Blood Simple | Critical Essay by Hal Hinson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Blood Simple.
This section contains 4,916 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Hal Hinson

Critical Essay by Hal Hinson

SOURCE: "Bloodlines," in Film Comment, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April, 1985, pp. 14-19.

In the following essay, which includes an interview with the Coen brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer, Hinson discusses the making of Blood Simple.

In his novel Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett wrote that after a person kills somebody, he goes soft in the head—"blood simple." You can't help it. Your brains turn to mush. All of a sudden, the blond angel whose husband you just buried starts getting strange phone calls. You reach into your pocket for your cigarette lighter—the silver-plated one the Elks gave you with your name spelled out in rope on the front—and it's not there. Your lover limps in early one morning with blood on his shirt and a .38, your .38, stuffed in his jeans and announces, "I've taken care of it. All we have to do now is keep our heads." Yeah. That's all. Just keep your heads. Might as well go ahead and call the cops.

For the characters in the stylish new thriller Blood Simple, passion, guilt, and the sight of blood on their hands causes the world to warp and distort just as Hammett said it would, like the nightmare reflection in a fun-house mirror. The movie, which was put together on a shoe-string by Joel and Ethan Coen, a couple of movie-mad brothers from Minneapolis, has its own lurid, fun-house atmosphere. The camera swoops and pirouettes as if in a Vincente Minnelli musical; at times it scuttles just inches above the ground, at shoe-top level, crawls under tables, or bounces down hall-ways. Always some part of the frame is energized by an odd detail or incongruous fillip of color. Composed in phosphorescent pastels, in neon pinks and greens that stand out against the khaki-colored Texas landscapes, the movie has a kind of tawdry flamboyance that draws attention to itself, like a barfly adjusting her makeup by the light of the juke-box. Blood Simple is only the Coens' first movie—their contributions overlap, with Joel credited as writer-director and Ethan as writer-producer—but already they have an agile sense of visual storytelling and a playfully expressive camera style. They don't make movies like beginners.

If anything, the Coens' technique in Blood Simple is too brightly polished, too tightly screwed down. But their excesses come from an over-eagerness to impress, to put their talents on display. Blood Simple looks like a movie made by guys who spent most of their lives watching movies, indiscriminately, both in theaters and on TV, and for whom, almost through osmosis, the vocabulary and grammar of film has become a kind of instinctive second language. Made up of equal parts film noir and Texas Gothic, but with a hyperbolic B-movie veneer, it's a grab-bag of movie styles and references, an eclectic mixture of Hitchcock and Bertolucci, of splatter flicks and Fritz Lang and Orson Welles.

On the face of it, Blood Simple may appear to be more about other movies than anything else, and there is an element of movie-movie formalism in their work. But the Coens aren't interested in just recycling old movie formulas. In Blood Simple, the filmmakers assume that the audience grew up on the same movies they did, and that we share their sophisticated awareness of conventional movie mechanics. But the Coens don't play their quotations from old movie thrillers straight; they use our shared knowledge of movie conventions for comedy. The movie has a wicked, satirical edge—there's a devilish audacity in the way these young filmmakers use their film smarts to lure us into the movie's system of thinking, and then spring their trap, knocking us off-balance in a way that's both shocking and funny.

The basic geometry of the film is a James M. Cain triangle: husband, wife, lover. The husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), is a brooding Greek with a militant brow and a puckered chin who owns a gaudy roadside nightspot called the Neon Boot. One look at Marty, who looks like he was born to catch lead, and it's clear why his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) thinks she'd better hightail it before she uses the pearl-handled revolver he gave her as an anniversary present on him. Ray (John Getz), a drawling bartender who works for Marty, becomes involved with Abby innocently enough when she asks him to help her move out. Almost inevitably, Abby and Ray fall into the nearest motel room where a fourth figure, a slob detective named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), catches them in flagrante and delivers his photographic evidence to Marty ("I know where you can get these framed"), along with his own leering account of the evening's bedroom activities, setting the film's tragic spiral of events in motion.

