March 28, 2013

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) - the first from the Coen brothers

(1984, USA)

Dark debut for the Coen brothers...

Before I even knew who Joel and Ethan Coen were, Blood Simple was an immediately impressive first film, with visual storytelling, brutality and wry humour. While their later Fargo (1996) was celebrated widely, I didn't enjoy it as much. It felt similar to Blood Simple, funnier, but not as strong.

A small town love triangle turns murderous. But these are ordinary folk, not clear-headed professional killers. They get careless. It's even necessary to go back to the scene of the crime and mop up the loose ends...

The twisty plot requires your attention. Though this time around, I was picking up on some of the characters mistakes as they happened. Don't trust him, check it now! Check inside! And C.S.I. fans will be appalled at the criminal sloppiness at the crime scenes.

What has always impressed me is the suspense wrung out from simple situations. Brutal, will-they-be-caught-dragging-a-body-around suspense. The kind of tension when you find yourself worried for the murderer. The Coens' strong storytelling techniques depend just as much on the visual, rather than over-explaining everything in dialogue. 

At the time, I didn't know who Frances McDormand was, but here she is, already starring in a Coen film. I knew M. Emmett Walsh from Blade Runner, here playing a slimy private detective, hired by a similarly slimy Dan Hedaya (the lead baddie from Commando). Fourth corner of this triangle is John Getz, who's just as good, but the only lead I've not noticed in anything since.

I was looking for Sam Raimi's name in the credits, because there are several signature camera moves lifted from The Evil Dead by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (before he nervously moved into directing with The Addams Family). Here the athletic tracking shots are confusing because of their misplaced motivations - the characters aren't being stalked by spirits of the forest, these are just cool-looking dynamic shots. However, Blood Simple is bloody, with a Day of the Dead-strength shock in the mix...

This obvious borrowing from Raimi, who occasionally collaborated with the Coens, overshadows Sonnenfeld's own considerable work with stark compositions, maximising the use of darkness and low-key lighting.

I watched it on this Universal DVD, though it's now also out on blu-ray in the US.

Blood Simple has rarely been out-of print on DVD, though it was pointed out to me on Twitter that we've been watching a director's cut for many years. The original cinema version is now locked away in the VHS era. The changes are subtle, slight scene trims, little more than an overall retrospective tidy up, which I wouldn't have noticed, not having seen it in years. Here's the breakdown of differences (with spoilers)...

Some filmmakers get better with practice. The Coen brothers started off good. So don't be afraid how far back you explore their filmography. 


  1. Back in the 1950s, when cinema admission for children was ninepence in old money (about 4 pence today), I often used to stand outside local cinemas showing "A" certificate films and ask a man, a perfect stranger who was on his way in, to take me in with him. They never refused. Modern day parents were would be horrified at such a then commonplace practice. Sometimes, when we got inside, the man would leave me and go and sit somewhere else and sometimes, they would sit alongside me and share a bag of sweets with me.

    I know next to nothing about what happens with modern cinemas, so I have no idea if kids ask adult strangers to take them in to see a PG film these days. I should think that it's highly unlikely.

    David Rayner,

  2. Nowadays, kids can get in to see PG unaccompanied, but if it's a 12, under-twelves aren't allowed in. The 'accompanied' certificates only exist in the USA.

  3. Thanks for the info, Mark. I suppose I always assumed that the PG cert was the modern equivalent of the old "A" cert.