Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 3, 2017
It seems hard to believe, but the Coen Brothers made their debut film well over thirty years ago now. In 1984 they put together their own trailer, a trailer for a movie they hadn’t even made, and went about getting the financing to make the film come true. The result was Blood Simple, a crime thriller that was also a showcase for some of the best talent in the movies at that time, talent that, to this day, has never gotten its full due. But it also stands as a testament to how artists change, how they view their work and whether any of it matters in the final analysis.
Recently, I watched Blood Simple again on The Criterion Channel of Filmstruck and when I was done, took advantage of the special features available to watch the Coen Brothers, as well as cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, discuss the movie’s making and their feelings on it now. What stands out in the segment as the three watch the movie and discuss its various framing and lighting setups, is how utterly dissatisfied they are, and many times dismissive, of their own enterprise. Sonnenfeld and the two brothers repeatedly point out how many lighting shots are unsourced, meaning they come from nowhere. For instance, in one shot Frances McDormand’s face is lit on the left side despite there being an obviously placed lamp on the set to her right. When the camera switches to look at the left side of the room where the person she is speaking to, John Getz, stands, there is no light, meaning that light on her left side has no source. This happens throughout and Sonnenfeld eventually gets a little touchy about it, explaining you don’t necessarily light according to source in a movie, you light according to artistic need.
That’s hard to argue with. Cars in the movies, especially in classic noirs, have actors lit from below far more than could be explained by dashboard lights, especially since there weren’t really dashboard lights on a lot of cars at that time anyway, save the radio. Nonetheless, the two brothers keep pointing it out and laughing about other things, like their own youthful and amateurish obsession with neon lights throughout the movie. They talk about how many “choking closeups” they did and how they would never do it now. They discuss how many times the camera moves for no reason. They talk about the famous shot of the camera tracking down the bar and awkwardly raising up over a passed out patron’s head only to very mechanically lower back down about two feet later. They talk about how they didn’t have cranes so they had to use scissor lifts that jerked to a stop and made the end of tracking down shots look jumpy and awkward. They talk about a lot but in their obsession over the technical details, they leave out any discussion over whether the movie works or how the plot unfolds. Having created it, all they can see is everything on it they did wrong.
The movie, for those who don’t know, begins with John Getz and Frances McDormand, seen from behind, in a car driving down a highway in the rain, discussing how much she can’t stand her husband, a bar owner played by Dan Hedaya. Getz is a bartender at that very bar and is having an affair with McDormand which Hedaya knows about because he had her followed by a private eye played by M. Emmett Walsh who takes pictures of the two in bed together. Hedaya doesn’t ever want to see Getz again, attacks McDormand at Getz’s place and eventually hires Walsh to kill them both. That’s how it starts. It arrives at its ending through a series of labyrinthine plot developments that would have made the cast of The Big Sleep proud. In the end, this cheaply made crime thriller works tremendously well, but not really because of the clever plot turns. It works so well because of the excellent performances by everyone involved, though mainly Walsh. Take Walsh out of the movie and it’s still good, but only good and not much more. With him, it becomes a must-see.
Part of me wants to agree with the Coens that Blood Simple is a clearly amateurish work that serves well as an introduction to one’s film career but not much more. But it’s not that easy, or simple. A movie isn’t good just because it has great technical skill. How many movies have we all seen that are simply stunning on the technical level (great photography, masterful cuts, glorious sound) and bore the living hell out of everyone watching? And how many mediocre to decently made movies become exhilarating because of the interactions between the actors? That’s how I view Blood Simple: it’s a good movie, better than decent, with obvious flaws. But it has M. Emmett Walsh doing extraordinary work, especially in his scenes with Dan Hedaya, who is also pretty damn good, and it elevates the entire movie beyond that which it is on paper. And that’s something that the Coens can take credit for. Plenty of actors working with crappy dialogue and a bad director have come off looking bad. A good director knows how to get a performance and the Coens, despite being novices on the technical side, knew how to get the most from their actors and it’s there that they realized their vision with Blood Simple. We care about the characters to the extent that we want to keep watching them based on the actors playing them. The plot is pretty good too and keeps us engaged, but with bad performances, it probably wouldn’t have been enough. It’s a fascinating look at the early stages of the Coen’s development as filmmakers and provides an interesting enough story for the audience. But it’s the actors, especially M. Emmett Walsh, who raise the movie to another plane while making it all look so simple.
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