Much of the pleasure in Blood Simple comes from watching the filmmakers run their intricately worked-out plot through its paces. The film's narrative is never merely functional in the usual murder-mystery fashion; things don't happen in this movie just to push the plot along. Everything plugs into the film's basic idea: that we are dependent in our judgments upon what our senses tell us, and that our senses lie—that in life we never really know what's going on. The Coens have created a world in which nothing is exactly as it seems. When Marty sees Visser's picture of Abby and Ray nestled together in bloody sheets, we assume, as Marty does, that the hired killer has done his job and the lovers are dead. It's not until the next scene, when Ray saunters into the bar and finds Marty's body, that we discover the photo was doctored. In this movie, a corpse is not always a corpse.

All the characters in Blood Simple are able to see only part of the whole picture. Each character has his own point of view in the film, his own version of what has happened and why. And based on the evidence before them, each one behaves appropriately. But each one is limited by his own perspective and it's what they don't know, what they can't see from where they stand, that keeps getting them into trouble. Only the audience is given the whole picture. But the Coens never let us relax. Just as we think were in synch with the film, they shove our assumptions back in our faces. Like their characters, we're making a mistake by believing what we see.

It's this layering of points of view, the interweaving of four versions of the same events, each one complicating and contradicting the other, that distinguishes Blood Simple from Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat and other film noir retreads. It's been some time since a low-budget thriller has had this kind of narrative richness. And if at times the Coens are a little too much in love with their own cleverness, occasionally bogging the movie down with self-conscious arty flourishes, they are saved by their drive to provide low-down thrills, to surprise and delight their audience. Blood Simple suggests that the Coens are an anomaly on the independent film scene. They don't see a conflict between film art and film entertainment. Nor, in Blood Simple, do they break new aesthetic ground. First and foremost, they are entertainers.

Some critics have used this aspect of their work to dismiss Blood Simple either as an independent film with a conventional Hollywood heart or as just another schlocky exploitation picture with a glossy, high-art finish. They use the film's accessibility as a club to beat it over the head with, as if to imply that the things that make the movie fun to watch, that satisfy an audience, are precisely the things that compromise its artistic purity. According to this logic, Blood Simple is little more than an audition piece, a stepping stone to the world of big-budget studio financing.

But it's the Coens' showmanship, their desire to give the audience a cracking good ride, that gives Blood Simple its freshness and originality. The film is most effective when it plays as a comedy. The Coens have a sharp eye for the oddball details of the sleazy Texas milieu they've created. Their humor is droll and understated; their characters spout a kind of terse, prairie vernacular that's dead-on authentic but with a twist, like Horton Foote with a rock in his shoe.

As the scuzzy detective slithering through the movie in a beat-up VW bug, M. Emmet Walsh is a redneck variation on all the bad cops and corrupt gumshoes in the hard-boiled genre. Dressed in a canary-yellow leisure suit, his belly sagging over his western-style belt buckle, Visser is the kind of half-witted vermin who likes to torture puppies in his spare time. Walsh gives his character a mangy amorality; one look at this guy and you know he's for sale at bargain-basement prices. His performance sets a new standard for scumbag character acting.

Dan Hedaya, who plays Marty, does something that even Walsh isn't able to pull off: He shows us what a slime the guy is and still makes us feel almost sorry for what happens to him. Marty is the perpetual outsider, the one who's always put upon and misunderstood. He doesn't even talk like the others. Instead of speaking in a lazy Texas drawl, he spits his words out quickly in a tight Northeastern accent that's clenched like a fist. With his dark, swarthy looks, gold chains, and European-cut shirts, he's on the opposite end of the sleaze scale from Walsh's Visser, but their scenes together are the best in the film.

The Coens aren't as successful with their main characters: John Getz and Frances McDormand are bland and uninteresting as Ray and Abby. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank and Cora were so hot for each other that sparks seemed to arc between them; their passion was so volatile that it almost had to erupt into violence. There are no comparable sexual fireworks between the lovers in Blood Simple; it's tepid affair, and neither character has enough vitality to engage us. It may be that the Coens have a natural talent for creating lively villains. In any case, in Blood Simple, the sympathetic lovers are upstaged by their loathsome adversaries. Their low-watt rapport leaves a dark, empty space at the center of the film.

