Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blood Simple

There's something about the rather low-key intro of the Coen brothers that forever etches it into my mind. It's just a static shot from the backseat of a car as the driver and his lover ride along a highway in pouring rain, but it left me somewhat unsettled the first time, and only more so on repeat viewings when I knew what would happen. Though the film as a whole bears more semblance to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films than the rest of the Coens' oeuvre (Joel Coen was Raimi's editing assistant at this time), it established them as the chief modern purveyors of homage-ridden yet wholly original film noir.

Centered on a love triangle between Abby (Frances McDormand), her husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) and Marty's employee Ray (John Getz), Blood Simple starts well into Ray and Abby's affair, after even Marty has become suspicious. One of the cars that passes Abby and Ray in the opening sequence belongs to a private detective hired by Marty (he's unnamed in the film but listed as Visser in the credits). Played by the magnificent character actor M. Emmet Walsh, Visser subverts what could have been yet another Double Indemnity ripoff by setting the events of the plot into motion.

Visser snaps photos of the illicit couple and brings them to his client, who naturally fires Ray and threatens him never to come back to Marty's bar. In a rage, Julian heads to Ray's house and catches his wife there and tries to choke her (spot the Raimi-cam shot!), but is beaten down by his wife and ultimately warned off the property by Ray. Marty calls Visser back to meet him, and we know what the man will ask of the detective before the words come out of his mouth. "As long as the pay's right, and it's legal, I'll do it," chirps Visser. "It ain't exactly legal." Not a moment's hesitation: "Well, as long as the pay's right, I'll do it."

But Visser has plans of his own, and soon he double crosses and crosses back once more, a complete unknown suddenly thrusting himself into this triangle seemingly without reason, to the point that Abby and Ray come to suspect one another. Why wouldn't they? Even covering your bases you're bound not to think of a random stranger making you his pet project.

Eventually Ray gets indirectly sucked into Visser's game and figures out a third party is watching them when Visser slips up a bit, and it leads to a bloody showdown in the shadows between Abby and Visser exemplifies the most terrifying aspects of film noir. It's not a particularly action-packed scene, but by the end of it blood is all over the place and you've been scared witless.

Though Blood Simple follows tried and true noir tropes, it never falls into any one pigeonhole. Abby is not a femme fatale, cheating on her husband because she's a heartless dame who wants to get a slice of dough out of a weak-willed accomplice, she's a woman trapped in an abusive relationship who turns to the nicest man in her life for comfort. Likewise, Ray presents himself as strong and knowing in stark contrast to the weak but violent Marty.

Aiding this inventive script and the excellent acting is the cinematography courtesy of Barry Sonnenfeld. These guys didn't have a lot of money and because of it the Coens--who displayed a visual mastery even this early on--were still reaching beyond their grasp, but Sonnenfeld really stepped up to plate and captured some chilling images that mixed high-concept German expressionism with the stark natural feel independent films rely on due to their budgets. While the two moods don't always mesh perfectly, Sonnenfeld elevates the material far beyond what it might have been.

The Coens took the title of the film from noir master Danshiell Hammet's novel Red Harvest, and it refers to a state of mania caused by overexposure to violence and horror that leads people to make bad mistakes. Visser mentions it to Marty when he starts to get lost in his quest for revenge, and we see it later in Ray when he realizes that someone is watching him. In a way, "blood simple" is the foundation for all of the Coen brothers' subsequent films: in their dramatic noirs intelligent people find themselves involved with crime and eventually get in over their heads, while the characters in their screwball comedies start there. As a statement of intent, Bood Simple is one of the most auspicious cinematic debuts ever produced, and a lasting classic of neo-noir.

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