On the 18th of January, 1985 audiences heard a voiceover monologue read by M. Emmet Walsh. It was the first piece of dialogue ever to be committed to the silver screen written by the Coen brothers. A seminal piece of narration that heralded a golden career for two of the finest directors ever bring their visions and ideas to film.
The speech is a microcosm for what their careers would bring to the medium. Poetic and distinct, only one of their characters could possibly deliver such prose and even then, only that character specifically, as no two Coen creations are alike. Accurate to the genre they are homaging and yet still managing to subvert it, it speaks to their originality, their peculiar creativity and their knack for drawing out the most lyrical dialogue from the most unlikely sources.
The plot of Blood Simple is, as the title would suggest, straightforward. At least at first. A jealous husband hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her lover. You can’t get much more routine than that. But when you’re dealing with the Coens, no matter how self-explanatory a story is, they can never leave it be. They like to show the viewer the path the story is leading down, perhaps even allow them a glimpse at the ending, and then, they love to rip it out from under them.
Almost the second the film seems to be settling down it jostles to life with some of the oddest turns the Film Noir genre has ever taken. There is no ambition to keep the audience guessing, rather the goal here is to make them quit guessing. The plot snakes around the situations the characters find themselves in, always arriving at some surprising way for the characters to make it out alive, but never some Deus ex Machina or some eye-rolling coincidence, rather from a foreshadowed event that demands the film be viewed multiple times.
This wasn’t just the Coen’s debut. Another cinematic first timer is Frances McDormand, an actor who would go on to be one of the Coen’s most consistent collaborators; they would even win their first Oscars together for Fargo. Here, she is startling in her first screen role as she straddles the line between vulnerable and capable, always earning your sympathy while being surrounded by paranoid megalomaniacs, but never your ire for being too vacuous to handle a situation.
Her co-star, John Getz, is perhaps playing too accurate to the kind of Lifetime melodrama this movie looks to turn on its head. He is outclassed by his more experienced co-stars, Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh, both of whom are chewing the scenery in a much more deliberate and skilful way that betrays the fun they are having on set. This is Walsh’s film too, no doubt. The role having been written directly for him, his sinister private detective is a skin-crawling monster of a man who steals every scene he’s in. The rest of the cast don’t have a chance when he’s around.
However, John Getz isn’t the only one showing his inexperience, this being the Coen’s feature-length debut, there are times when the storytelling loses its elegance and becomes clunky, usually from an aesthetic choice in the camera work placing style over substance. It was noticeable how many times a shot seemed out of place and every time it occurred it breaks the immersive spell Blood Simple usually has you under. It’s clear in this first picture that the Coens haven’t quite yet proved to be as proficient in the cinematic art form as they would in later films like Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.
It may not show that level of skill, and it doesn’t sew the layers of meaning and subtext into the script that would go on to define their later work, but Blood Simple is a fraught, wire-tight thriller, perfectly paced and wrapped up in a softly choking atmosphere. A faithful tribute to Film Noir that does the genre proud with the complexity of the story, the nihilism of the characters and the daringly stark cinematography that cuts through the darkness with brilliant streams of white light illuminating images that only serve to make you wish someone wouldn’t just turn the lights off, but break them into a thousand, tiny pieces.
Dir: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Scr: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Prd: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
DOP: Barry Sonnenfeld
Music: Carter Burwell
Runtime: 99 minutes