The most remarkable thing about Blood Simple is that it's satisfying both as a comedy and a thriller. What the Coens have learned from Hitchcock, whose spirit hovers over the film as it does in Brian De Palma's movies, is that murder can be simultaneously tragic and comic. The moment in Blood Simple when the two lovers confront one another, each one convinced of the other's guilt, and from out of nowhere a rolled-up newspaper arches into the frame, hitting the screen door between them with a sickening smack, is so startlingly unexpected and yet so right, that for a moment you're not sure you actually saw it. Watching Blood Simple, you begin to feel uncertain even of the ground beneath your feet. They have that kind of skill.

This interview took place with Joel and Ethan Coen, and their cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on the afternoon of Blood Simple's commercial opening in New York. All three were casually dressed and, at the beginning of the session, excitedly talking, not about their opening night, but about their upcoming lunch at the Russian Tea Room, about superagent Sam Cohn ("Does he really eat Kleenex?") and the politics of who sits where. During the interview, the Coens chain-smoked Camels out of the same pack, passing it back and forth across the glass tabletop in front of them.

[Hal Hinson:] Let's start with the basics. You were both born and raised in Minneapolis?

[Joel Coen:] Yeah. We both grew up in Minneapolis, but have lived in New York, on and off, for about ten years. I moved here to go to school at NYU and haven't really lived in Minneapolis since then, except for about a year when we were raising money for the movie. We raised a lot of the money there, although some of it came from here and New Jersey and Texas.

[Ethan Coen:] I left Minneapolis to go to school at Princeton—I studied philosophy—and after that came to New York.

How did you become interested in film-making?

[Joel:] There were two things really. We made a lot of Super 8 movies when we were kids.

[Ethan:] They were incredibly cheesy, even by Super 8 standards.

[Joel:] We remade a lot of bad Hollywood movies that we'd seen on television. The two that were most successful were remakes of The Naked Prey and Advise and Consent—movies that never should have been made in the first place. At that time, we didn't really understand the most basic concepts of filmmaking—we didn't know that you could physically edit film—so we'd run around with the camera, editing it all in the camera. We'd actually have parallel editing for chase scenes. We'd shoot in one place, then run over to the other and shoot that, then run back and shoot at the first spot again.

Did these films have titles?

[Joel:] Yeah. The remake of The Naked Prey was called Zeimers in Zambia—the guy who played the Cornell Wilde part was nicknamed Zeimers. We had very weird special effects in that film. We actually had a parachute drop—a shot of an airplane going overhead, then a miniature, then cut to a closeup of the guy against a white sheet hitting the ground.

[Ethan:] It was hell waiting for the airplane to fly by. We were nowhere near a flight path.

This sounds amazingly sophisticated.

[Joel:] It wasn't, really. They were just hacked together. Advise and Consent was interesting, though, because at the time we made it we hadn't seen the original film or read the book. We just heard the story from a friend of ours and it sounded good, so we remade it without going back to any of the source material.

When you finally saw the original, which did you like better, your version or theirs?

[Ethan:] Well, we're big Don Murray fans, so I like the original.

[Joel:] Yeah, guys like Don Murray and the early Disney stars, you know, Dean Jones and Jim Hutton, are big favorites. Kurt Russell, too.

Sounds like you watched a lot of movies on TV.

[Ethan:] Yeah, we saw a lot of Tarzan movies and Steve Reeves muscle movies. What was that Tarzan rip-off with Johnny Sheffield?

[Joel:] Bomba the Jungle Boy. What's-his-name used to introduce those.

[Ethan:] Andy Devine.

[Joel:] Yeah, he had a thing called "Andy's Gang" …

[Ethan:] But that wasn't Bomba, that was a serial set in India called Ramar. Did you ever see Tarzan's New York Adventure? That's one of the greatest. And the Sixties Tarzans were kind of weird.

