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Blood Simple

Blood Simple(1984)

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teaser Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple hit the screens in 1984 in a big way that insured the Coen Brothers would never have to beg for money again. They could write their own tickets, starting with their first movie out of the gate. Of course, a lot of hard work went into getting that movie made in the first place, including making a trailer for a movie that didn't yet exist.

The two Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, put together a trailer for a movie idea they had in 1982. It involved murder and blackmail and deception but since they weren't sure who would be in it, what it would look like, or how it would be cut, they made the trailer as simple as possible. They showed a man dragging a shovel alongside a car stopped in the middle of the road, back towards another man he was going to kill. There was a shot of backlit gun holes in a wall and, well, that's about it. But it was enough to get them financing and some high quality actors to star, including Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh, two of the best character actors in the business. For other parts, they weren't above using significant others and that's where things fell into place like no one expected. It just so happens that Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand, was not only an actress but, as it turns out, one of the best actresses to emerge in the eighties. McDormand made her film debut in Blood Simple and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Coen Brothers and their cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, set out to make Blood Simple with almost no experience in the movie making world. As a result, they've become their own harshest critics and in a discussion of the film years later, the three consistently criticized the look and feel of the film as amateurish. That's taking it a bit too far as the film works as well today as it did the day it opened.

The movie begins with an interior shot of an automobile in the pouring rain. As it is passed by cars in the opposite lanes, the headlights reveal a new line of credits. This shot was done in Sonnenfeld's garage while they had a hose with a sprinkler attachment soak the windshield and a spotlight rigged to swing past every few seconds. Inside the car, John Getz and Frances McDormand discuss how much they hate the bar owner played by Dan Hedaya. Getz is employed by him as a bartender and McDormand is married to him. If they can get of rid of him, they'll be free to be together. Problem is, Hedaya is already having them followed by private eye Walsh, who either gets the goods, or if that proves impossible, creates them.

In the case of getting the goods on their affair, it's easy. In the case of what Hedaya wants him to do next, kill them, it's not. Of course, that doesn't stop Walsh who figures he'll just doctor a photo to look like he killed them, get his money and hit the road before he's discovered. As with any film noir, this gets complicated. Far more complicated than any of the characters ever expected. Everyone in the film does an excellent job but it must be noted that M. Emmet Walsh not only steals the show but gives one of the best performances of the entire decade. It is, quite simply, a marvel of acting to behold and without his presence, the movie wouldn't have been half as good. Dan Hedaya, Frances McDormand, and John Getz all turn in terrific work too but it's Walsh's center that holds the whole thing together. While McDormand would get her just due, eventually winning an Oscar for her superb work in another Coen brothers' movie, Fargo (1996), Walsh never really got his. He should have and whatever else may happen, at least there will always be this movie as a testament to his incredible skills.

The cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, went on to a rather successful career of his own. After doing the cinematography for a couple more Coen Brothers movies, he became a director himself, directing The Addams Family (1991) and Get Shorty (1995) among others.

As their careers have developed, the Coen Brothers have shown themselves to be jacks of all trades when it comes to genre. They've done film noir, western, comedy, drama, gangster, and a few more, rarely returning for a second take. They've probably returned to crime and noir more than anything else (Miller's Crossing (1990), Fargo, and No Country for Old Men (2007) being standouts) and maybe that makes sense since that's where they started.

Blood Simple offers an early look at the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen. It may not be the polished noir they wanted it to be but it's far better than they give it credit for. And it got them noticed, allowing them to produce some of the best films of the eighties, nineties, and beyond. For a career so varied and successful, it's kind of amazing that it started off with a trailer for an unmade movie. And for once, the movie that got made was far better than the trailer, plain and simple.

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld
Edited by Joel and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes)
Music by Carter Burwell
Produced by Daniel F. Bacaner, Mark Silverman, Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby Marty), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Loren Visser), Samm-Art Williams (Meurice), Deborah Neumann (Debra), Holly Hunter (voice of Helene Trend, uncredited).

By Greg Ferrara

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