The first time I encountered a Coen Bros movie was in high school when my friend, Jake, recommended we check out “Fargo” from our local movie rental store “Video Update” (remember when we had movie rental stores?). Watching the film at the house I grew up in (south of Seattle in Kent), I couldn’t shake how zany and wild “Fargo” was after we saw it. The next movie of theirs I watched was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” while I was a junior at Grace College in Indiana. After that experience, I was a full-fledged fan.
The strange thing is, I can mostly recount where I was and who I was with when I first saw each of the Coen Bros movies and I’m not at all like that with other filmmakers. The Coens strong production values (even sometimes on indie budgets), originality, bizarre (and sometimes dark) humor, and their existentialism (they have to be existentialists, right?) have always been compelling to me.
Recently, Michelle and I decided to watch all of the Coen Bros films in a marathon of sorts (this certainly does not mean back to back to back). We would start at the very beginning with “Blood Simple” which came out in 1984.
When one has experienced seeing other movies in the Coen catalog and watch their debut movie, it is like seeing glimpses of a blueprint which harken things that would come. “Blood Simple”, the aforementioned debut, belongs squarely in the genre camp of film noir. However, the Coen’s invent unconventional ways to handle the story and even exhibit some of their diabolically dark humor from their career beginnings.
Julian Marty (played by a man who exudes sliminess Dan Hedaya) owns a Texas saloon and hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife and her lover, Ray (John Getz) who is one of the bartenders at the saloon. Ceiling fans become an ominous harbinger in one sequence where Julian stares at the circulating ceiling fan in his office at the same time that Abby stares at a fan in the home as Ray sleeps in the other room. Making her cinema debut as Marty’s wife (Abby) is Frances McDormand who married Joel Coen back in 1984 (they are still married to this day). She gives a brilliant and measured performance exhibiting why she would become a mainstay in many Coen films after this and an Oscar-winning actress.
The stories of the characters get more entangled and complex. The private eye decides not to kill Abby and her lover and instead opts to collect the money from Julian and off him in his saloon. Who would happen upon the dead body of the scumbag husband then Ray? Realizing that the clear murder of the man of whom he was having an affair with his wife might not look so good to him and Abby, Ray decides to dispose of the body. A famous Coen Bros theme is birthed. The imperfect but normal-ish person who makes a very stupid decision to involve themselves in a crime (somewhat innocently) ends up creating an even more terrible situation.
One of the elements of a Coen Bros film that is sometimes overlooked is that the setting becomes its own sort of character. “Blood Simple” takes place in the dead heart of Texas (a marketing tagline for the movie made reference to this phrase) and is embodied by multiple shots of the headlights of cars illuminating a flat road extending out into blackness.
SPOILER: By the time of the conclusion where the private eye is trying to take out Abby sniper-style, she turns off the lights in the room she is in forcing the would-be assassin to enter that very space. This leads to the most famous scene of the film that involves Abby attempting to hide from the private eye. He reaches around a wall, trying to see if he can grab her, and she nails his hand to the wall. Flailing he attempts to remove his hand from the wall and the way that he has to get out of this predicament creates both a painful reaction from the audience as well as laughter. Pure Coen bliss. By the time the private eye gets himself freed, Abby has located a gun and shoots him. The gunshot propels him backward and he lands under a bathroom sink. As he lays there dying, his eyes focus upon a lone drip of water coalescing around a pipe that is about to drip on his face. The screen cuts to the credits. From the outset, the Coens were into ending their movies, not with some glorious concluding shot but rather suddenly. END SPOILER
A considerable debut film for future Oscar-winning and critical darling filmmakers, “Blood Simple” delivers quite a statement with a cocktail mixture of thriller and laughs. When this came out, it was wholly original and marked a new, unique signature on the noir genre.