[Joel:] A movie like Boeing Boeing was big with us. And we were into movies like That Touch of Mink, A Global Affair, Bob Hope movies, Jerry Lewis movies, anything with Tony Curtis, Pillow Talk. We tried to see everything with Doris Day. Those were important movies for us. I saw Pillow Talk again recently. It's incredibly surreal.

[Ethan:] It's a very weird, wooden aesthetic that nobody's interested in anymore. The Chapman Report is great that way too.

[Joel:] What's happened is that those movies have now become TV fodder.

Did the look of those movies have anything to do with your decision to shoot Blood Simple in color? It's kind of film noir, which is usually done in black-and-white.

[Joel:] There was a big practical consideration. Since we were doing the movie independently, and without a distributor, we were a little leery of making a black-and-white movie. But we never really considered that a sacrifice. We wanted to keep the movie dark, and we didn't want it to be colorful in the …

[Ethan:] … the That Touch of Mink sort of way.

[Joel:] Right. What we talked about early on was having the elements of color in frame be sources of light, at least as much as possible, like with the neon and the Bud lights, so that the rest of the frame would be dark. That way it would be colorful, but not garish.

[Barry Sonnenfeld:] I think we were afraid that to shoot the film in black-and-white would make it look too "independent," too low-budget.

[Ethan:] Yeah. We wanted to trick people into thinking we'd made a real movie.

The film has been criticized for that reason.

[Joel:] Yeah, one critic said it had "the heart of a Bloomingdale's window and the soul of a résumé." I loved that review.

[Ethan:] The movie is a no-bones-about-it entertainment. If you want something other than that, then you probably have a legitimate complaint.

[Joel:] But you can't get any more independent than Blood Simple. We did it entirely outside of Hollywood. To take it a step further, we did it outside of any established movie company anywhere. It can't be accused of not being an independent film. It was done by people who have had no experience with feature films, Hollywood or otherwise.

[Barry:] What this writer means by independent, though, is arty or artistic. It wasn't our intention to make an art film, but to make an entertaining B movie.

Do you consider yourself linked in any way with other independent filmmakers and what they're doing?

[Ethan:] The independent movies that we see aren't really avant-garde. John Sayles is an independent filmmaker who I like. Although I haven't seen his new film, I like what Alan Rudolph does. He'll make a movie for a studio, like Roadie or Endangered Species, and then go off on his own to make a movie just for himself for $800,000.

[Joel:] Also, I like low-budget horror movies that are made independently. They're mass-audience pictures, but they're done independently. I've worked with a lot of people who've done that stuff, like Sam Raimi. Those are the kind of independent filmmakers that we feel closer to than, say, the more avant-garde artists. I liked Stranger than Paradise, though, which I suppose is closer to being avant-garde than we are.

[Ethan:] I think there's room for all kinds of independent movies. And whenever anyone makes a successful one, no matter what kind it is, it's good for everybody.

I think the distinction that's being made is between art and entertainment.

[Joel:] That's a distinction that I've never understood. If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn't designed primarily to entertain people, then I don't know what the fuck they're doing. I can't understand it. It doesn't make sense to me. What's the Raymond Chandler line? "All good art is entertainment and anyone who says differently is a stuffed shirt and juvenile at the art of living."

Some people see Blood Simple as a shrewd maneuver to establish yourselves on the scene in order to launch your careers as mainstream filmmakers.

[Ethan:] They're wrong. We made the movie because we wanted to make it, not as a stepping stone to anything else. And we prefer to keep on making this kind of movie, independently.

[Joel:] Someone in Film Comment said Blood Simple was "aggressively New Hollywood." We wanted to make this movie, and the way we did it was the only way we could have done it. The main consideration from the start was that we wanted to be left alone, without anyone telling us what to do. The way we financed the movie gave us that right.

When you were both still in school, you wrote a few feature scripts together. What were they like?

[Joel:] The first one was called Coast to Coast. We never really did anything with it. It was sort of a screwball comedy.

