Is It Ever Really Easy? Blood Simple (1984)

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

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.

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

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.

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

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.

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

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.

Greg Ferrara

31 Responses Is It Ever Really Easy? Blood Simple (1984)
Posted By Doug : March 3, 2017 6:52 am

At the time when I saw this, I was basically a ‘novice’ film watcher, and all I knew was that I was watching a great movie.
I’ve liked every Coen brothers film that I’ve seen, though some hit me better than others.

Posted By LD : March 3, 2017 7:25 am

BLOOD SIMPLE is a neo noir that I would like to see. For those not subscribing to the streaming service and are willing to wait, TCM will air it Mon. May 15th @ 12:00 a.m. (ET).

Posted By ejazzyjeff : March 3, 2017 8:05 am

Just like what Doug posted. I remember watching it the first time and I was just amazed about plot. I’ve never seen a movie like this before.

Posted By MDR : March 3, 2017 2:47 pm

Greg, according to my movie log, I saw this back in 2003, but have no memory of it … and neither these pictures nor your post has helped me to recall it.

Thanks for finding it on TCM’s schedule LD; I will look forward to seeing it again … as if for the first time.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2017 3:17 pm

Doug, I seem to know an equal number of people who love the Coen brothers or who think they’re slick technicians. I fall under the love more than anything else but I can see how someone could view them as creators of pastiche rather than purely original work.

Thing is, I think their pastiche is still compulsively watchable. And their work in the last ten years, especially No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, has shown a real growth from those early days.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2017 3:19 pm

LD and MDR, hope you both enjoy it for the first time. Well, second time for MDR. But I know exactly what you mean. I have so many movies that I saw but once, several decades ago, that I have no memory of whatsoever. When I watch them again it’s like seeing a brand new movie.

Posted By Emgee : March 3, 2017 3:33 pm

I have a love/hate relationship with the Coen Brothers, well make that like/dislike. And that’s exactly my problem with their work: it never evokes strong emotional reactions with me.
I remember a review of this movie calling it “cold around the heart.” That pretty much sums up most of their work. I like this movie, and several others they made, but don’t love it

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2017 4:30 pm

Emgee, I get that-there is a built in ‘reserve’ to their work. Even something silly/fun like “Raising Arizona” is a bit emotionally stand-offish, though we do care about the characters.
Can you or anyone recall ever seeing someone crying in a Coen movie?

Posted By MDR : March 3, 2017 5:05 pm

Laughed out loud at the first Coen Brothers movie I remember seeing, Raising Arizona (which I saw in the theater, first release); didn’t the second time I watched it a couple of months ago, but still enjoyed it mainly because of the quirky characters – Holly Hunter, OMG!

The movie caused me to anticipate their follow-on work with perhaps unrealistically high expectations. Hence, I saw Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski (not necessarily in that order) … all of which were good, but not must-see great IMNSHO.

Then there was O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which I hated. I recently watched it again to see if my initial impression was wrong; it wasn’t. It was at this point that I quit making a point of trying to see the rest of the brothers’ filmography.

However, I did subsequently watch Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men and True Grit, which were all very good (and perhaps better than their earlier aforementioned films).

But then Hail, Caesar! was awful (even though it was arguably targeted at cinephiles such as us). I don’t want to rehash here what I wrote on imdb.com, but ugh!

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2017 7:16 pm

MDR-that’s why they sell 700 varieties of Catsup-everyone’s taste is different.
One film that didn’t work for me was “The Hudsucker Proxy”.
I’ve never cared for Tim Robbins as an actor-he seems…inactive? I don’t know-I just don’t connect with him. I like Jennifer Jason Leigh quite a bit, but not enough for me to like that movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2017 7:42 pm

Movies of theirs I love:

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (yes, I do)

Movies of theirs I don’t like at all:

RAISING ARIZONA (sorry)
HUDSUCKER PROXY
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY
O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU
HAIL CAESAR

Everything else falls in the like zone.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2017 7:43 pm

Oh, sorry, I left out THE LADYKILLERS. I really, really hated that one.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : March 3, 2017 10:04 pm

Generally (but not always) I like their dramas but I hate their comedies. Raising Arizona is the exception for me.

Posted By George : March 4, 2017 12:07 am

I like HUDSUCKER PROXY quite a bit. Along with THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, it’s their most underrated movie. (But then, I like a lot of weird and unpopular stuff, like ZABRISKIE POINT and THE MISSOURI BREAKS.)

