35 Years Ago: The Coen Brothers Debut With the Killer ‘Blood Simple’
The Coen Brothers have always been at their best as genre filmmakers. Buoyed by a deep love of cinema history, they've spent their career making movies that play with the archetypes of everything from Westerns to musical comedies to hardboiled crime stories.
This all started on Sept. 7, 1984 with the release of their first film, Blood Simple. The movie is often classified as a "neo-noir," although that catchall phrase often does little to actually describe the films to which it's applied. The Coens' tale is a crime story variant with a long tradition, in which a plan for murder spirals out of the control of its creators, finally rebounding back on them with gruesome consequences. In American storytelling, this narrative goes back at least as far as Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart, but it was given its more modern formulation by the writer James Cain, who used it to extraordinary effect in his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), both of which were made into successful films.
Cain's model in these books is markedly different from that of other early American hardboiled or "noir" writers engaging in the same territory, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. (The Coens engaged this second tradition explicitly in the film: the title, Blood Simple, is taken from a line from a Hammett novel.) Both Hammett and Chandler – in works like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep – wrote about detectives investigating a crime that seems at points impossible to comprehend, with the intricacies only revealed at the end.
For Cain, though, the pressure of the story didn't come from the mystery of what was happening, but from watching otherwise ordinary people give in to the temptation to do evil, and then try with increasing desperation and futility to escape the fate into which their actions lead them.
This is the model for Blood Simple, which is almost perfectly assured in both the way it tells its story and in the way it acknowledges the history of the genre in film and literature.
The movie features two everyman characters in Texas, Ray (John Getz) and Marty (Dan Hedaya), both of whom make James Cain-like choices that will end up destroying them. At the opening of the film Ray starts an affair with Marty's wife, Abby (Frances McDormand). Marty finds out about the affair and hires an unscrupulous private eye named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill them. But in the movie's first great twist, Visser only pretends to kill the cheating couple, and instead shoots Marty and runs off with his payment.
Things get even more complicated when Ray discovers Marty's body and thinks that it was Abby who did away with her own husband so that the affair could continue. Believing that he's protecting Abby by getting rid of the evidence, Ray drives the body out to a desolate field to bury it, only to discover that Marty isn't dead yet. Ray buries him alive, in the process – and according to the formula laid down long ago by Cain – cementing his own fate. When Visser finds out that he didn't kill Marty outright, and that he might be implicated in the murder, his only choice is to try to kill both Ray and Abby to cover his tracks.
A part of the Coen Brothers' genius – they write, direct, and produce their films in tandem, although until 2004 industry rules prevented them from sharing credit as director – has always been their ability not just to follow the tropes of a narrative, but to expand them in playful and unexpected ways. So in The Big Lebowski (1998), they took the Hammett/Chandler crime-solving detective and turned him into a stoner who loves to bowl, in Raising Arizona (1987 – the follow-up to Blood Simple) they took a crime-leads-to-disaster narrative and turned it into a comedy, and in No Country for Old Men (2007) following novelist Cormac McCarthy's lead, they took a Western and turned it into an apocalyptic crime story.
In Blood Simple they kicked off this trend by having not one, but two lead characters doomed by their decision to commit murder. They also radically reorient the traditional role of the woman in these stories. Frances McDormand's character Abby is in many ways the movie's central player. She's the one the men are fighting and killing over, and as the film progresses it becomes more and more clear that the final confrontation with the killer will be hers.
But, in maybe the film's largest break from the tradition, Abby is not a temptress pulling the strings that make the men act, and thus implicated in the evils they commit. Unlike Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, or Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice, she has no part in the crime, and there's no overt or subtle implication that feminine temptation always lies behind men's fall.
Instead, as the movie advances towards its violent climax, Abby increasingly separates herself from the clutches of the men around her, until she's the only one left standing. The tradition of men being lured into crimes by women – also a Cain staple – has been subtly reworked and the familiar story given new life.
There's much more here, of course, than simply two lovers of film and literature making a movie that plays with tropes. The work of the actors is electric. McDormand, in her debut film performance, manages Abby's layerings of innocence, realization and resolve with assurance, and M. Emmett Walsh is tremendous as a laughing, loathsome, amoral killer who drives an incongruous Volkswagen Beetle.
And, as in all the Coen's films, Blood Simple is visually arresting. The cinematographer is Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to shoot classics like Raising Arizona, Big, When Harry Met Sally and Misery, and also direct movies of his own, including Get Shorty and Men in Black. There's also a certain off-kilter element to the visuals that adds a bit of strange humor reminiscent of David Lynch to the proceedings.
It's not unusual for a director's (or directors') first film to contain many of the elements of their later work, and the Coens have indeed continued to engage with many strands of the American film and literary tradition in their subsequent movies. What is unusual about Blood Simple is that it not only kicks off a long, storied career, but also remains one of the many high points of that career.