30 Years of Coens: Blood Simple

Revisiting the lethal cunning of the filmmakers’ debut

USA Films

Three decades ago, on September 7, 1984, the Coen brothers’ first feature film, Blood Simple, made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was 17 at the time, and I feel that to some degree I’ve grown up as a movie-watcher with the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. So in recognition, appreciation—and, in some instances, vexation or outright adoration—of what they’ve accomplished over the subsequent 30 years, I thought I’d re-watch their 16 features in sequence and, if all goes smoothly, jot down thoughts on 16 subsequent (work) days.

These thoughts will likely be idiosyncratic and will surely be opinionated, and they may evolve in format over time, depending on how the spirit moves me and on what seems to work best. Note that this in no way intended to be an authoritative account of the career of our preeminent filmmaking siblings: While I’ve seen a few of their movies a dozen times or more, others I’ve seen only once or twice, and I don’t pretend to have kept up with all of the many articles, analyses, interviews, and books that have accumulated over the course of the Coens’ cinematic lifetime.

This is, in other words, a moderately seat-of-the-pants exercise, and please regard it accordingly. I welcome further observations, insights, and (as is tragically necessary from time to time) corrections in the comments section. I’d be delighted if this exercise inspired others to go back for another helping of Coensiana, and hope that it can serve as an opportunity for thoughtful discussion of All Things Coen.

Notes on Blood Simple (1984)

• It all began here, and not merely for the Coens themselves. Blood Simple was the first feature starring Joel Coen’s soon-to-become wife, Frances McDormand; the first scored by Carter Burwell, who’s collaborated—often, as here, magnificently—with the Coens on all their subsequent scores; and the first shot by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who also worked on the Coens’ next two films before embarking on his own directorial career with the Addams Family and Men in Black movies and Get Shorty. It is no small miracle—and a testament to the Coens themselves—that so many exceptional talents connected so early in their respective careers.

• Many of the traits that would eventually become associated with the Coens are already evident, but especially notable is their extreme precision—not merely technical but narrative as well. The plot is an intricate clockwork of lethally intersecting misunderstandings. (This reality is foreshadowed by Marty’s awkward pickup line to a woman in his bar: “We don’t seem to be communicating.”) The principal characters—Abby (McDormand), Ray (John Getz), Marty (Dan Hedaya), and Visser (Walsh)—all behave more or less rationally, but they are all working from incorrect or insufficient information. Marty doesn’t know that Abby and Ray are not dead; Abby doesn’t know that Marty is dead (and Visser doesn’t know that she doesn’t know this); and Ray doesn’t know that it wasn’t Abby who did the killing. Especially cunning are the twinned visits to the bar by Ray and Abby on subsequent nights: He finds an attempted murder and assumes she did it; she finds an attempted burglary and assumes he did it. (A nice, related touch: the repeatedly undiscovered cigarette lighter—a red herring literally hidden under fish.)

• Re-watching the movie, I was again struck by the interplay of light and darkness, and in particular the inversion by which the former suggests danger and the latter relative safety: the ominous headlights on Visser’s car and the passing truck; the bright daylight in which Marty attacks Abby; the death-enabling ceiling fixture in Abby’s apartment; and the contrast between Visser’s vulnerability in the lit bathroom and Abby’s safety in the darkness next door. But I was more struck still by how frequently the overall visual style echoes that of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, on which Joel had worked as an assistant editor in 1981. Especially notable is the scene in which Marty tries to drag Abby from Ray’s house and the camera rushes diabolically toward them as we hear the exaggerated panting of a dog. It was shot using Raimi’s “shaky cam” technique, and plays as a virtual homage to their fellow director (with whom they subsequently worked on the movie Crimewave).

• Has there ever been a better sleaze-off between actors than the championship round between Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh? Hedaya’s career has been largely defined by his ability to ooze feculence from every pore—in particular as Nick Tortelli on Cheers and as the tricky, titular president in Dick. But though he cranks his brooding meanness up to levels where he becomes nearly pre-verbal, he’s still no match for the faux bonhomie and wheezing wickedness of Walsh. The longtime character actor starred in over 200 films over the years (notably Straight Time, Blade Runner, and as the sniper in The Jerk), but he was never better than in this role.

• It’s worth noting that the name of Walsh’s character, Visser, is never mentioned in the movie, likely in homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, who is at one point described, like Visser, as “a monster … without any human foolishness like love in him.” The Continental Op is also the narrator of the Hammett novel Red Harvest, in which he offers the line from which Blood Simple takes its title: “This damned burg's getting me. If I don't get away soon I'll be going blood-simple like the natives.” It's a line that Visser echoes when he twice accuses Marty of going "simple." Despite all the nods to Hammett, however, the hardboiled writer whose work more directly inspired the plot and themes of the movie is James M. Cain. For a truer Hammett homage, we’ll have to wait until Miller’s Crossing.

• Walsh is one of three Blood Simple performers to appear in the Coens’ next film Raising Arizona, in which he has a small (but hilarious) cameo. McDormand, too, has a witty supporting role. Finally, there's Holly Hunter, who stars in the latter film. Her role in Blood Simple—one of her first film gigs—is limited to that of a voice left on the answering machine of the bartender/ladies’ man Meurice (Samm-Art Williams). Ironically, she was nearly the movie’s lead, but when the Coens approached her about the Abby role, she was busy with a play, and she recommended her then-roommate, McDormand.

Blood Simple is the only of the Coens’ films to have subsequently been remade by another director, in this case the great Zhang Yimou. Alas, his variation on the theme—entitled A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop—is not itself great, or even good, though difficult cultural translation may play a substantial role in this. My review is here. I recommend the movie only for completists of the Coens, Zhang, or Chinese cinema generally.

• Leave it to the Coen brothers, meticulous technicians that they are, that the “director’s cut” of Blood Simple they released on DVD in 2001 is actually three minutes shorter than the original release: tighter, neater, honed to a still more lethal leanness. That’s not the only way in which the movie evolved, however. In the theatrical version, the song that Meurice plays on the jukebox in an early scene is the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” which recurs twice more in the film (“but with a different meaning…”). Owing to a rights dispute, however, on the VHS version released in 1995 the Coens replaced the song with Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” before restoring “It’s the Same Old Song” to the subsequent DVD versions. Alas, by the time of the DVD releases, I’d pretty much worn my old VHS tape ragged. So now, anytime I watch the movie—watch as Meurice makes his way to the jukebox and back, white hightops juking across the bar—the Four Tops’ song feels profoundly wrong. I cannot be alone in this. There must be a population of “I’m a Believer” Blood Simple fans out there, right? Are there enough of us to form a support group?

Et Cetera

Where I rank Blood Simple among Coens films: #7 (out of 16)

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #5 (out of however many I decide to rank)

Best line: Pretty much anything uttered by M. Emmet Walsh, but if forced to pick, I’d have to go with his closing death-cackle, “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

Best visual: The shafts of bullet-light after Visser has shot through the bathroom wall

Best sound: The shovel dragged along the highway

Notable locale: Texas, where “you’re on your own”

Notable influences: James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Conspicuous use of fans: Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Number of characters who vomit in the film: One (Marty, twice)

Next up: Raising Arizona