Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blood Simple

Here in Cleveland, the temperature has been hovering around 90 degrees, so I thought I'd revisit a film in which the heated, humid atmosphere is just as important as the plot: the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple (1984).

Filled with neon lights, dark shadows, buzzing fans, cigarette smoke, mosquitoes, and an incinerator, Blood Simple is a taut, sweat-inducing neo-noir about murder, stolen money, mistaken identities, double crosses, revenge, and paranoia. The frame itself just seems to breathe heat, with burning reds and muggy skies.

When Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner in rural Texas, learns his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of his bartenders (John Getz), he hires a seedy private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill them. Needless to say, things don't go according to plan, and that's all I will say.

The term "blood simple" comes from the Dashell Hammett novel Red Harvest, describing the confused and frightened state of mind people are often in after a violent episode, particularly if they've killed someone. In the film, the four central characters all miscalculate, read the situation wrong, and make mistakes that become fatal. That's not to say they're stupid; they just don't possess the knowledge the audience does.

The genius of Blood Simple is how the Coens keep the viewer informed to generate suspense. I think Hitchcock said tell the audience everything and let them get worried about it. That's advice the Coens have taken to heart. Most film noirs work by sticking with the detective and learning things as he does (think Phillip Marlowe), so we share the mystery and discovery with them. Here, we are privy to information the characters are not. We know who killed who, who left what behind, and where all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

Meanwhile, the characters only have fragments of the truth. They find a dead body and assume who did it but are wrong. That misinformation forces them to take even more drastic and immoral actions, not realizing they're digging themselves into deeper trouble. That's not to say there aren't any surprises or twists. Sometimes, the characters react in ways we didn't anticipate, and sometimes, those we thought were dead are not.

The most unpredictable character in the bunch is the private eye, played with sleazy relish by Walsh. The Coens love to play with genre conventions, and this is no different. Whereas many noirs have cool, big-city detectives as their heroes, the P.I. here is a fat, sweaty, Southern slob who tells crude anecdotes and calls taking photos of the lovers in a motel room a "fringe benefit." In his pale yellow suit and cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette as flies buzz around his face, he's as menacing as he is comical.

Blood Simple marked the feature film debut of the Coens, and what a way to announce their arrival. Even here, they show themselves to be unconventional masters of their craft. While they would go on to better films and dabble in other genres, this was an excellent sign of things to come.

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