[Ethan:] It had 28 Einsteins in it. The Red Chinese were cloning Albert Einstein.

[Joel:] After that we were hired by a producer to write a script from a treatment he had. That was never produced. Then Sam Raimi, whom I worked with on The Evil Dead, hired us to write something with him called The XYZ Murders. It's just been finished. And we're writing something with him now that Ethan and I are going to do.

What movies had you worked on before Blood Simple?

[Joel:] I was assistant editor on a few low-budget horror films, like Fear No Evil. There was another one that I actually got fired from called Nightmare, which had a small release here in New York. And The Evil Dead. Those are the only three features I've worked on. Evil Dead was the most fun. A lot of the stuff in our film, like the camera running up on the front lawn, is attributable to Raimi, who does a lot of shaky-cam stuff.

How do you two collaborate when you're writing?

[Joel:] He does all the typing. We just sit down together and work it out from beginning to end. We don't break it up and each do scenes. We talk the whole thing through together.

[Barry:] They pace a lot. And there's a lot of cigarette smoking.

How was it determined that Joel would direct and Ethan produce?

[Ethan:] We had a thoin coss…. I mean a coin toss.

[Joel:] The standard answer is that I'm bigger than he is—that I can beat him up so I get to direct.

[Ethan:] It's those critical three inches in reach that make the difference.

[Joel:] To tell you the truth, the credits on the movie don't reflect the extent of the collaboration. I did a lot of things on the production side, and Ethan did a lot of directorial stuff. The line wasn't clearly drawn. In fact, the way we worked was incredibly fluid. I think we're both just about equally responsible for everything in the movie.

[Ethan:] Although, on the set, Joel is definitely the director. He's the one in charge.

[Joel:] Yeah, I did work with the actors and all that. But as far as the script and the realization, down to the tiniest details and including all the major aesthetic decisions, that's a mutual thing.

Who sets up the shots?

[Joel:] This is where it gets really fuzzy. When we're writing a script, we're already starting to interpret the script directorially. As to how we want the movie to look, even down to specific shots and the kind of coverage we want, that's worked into the writing of the script. Also, before production, Ethan, Barry, and I story-boarded the movie together.

[Ethan:] Also, at the beginning of every day, the three of us and the assistant director would have breakfast at Denny's—the Grand Slam special—and go through the day's shots and talk about the lighting.

[Joel:] On the set, we'd put it all together and look through the viewfinder. Barry might have an idea, or Ethan would come up with something different, and we'd try it. We had the freedom to do that, because we'd done so much advance work.

[Barry:] Also, on the set, we'd try to torture each other. For example, I didn't allow smoking …

[Ethan:] "It degrades the image."


[Barry:] … which meant that only one of them would be on the set at any time, because the other one was off having a cigarette.

The atmosphere of the film shows the influence of hardboiled detective fiction. Have you read a lot of that stuff?

[Joel:] We read all of Cain six or seven years ago when they reissued his books in paperback. Chandler and Hammett, too. We've also pored through a lot of Cain arcana.

[Ethan:] Cain is more to the point for this story than Chandler or Hammett. They wrote mysteries, whodunits.

[Joel:] We've always thought that up at Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns in stone—Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil—that the fourth one should be Cain.

[Ethan:] Cain usually dealt in his work with three great themes: opera, the Greek diner business, and the insurance business.

[Joel:] Which we felt were the three great themes of 20th-century literature.

Marty, the cuckold, seems to be lifted directly out of Cain.

[Ethan:] He is, but a little less cheerful and fun-loving.

[Joel:] They're usually greasy, guitar strumming yahoos, which of course Marty isn't. But yeah, that's where he comes from.

Why did you set the film in Texas?

[Joel:] The weather's good. And it just seemed like the right setting for a passion murder story. And people have strong feelings about Texas, which we thought we could play off of.

[Ethan:] And again, your classic film noir has a real urban feel, and we wanted something different.

Did you set out to create a film noir atmosphere?

[Joel:] Not really. We didn't want to make a Venetian-blind movie.

