique.