‘It’s the same old song/ but with a different meaning, since you been gone’— Blood Simple is back in cinemas ahead of a blu-ray release by Studiocanal, and there’s no review more pithy than the Four Tops song given pride of place on the film’s soundtrack. I wasn’t even alive for the first theatrical go-around, but I did see it thanks to a DVD that my dentist loaned to my mum. At that teen-age, I was very into the Coens but thought of them as sui generis wacko geniuses, unaware of the -modern that they were being post- about; not knowing, in fact, that they were playing ‘the same old song/ but with a different meaning’. Except I do remember thinking that Blood Simple was much more straightforward than their other works, and an unalloyed Hitchcock homage. Ah, the folly of youth. It’s reassuring to discover that Blood Simple is not not indebted to Hitchcock, but is also playing with so much more besides.
Resistant to making a ‘venetian blind movie’, in Ethan Coen’s words— that is, an undigested film noir tribute— the brothers transplanted their tale of marital intrigue and murder to the sweltering heat of modern-day Texas, where, as M. Emmet Walsh’s opening monologue tells us, ‘down here, you’re on your own’. The plot is a twist on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, where instead of the wife and her lover plotting to kill her husband and his boss, a roadside bar owner, they try and do everything they can to stay out of such trouble. But thanks to the husband’s deadly jealousy and a standout performance by Walsh as the crooked PI Loren Visser, every step brings them closer to the danger they mean to avoid.
Until No Country For Old Men, this was perhaps the most ruthlessly devoted the Coens had ever been to action, and to the consequences of action, the interacting chains of cause and effect that make the eventual outcome seem both impossibly arbitrary and fatally unavoidable. The low budget brings with it a number of perks, not least the constant revisiting of the same locations, which gives the viewer a chance to keep reassessing who knows what, who’s been where, to observe each character’s reactions and figure out their motivations— most famously when the impassive, prosaic Ray stumbles on a dead body and begins unintentionally framing himself with every attempt to clean up the scene. Of course, he thinks he’s protecting someone, but they didn’t do it either— and the conversation where this very slowly dawns on Ray is the film’s excruciating highlight, even more tense and agitating than the climactic suspense set-piece.
This was also the film where Joel Coen met his future wife, Frances McDormand, who plays Abby. They bonded during shooting by sharing a love of classic crime fiction— the holy trinity of Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiel Hammett. Part of the appeal of these pre-WWII authors was, as Ethan described in a contemporary interview, the ‘insanely eupeptic’ tone despite the grisly subject matter. There are moments of levity and humour that suggest an attempt to capture this same feeling, and the aforementioned song is a blunt instrument designed for that purpose, but this is perhaps where Blood Simple most clearly reveals itself as an earlier work; the dialogue can be plodding, lapsing into grim bravado delivered too lifelessly by Dan Hedaya as the husband, Marty. The director’s cut, the 2001 version of the film with which most viewers will be familiar, famously shortened the running time by 3 minutes, changing it from (Ethan’s words) ‘an old lady with a walker, and now it just has a cane’.
I get the feeling that those who champion Blood Simple as the Coens’ best aren’t particular fans of their other work. The financing was cobbled together through appeals to Minnesota businessmen, doctors, lawyers— amateur financiers with disposable income (meetings that became the real-life inspiration for Jerry Lundegaard’s disastrous investment pitches in Fargo). They were lucky to have collaborators like Barry Sonnenfeld and Carter Burwell as cinematographer and score composer, both making their feature film debuts. The former has trained his camera to do some impressive tricks, hopping, lurching forward and suddenly sitting on command, sniffling around the edges of every sweat-drenched image, the accumulated dust and grit illuminated by the bar’s sickly neon light. The latter conjures up that distinctive elegiac mood for his theme music as if he’d been doing it for ever, but he also experiments in some unexpected ways, borrowing Balinese chants to signal when Visser is on the edge of desperation. Blood Simple is remarkable for punching above its weight in every conceivable way, but like the mock-up trailer they filmed guerilla-style to show potential investors that they were serious, it’s a promise of things to come— not just as writer-directors, but as independent film pioneers too— more than a complete experience in itself.
Some may think of them as purveyors of classic-era Hollywood pastiche, but there aren’t many directors with more literary imaginations, or more of a literature-driven creative impulse, than the Coens. And compared to what Miller’s Crossing does to enrich Hammett with pseudo-epic scope and abundant subtext, or how The Big Lebowski dextrously riffs on Chandler, Blood Simple comes up short. The attempt at tinkering with Cain’s original produces a distinctive narrative momentum, but at the expense of archetypal characters (Visser excepted) whose dealings with one another don’t do justice to the thematic depth of Cain’s originals; on rewatch, their passivity becomes enervating, and the fatalism is a convenient crutch, there to make sure the story winds up where they want it. ‘Blood Simple’ is a Hammett phrase, as it happens, the Continental Op’s way of describing the addled, fight-or-flight mental state of someone immersed in violence for a prolonged period. In a way, that feeling is all that Blood Simple intends to evoke, and if the Coens hadn’t gone on to reveal themselves as prolific masters of every facet of their medium, perhaps that would be enough to satisfy.