Posted By EricJ : March 4, 2017 12:14 am

After searching the world, I have now found a remote conclave of people who actually HATED Hail Caesar:
I actually saw it at a public-library screening, and the jokes seemed like they’d been written in 1974, in those old days when we joked about “old Hollywood” without ever having seen any. The DVD area was on the same floor, and I was sitting there, teeth grit, thinking “What’s the point of seeing someone else passive-hostility joke about ‘old movies’ and get them wrong, when I could go elsewhere in the building and take home the REAL Ben-Hur, Anchors Aweigh and Million Dollar Mermaid instead?”

But everyone liked the big faux-Gene Kelly number (oh, look, it’s ambiguously gay, because they’re sailors, yuk-like-yuk!), which only emphasized why I thought O Brother was the Coens’ only other good film of recent years:
If they can’t do neo-noir, they should just stick to musicals. That, they’ve got an instinctive talent for.

(And although Raising Arizona was the “freak” humor we’d get later whenever the Coens thought some quaint area of the country was “colorful”, and turned cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld into the future Men in Black director, I still watch the entire 10-minute convenience-store-robbery scene with breathless awe…The scene more than the film.)

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 4, 2017 7:59 am

the jokes seemed like they’d been written in 1974, in those old days when we joked about “old Hollywood” without ever having seen any.

That’s a perfect description of the movie for me. MDR was right when he said it was “arguably” targeted at cinephiles, something that perhaps the Coens wanted people to think but it was definitely targeted at people who sneer at old movies, at least that’s the feeling I got. I didn’t find it to be the work of anyone who loves movies, classic or otherwise, but the work of someone who thinks old movies could use a little modern deconstruction. Deliver me.

Posted By EricJ : March 4, 2017 12:12 pm

@Greg – Like Barton Fink, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and the “Sullivans Travels” in-joke of O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens seem to have this self-appointed elitism of “WE’VE heard of old movies and YOU haven’t!”
And as noted by the Caesar complaints…we have.

The Coens want to show off their knowledge of old movies, and in fact seem to spend most of their time sneering at it, because they’re “indie directors” taking their background in Bold New Directions.
Barton Fink was a lot of in-jokes about “Golden Boy”‘s Clifford Odets, William Faulkner and Louis B. Mayer, and summed up their point when Fink says “I’m a writer!” and gets punched in the mouth.
In Caesar, the Coens are quaintly-historical fascinated with the Hollywood Ten sympathizers, Clooney starts spouting what he’s naively picked up, and the studio chief you-know-what-slaps him to his senses…Do I detect a running theme here, of vicarious wishful thinking?

Posted By Emgee : March 4, 2017 3:03 pm

“Do I detect a running theme here?” Yes ,of directors feeling superior to their characters. If they don’t care about them, why should we?

Posted By George : March 4, 2017 4:20 pm

Boy, lots of hatred for the Coen Brothers here. I don’t like all of their movies — I was bored silly by INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, and walked out on it == but I like most of their movies. Even fairly recent ones like BURN AFTER READING and A SERIOUS MAN.

If you want to talk about a director whose recent work I despise, how about Tim Burton. Talk about a director who has a condescending view of anyone who isn’t as hip as he thinks he is.

Posted By George : March 4, 2017 4:35 pm

“The Coens want to show off their knowledge of old movies, and in fact seem to spend most of their time sneering at it, because they’re “indie directors” taking their background in Bold New Directions.”

Some of these comments remind me of what I’ve heard from comic book fans who have borne a grudge against Adam West for 50 years. How dare that ’60s TV show make fun of Batman! Batman should be treated with dignity and respect!

The consensus here seems to be that the Coens suck and their movies are lousy. So let’s move on to another topic.

Posted By Emgee : March 4, 2017 4:47 pm

I don’t hate their movies, and they are very talented filmmakers; there are just some things about their movies i don’t like.

Posted By Doug : March 4, 2017 6:18 pm

I admit that I don’t have much use for Tim Burton’s later works, but he used to be fun. “Mars Attacks!” is his last ‘fun’ film.
Burton, Sonnenfeld and Zemeckis all crank out glossy, empty-of-emotion movies. Any hint of warmth comes from the actors involved, not the directors.
That’s why some new whiz kid who isn’t yet adult enough to be above emotion can create great movies that make us FEEL.
Bringing it back to the Coens, possibly the best thing that could happen to them, Burton and the others would be for them to lose all of their opulent productionwerks and have to scratch out movies on dimes instead of millions. Who creates better art? Millionaires or starving artists?

