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With: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/06/1984

Blood Simple (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hard Boiled Pulp

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

I hadn't seen Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple, which opens today in a digitally cleaned-up "director's cut," in probably more than ten years. What I remembered most were images: the fish on the desk with the gleaming lighter underneath, the sound of the shovel scraping against the blacktop, the shafts of light bursting through the wall chasing after the bullets that made them.

The reason I didn't remember much of the characters or what happens to them is that they're rather secondary to the style. Many reviewers have called Blood Simple "cold" for this reason. I don't think this is the case. The main characters of the movie are obviously the Coens themselves. They constantly draw attention to themselves with their style. They're puppeteers who let the strings show. The scene where the camera tracks down the length of the bar and bunny hops over a sleeping drunk is typical of this.

Further proof is in the fact that the audience is almost always ahead of the characters. We have all the information while they only have bits. In the movie (which is borrowed loosely from a James M. Cain plot), seedy bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires private dick Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) who is cheating with Ray (John Getz). When Marty's suspicions are confirmed, he re-hires Visser to kill the couple. But Visser attempts a double-cross that goes awry, and soon everyone suspects everyone else of something.

The only time we may not know what's going on is when the Coens decide to use their Godlike power to play with Marty. They tease us with clues that Marty might still be alive and have survived his own burial. His presence can be felt for the rest of the movie and we expect him to pop up at any moment.

I was amazed as to how much of the movie is silent, without any dialogue. Characters spend a lot of time thinking, looking for things, and waiting, which is very refreshing. But that's perhaps also why we don't remember them very clearly afterwards. Certainly Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand proved themselves capable actors later on. Hedaya turned in brilliant comic performances in Clueless (1995) and Dick (1999) and McDormand won an Oscar for the Coens' best film to date, Fargo (1996). Fargo was the film that the Coens allowed us to identify directly with its two lead characters, played by McDormand and William H. Macy, which is why it was so popular and acclaimed.

But one character does stand out, and I confess to remembering his every move, even after a decade. M. Emmet Walsh is one of the cinema's great character actors, and he manages to bring human warmth to his slimy, sweaty detective character. You can't help but grin when -- as the messenger bearing bad news -- he offers to let Marty cut off his head, saying "I can always crawl around without it." Walsh also introduces the film with his sinister, drawling narration.

In addition, Blood Simple gave us the talents of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and composer Carter Burwell. Sonnenfeld went on to photograph Big (1988), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), and Misery (1990) before turning director with Get Shorty (1995). Burwell stuck with the Coens longer and composed the amazing Fargo and The Big Lebowski (1998) music.

Though I like Fargo much better, I think Blood Simple holds up well, because we now know who the Coens are and what they're up to. When they play their little pranks on us, they're not newcomers anymore, so we accept it with more good humor. We had no idea what we were in for back then, but the film truly did announce the arrival of two major talents.

This 2000 re-release is slightly shorter and tightened up in spots. It also includes a hilarious new prologue from a fictitious film historian. The DVD release continues in that vein with a phony, ironic commentary track from a British "scholar" who tells wild (untrue) tales of how the film was made. In 2011, MGM released a new Blu-Ray with all the same extras.

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