While we may never see a collaboration between Joel and Ethan Coen again as Ethan has said he’s grown tired of filmmaking and has retired somewhat, almost everything they’ve done in their career spanning four decades can’t compare to their first movie, Blood Simple., about murder in the Austin, Texas area.
I think one of the reason it remains their best work is that they didn’t hold back. Many first-time directors are rough around the edges. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, etc., all held back or were limited for being unknowns at the time they directed their first movies.
But Blood was different. The Coens, with the help of Sam Raimi, made a trailer then went around for almost two years showing possible investors. When they had obtained the money, they didn’t throw a bunch of their friends in the acting roles, they got actors (John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh and Samm-Art Williams) you may have seen in something so it gave the movie a bigger feel than a low-budget movie. As the slasher craze was picking up steam all over theaters with Canadian actors and no-names, they made sure this wasn’t going to seem like schlock.
Speaking of the slasher genre, a young actress from Georgia named Holly Hunter had appeared in the slasher The Burning and was being considered for the role of Abby. But Hunter (whose distinct voice is heard on an answering machine) was unavailable, but she told her roommate, Frances McDormand, about it and the rest was history.
To describe the plot of Blood Simple. to someone who’s never seen it would ruin all the fun. I had to sit through it several times before I could piece together everything. It’s a movie you have to watch and listen to the dialogue or else you might miss something very important.
What I can tell is this, Abby’s husband, Julian Marty (Hedaya) is a sleazy bar owner who’s made some money. But their relationship is on the rocks. When the movie opens, Ray (Getz) a bartender who works at the bar, is giving Abby a ride through a rainstorm to another city when Abby suspects they’re being followed, by a Volkswagen beetle.
Inside the beetle is the sleazier Loren Visser (Walsh), who wears the same tacky mustard color leisure suit and cowboy hat throughout the movie. Visser is a private investigator and he’s been hired by Marty to tail Abby.
Ray and Abby end up having sex at a motel along the road. Visser is able to take pictures through the window to show to Marty. Returning to the Austin area, Abby takes a pearl-handled .38 caliber revolver from her house and three bullets from the house and leaves. When Ray goes back to bar, him and Marty have a tense moment where it’s apparent Ray is no longer employed, but Ray tells Marty he still owes him payment. But Marty refuses to pay him and instead says Abby will cheat on him too.
When Abby goes to spend the night at Ray’s, Marty shows up first thing the next morning and tries to attack and possibly kidnap her. But she breaks his finger and hits him so hard in the groin with her fist, it causes him to vomit. Embarrassed and angry, Marty seeks the services of Visser again, except this time, he wants him to kill Ray and Abby. Visser agrees and tells Marty to drive down to the Corpus Christi area to go fishing establishing an alibi.
However, Visser has some other plans. And at this point, the movie takes a different turn as the characters all know something the others don’t. Marty leaves a voice message on the answering machine of the other bartender, Meurice (Williams), about missing money and suspecting Ray of stealing it. But Ray didn’t steal the money but he knows something else.
I can’t say anymore, because watching the characters saying things to others that they’re not sure of what they’re talking about is part of the Coens’ tone. They were mixing violence with comedy and odd characters popping up in dramatic scenes. One scene I like is when Ray is driving early in the morning and he sees a car coming in the opposite direction flash its lights, reminding Ray that his lights are on. As they pass, the driver gives Ray a smile and a friendly gesture. The motorist has no other purpose but just to be a friendly Texan. People in Texas and all over probably see friendly motorists helping them. I was on an interstate in the central part of Georgia and forget to turn my blinker off as I changed lanes. I glanced up and saw the car in front of me turn its blinker on but not change lanes. I realized I had left it on and gave the car ahead a wave.
Even though the movie is neo-noir, it does have some comedy elements as all Coen Brothers movies. One thing the Coens are good at, which they portrayed throughout their career, is writing characters who just don’t seem like cookie-cutter nobodies. Fargo and No Country For Old Men, two other Coen brothers crime movies, had characters only appearing in a scene or two who stood out more than the main cast. And that’s part of the charm.
In the late 19990s, they released a Director’s Cut that was actually shorter as they trimmed certain shots and scenes to make the movie tighter. The Four Tops “It’s The Same Old Song” had been cut from the home video edition due licensing issues. It was replaced by Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer.” The Four Tops’ song makes more sense as Meurice plays it at the bar and is originally from Detroit where Motown is.
The Coens have made some great movies. Many of their movies are some of my favorites. Along with their Oscar winners, I like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou the most and re-watch them a lot. But Blood Simple. is a pure example of how to make a movie with a small budget that still looks impressive four decades later.
What do you think? Please comment.