know a film has lasting cultural significance when Zhang Yimou helms a Chinese
remake (in this case, the wildly entertaining A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, starring a seriously hard-nosed
Sun Honglei). For some reason, the Coen Brothers’ debut film never really found
a wide popular audience, but its acclaim made the Fargo and Big Lebowski phenomena
possible (as well as the Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men). The time is probably right for casual fans
to catch up with the film that started them off, Blood Simple (trailer
which re-releases in its 4K restored glory (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)
this Friday at Film Forum.
befitting a film that takes its title from bit of Dashiell Hammett dialogue, Blood Simple starts with some hardboiled
narration from sleazy private detective Loren Visser. That is him in the VW
Bug, tailing Abby Marty and Ray, the manager of her husband’s east Texas
roadhouse. Technically, they were not yet having an affair, but instead of continuing
to Houston, they impulsively check into a motel, providing Visser with the
evidence her husband expects.
Marty makes no secret of his contempt for Visser, but he still hires the
ethically questionable P.I. to kill his wife and her paramour. This turns out
to be a mistake in retrospect. Initially, Visser falsifies evidence of his
contracted hit job, killing Marty instead, using his wife’s gun to frame her
up. At least that was the plan. Things get super-complicated when Ray stumbles
upon the crime scene. Several iconic scenes later, the illicit lovers openly
distrust each other, unaware of Visser’s villainy.
in an age of iPhones and the like, Blood
Simple still holds up remarkably well. The noir narrative twists have not
dated and it looks as stylish as ever. At the time, some complainers thought
the Coens and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld should have been filmed in
black-and-white, but it simply would not have been the same film without Visser’s
sickly yellow suit. It just screams bad news.
today’s perspective, it is rather remarkable how much talent came together for
this little upstart noir. M. Emmett Walsh was already something of a legend in
1984, but Blood Simple is the film
that truly defines his career. As Ms. Marty, Frances McDormand, who married
Joel Coen shortly after Simple wrapped,
is more seductive and vulnerable than you would expect from Marge Gunderson, her
Oscar-winning Fargo character.
On the other hand, Dan
Hedaya probably helped type-cast himself as ethnically ambiguous heavies with
his work in Simple, but he really is
terrific as Julian Marty. Frankly, John Getz probably deserved more attention
for his understated but assured turn as Ray. Although he is not a household name,
Tony-nominated playwright Samm-Art Williams adds considerable flair and energy
as Marty’s bartender, Meurice. You can also briefly hear the then unknown Holly
Hunter as the voice on his answering machine.
It is pretty crazy to imagine the Sundance press
corps eagerly queueing up to get a look at the buzzy Blood Simple from the ultra-indie Coen Brothers (who even tapped
their local suburban Minnesota branch of Hadassah for financial support), yet
such was the case in 1984. Thirty-two years later, it remains a slickly
effective thriller further distinguished by the Coens’ wickedly sly, darkly
comic touches. Highly recommended, Blood
Simple opens this Friday (7/1) in New York, at Film Forum.
Labels: Coen Brothers, Dan Hedaya, Frances McDormand, M. Emmett Walsh, Southwest Noir, Texas Cinema