Posted By Emgee : March 5, 2017 5:12 am

“Who creates better art? Millionaires or starving artists?”

Ah, the Van Gogh-argument. Never sold a painting but look how great his art is. It’s not a question of too much money but lack of good ideas. Or probably not even that: the premise of Hail Caesar is excellent and Old Hollywood offers dozens of great stories to make into movies. It’s more about how you approach the material and what you have to say as a director. The Coens appear to have very little to say, except : “Look at all these ridiculous people; Glad we’re smarter than them. Let’s gloat.”

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2017 7:44 am

Emgee: “Ah, the Van Gogh-argument.”
Not quite. You’re looking in the wrong end of the tuba.
My point is that those who have ‘made it’, who get millions of dollars per picture will create fluff- glorified shiny looking over blown fluff…because they can. Because they can afford all the tools in the toybox. They have produced buck for studios, so they can make fluff for as long as they keep selling popcorn.
Some upstart who is starving and has to make do with much less needs his or her movie to succeed to keep food on the table.
So, not a Van Gogh argument-more of a “Money/success cause artists to lose their edge so they produce mealy fluff” argument.

Slightly off topic, but I saw Jud Apatow on TV last night-quite a conflicted character. He started out broke-starving artist-has worked hard and created an empire. Now he has more money, but he’s conflicted in that his politics causes him to rail against Capitalism…as he rakes in the bucks from his empire. He is rich because he is part of Capitalism.
In his productions the villains are often Capitalists…but those productions earn him piles of money. Conflicted.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 5, 2017 8:54 am

I certainly don’t hate the Coens. I wouldn’t have written up this movie or gave them credit for working so well with the actors. I even list the movies of theirs I love. I just don’t like their comedies which I find smugly self-satisfied.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 5, 2017 8:59 am

As for Tim Burton, I think ED WOOD was his best work and actually seems to love movies and Wood and Lugosi. I never think the movie is making fun of them. In fact, Ed Wood couldn’t have had a better bio that essentially says it didn’t matter if he was bad at filmmaking, he so deeply loved it.

After that, I don’t much like anything Burton did. But I still think he’s a very talented filmmaker and can’t take ED WOOD or THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS away from him. Or BEETLEJUICE.

Posted By Doug : March 5, 2017 12:16 pm

ED WOOD was a great, sincere effort. Very good work…but he’s made schlock like Dark Shadows and fluff like Alice in Wonderland since his ‘salad days’. Reliving one’s childhood is all right, but it does seem trivial and self indulgent.

Posted By Emgee : March 5, 2017 3:06 pm

“You’re looking in the wrong end of the tuba.”

I didn’t think it has one; surely you need both sides.

As to the’”wealth creates mediocrity” argument: I like True Grit and No Country for Old Men, when they were already succesful.
But Raising Arizona and the Hudsucker Proxy, made when they supposedly still had an edge? Mealy fluff, i say.

Posted By George : March 5, 2017 4:18 pm

I also think ED WOOD was a great movie. And it was the last Burton movie I liked. For years I kept waiting for him to get back to form, but gave up after the debacle of DARK SHADOWS (which was Johnny Depp’s fault as much as Burton’s).

Posted By George : March 5, 2017 4:33 pm

“Ah, the Van Gogh-argument.”

Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and Lloyd made great movies when they were among the wealthiest people in America. Maybe it helped that they came from modest backgrounds (and Chaplin grew up in abject poverty). Or maybe not.

There’s no rule. Some people remain great artists as their wealth mounts (see: Steven Spielberg). Others become utterly out of touch (see: George Lucas).

Posted By Paul Dionne : June 22, 2017 10:14 am

“I have a love/hate relationship with the Coen Brothers, well make that like/dislike. And that’s exactly my problem with their work: it never evokes strong emotional reactions with me.”

Ha! that’s close to how I feel, early on, their “early” movies up to Barton Fink were all great to me. Then O Brother Where Art Thou turned the tide. I absolutely hate O Brother Where Art Thou because where the majority of the public see veneration of the characters and the old style music, I see the Coens exploiting and making fun of the characters. The Coens have a patronizing stance in a lot of their movies toward their characters, like to them they are bugs under the microscope.
I’m too afraid to see Inside Llewyn Davis because I really don’t want to see their take on the 60′s folk scene -

But then, I saw No Country For Old Men, I resisted True Grit as long as I could but those are great films made by great filmmakers – aaarrrrgggghhhhh the Coens drive me nuts!

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