[Ethan:] When people call Blood Simple a film noir, they're correct to the extent that we like the same kind of stories that the people who made those movies liked. We tried to emulate the source that those movies came from rather than the movies themselves.

[Joel:] Blood Simple utilizes movie conventions to tell the story. In that sense it's about other movies—but no more so than any other film that uses the medium in a way that's aware that there's history of movies behind it.

How were you able to maintain such a delicate balance between the comic and the thriller elements in the story?

[Joel:] I think that gets back to Chandler and Hammett and Cain. The subject matter was grim but the tone was upbeat. They move along at a very fast pace. They're funny …

[Ethan:] … they're insanely eupeptic …

[Joel:] … and that keeps the stories from being grim. We didn't want this to be a grim movie. There's a lot of graphic violence and a lot of blood, but I don't think the movie's grim.

[Ethan:] We didn't have an equation for how to balance the blood and the gags. But there is a counterpoint between the story itself and the narrator's attitude toward the story.

[Joel:] To us it was amusing to frame the whole movie with this redneck detective's views on life. We thought it was funny, but it also relates directly to the story. It's not a one-liner kind of funny.

[Ethan:] It's easy to think that we set out to parody the film noir form because, on one hand, it is a thriller, and, on the other, it is funny. But certainly the film is supposed to work as a thriller and I don't think it would work as both at once.

[Joel:] Humorless thrillers—Gorky Park, or Against All Odds—are dull, flat. They take themselves too seriously in a way that undercuts the fun of the movie. We didn't really think about making the situations in the film funny. Our thinking was more like, "Well, this will be scary," and "Wouldn't it be fun if the character were like this?"

In preparing Blood Simple, did you look at other movies and use them as models?

[Joel:] The Conformist is one of the movies we went with Barry to see before we started shooting in terms of deciding what we wanted the visual style of the movie to be, the lighting and all that. Also, we went to see The Third Man.

[Barry:] Which is funny because I read that Richard Kline [the cinematographer] and Larry Kasdan went to see the same two films before they shot Body Heat.

[Joel:] And came up with a completely different look. We wanted a real non-diffuse image which is the kind of image that Vittorio Storaro got in The Conformist. But in Body Heat they got this over-exposed, halating image with light running through the windows. Maybe they saw a really bad print.

[Ethan:] We're also big fans of Robby Müller, particularly The American Friend, which we've all seen a number of times. So there are a lot of points of reference. Actually, we just wanted the movie to be in focus.

Do you intend to continue your arrangement as it is at present, with Joel directing and Ethan producing, or do you want to switch it around next time?

[Ethan:] We're going to continue the same way. [To Joel] We've got to do Boeing Boeing credits next time [in which, to calm top-billing egos, Jerry Lewis' and Tony Curtis' names revolved on an axis].

[Joel:] We're thinking that next time we'll have it say, "Ethan and Joel Coen's Whatever."

[Ethan:] No, I like "Ethan Coen presents a film by his brother Joel."

And you would like to continue working together?

[Joel:] Oh yeah. In fact the three of us do. There are certain collaborations which are really fruitful. One of them is with Sam Raimi, which we hope continues on other movies in the future. Another is with Barry.

As a result of the success you've had so far with Blood Simple, are the studios beating a path to your door with offers?

[Joel:] We're getting a lot of talk, but we don't know what it means. You spend one week in Hollywood …! [Laughs.] People have been calling. But we'd like to continue to work as independently as possible. Not independent necessarily of the Hollywood distribution apparatus, which is really the best if you want your movie to reach a mass market. But as far as production is concerned, there's a real trade-off involved. It's true that certain movies require more money to produce right than Blood Simple did. But the difference with us is, while we may need more money for the next one than we did for Blood Simple, we're still not talking about the kind of budgets that the studios are used to working with. We did this film for a million and a half, and, for me, $3-4 million is an incredible amount of money to make a movie. And that's attainable without going to the studios.

[Ethan:] The bottom line is, even if Blood Simple does well, we're comfortable with the idea of making another low-budget movie.

[Joel:] Right. We're not afraid of making movies for cheap.

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