Monday, June 27, 2016

The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple

You 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 here), which re-releases in its 4K restored glory (courtesy of the Criterion Collection) this Friday at Film Forum.

As 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.

Julian 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.

Even 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.

From today’s perspective, it is rather remarkable how much talent came together for this little upstart noir. M. Emmet 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.