Blood Simple

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Stars: John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Loren Visser), Samm-Art Williams (Meurice), Deborah Neumann (Debra), Raquel Gavia (Landlady), Van Brooks (Man from Lubbock), Señor Marco (Mr. Garcia), William Creamer (Old Cracker), Loren Bivens (Strip Bar Exhorter), Bob McAdams (Strip Bar Senator), Shannon Sedwick (Stripper)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
Blood Simple Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Blood Simple

Blood Simple, the filmmaking debut of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, has not aged a bit in the more than three decades since it was first released. Taut, suspenseful, well-written, and superbly directed with a sly sense of black humor, it is a deliciously wicked film noir given a modern bent and reset on the open plains of central Texas. Where evil, guilt, and shameless desire festered in the dank, claustrophobic cityscapes of ’40s film noir, here it does so in honky-tonk bars and on endless stretches of empty highway. The key ingredients of a noir-ish murder thriller are all here, namely intense emotions and the willingness to kill because of those emotions, and the plot is deviously constructed to keep the on-screen characters unaware of what is really happening, right down to the movie’s final line of dialogue.

The story concerns the sleazy proprietor of a honky tonk, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), whose younger wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), has begun an affair with one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Marty hires an equally sleazy, if not sleazier, private investigator, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to follow them and deliver proof that they are, indeed, gettin’ it on. But, Marty doesn’t stop at that. He is so jealous and bitter that his wife has betrayed him (even though it is made clear that he doesn’t really love her) that he asks Visser to kill her and Ray. Visser mulls it over for a few moments, then tells Marty to go on a fishing trip and he will call him when the deed is done.

That is just the set-up, as the movie then follows these four characters as they become mired in misunderstandings, incorrect assumptions, double-crossings, and half-truths. It’s the kind of movie where murder victims aren’t always as dead as they seem, and the wrong person spends an entire night risking his life to cover up a murder he didn’t even commit. The movie works so well because the Coens set everything up very carefully in the opening moments. A conversation between Ray and Marty seems to be just a throwaway moment of male one-upmanship as the jilted husband comes face-to-face with his wife’s new lover, but the dialogue is crucial in establishing not only Ray’s reason for covering up what he thinks is a crime committed by Abby, but also for his not entirely trusting her.

Although Blood Simple was their first movie, it is readily evident from the very beginning that the Coens are masterful filmmakers with a unique outlook and a willingness to experiment. Blood Simple is very much an homage to the black-and-white film noir of the 1940s and ’50s, as well as the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a little of Alfred Hitchcock’s wily sadism thrown in for good measure. Yet, when they stir it all up, it becomes uniquely their own with an authorial stamp that is undeniable.

Blood Simple was made on an extremely tight budget of $1.5 million that the Coens raised themselves. Despite these limited means, the movie has a nice polish—perhaps a little rough around some of the edges—but it holds its own visually, much of which is due to the sharp eye and inventive use of color by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to shoot Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990) with the Coens before becoming a reputable director himself with such movies as The Addams Family (1991) and Men in Black (1997).

If Blood Simple is not quite as great as some of the Coens’ later work, most notably Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), two films with which it shares many similarities, it is because the characters are not quite fully realized. They are psychologically defined and we understand everything they do, but they’re never particularly sympathetic or intriguing because we don’t get to know anything about them (this is particularly true of Ray, who is quite dull, and Abby, who is never clearly a victim or a tramp). While this is certainly in keeping with the film noir tradition, it still limits the movie’s emotional resonance. Where it could have been deeply involving, it instead is content to merely manipulate our responses, something that it does all too well.

Blood Simple Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Conversation between cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and the writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coens, featuring Telestrator video illustrations
  • Video conversation between author Dave Eggers and the Coens about the film’s production, from inception to release
  • Video interview with composer Carter Burwell and sound mixer Skip Lievsay
  • Video interview with actor Frances McDormand
  • Video interview with actor M. Emmet Walsh
  • Trailers
  • Essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.99
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2016

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Blood Simple looks quite a bit better than 20th Century Fox’s 2011 disc, which itself was a strong improvement over the 2001 DVD. Criterion’s new 4K digital transfer, which was approved by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, leaving it all but pristine. While the opening shots look notably grainy (as Sonnenfeld explains on a supplement, they were shot on film ends to save money), the rest of the film looks smooth and quite sharp, notable more so than the 2011 Blu-ray, which was overall softer. It maintains good detail, and the sometimes lurid colors look even stronger and more saturated, which really draws attention to Sonnenfeld’s excellent cinematography (it’s hard to believe this was his first experience shooting on 35mm). The darker scenes benefit the most from the new transfer, as blacks are darker, more solid, and less noisy overall, which is crucial to a movie where much of the action takes place beside dark highways and in the murky backroom of a bar. Criterion’s disc also features a new DTS-HD 5.1-channel remix that was supervised by sound editor Skip Lievsay (previous editions featured only a two-channel stereo track). Since much of the movie is dialogue, the majority of the soundtrack is still limited to the front soundstage. However, Carter Burwell’s effective piano-based score is nicely spread out in the surround channels, and some sound effects (such as the directionality of cars passing Ray on the highway) come off quite well. The soundtrack is clear and nicely balanced throughout.

    I should also note that the version of Blood Simple on Criterion’s disc is not the original theatrical version, which appears to have been permanently retired. Instead, it is the “director’s cut” that was first released in 1998 and has appeared on every DVD and Blu-ray release ever since. It is actually about four minutes shorter than the original cut, as scenes have been tightened to quicken the movie’s pace and numerous lines of dialogue have been trimmed. It also reinstates “The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops over the end credits, which had not been included on earlier video versions.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    Although Blood Simple has already had a major DVD and Blu-ray release, neither of those editions had any supplements to speak of outside of a jokey audio commentary by the fictional Kenneth Loring, who claimed to be the artistic director for Forever Young Film Restoration, but was most likely one of the Coen Brothers doing a British accent. That commentary is gone, so hard-core collectors will want to hold onto their previous discs, and has been replaced with a wide range of actual, legitimate supplementary material. There is no new commentary, but we do get a 70-minute discussion between cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and Joel and Ethan Coen, most of which unfolds over scenes from the film much like an audio commentary (although they are using Telestrators, which allow them to circle things and write on the screen). The discussion is focused almost entirely on the cinematography and unique “look” of the film, and it’s a real masterclass in how novice filmmakers with great ambition were able to put together a fantastic looking film with limited resources. The Coens also appear in a 35-minute conversation with author Dave Eggers and the Coens about the film’s production, from inception to release. We also get new video interviews with composer Carter Burwell and sound mixer Skip Lievsay (24 min.), actor Frances McDormand (25 min.), and actor M. Emmet Walsh (16 min.). There are also three trailers, one that was put together to help raise funds for the production, the original theatrical trailer, and the 1998 re-release trailer.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




    James Kendrick

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