Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, John Getz, M Emmet Walsh
A bloody tale about a messy love triangle with ordinary people getting in over their heads, Blood Simple has many of the distinctive traits that would go on to become trademarks of Coen Brothers films down the road. A desperate man trying to dispose of a body in the dead of night is revisited almost shot for shot in Fargo over ten years later. The ruthlessness of the mercenary for hire Detective Vesser paved the way for the monstrous Anton Chigurh who would appear twenty years later in No Country For Old Men. The quiet sadness and wretched helplessness of the middle aged Julian Marty is the type of tragic figure we’ve seen revisited in many Coen Brothers films since.
Blood Simple is a noir film that ranks up there with the classics of the genre during its golden era. The twisting, winding and tragic narrative is fuelled by the lust, greed and miscommunication of the players involved. At the centre of it all is Abby (Frances McDormand in her first acting role).
Abby is married to Marty, the owner of a run-down saloon. She is having an affair with one of the bartenders Ray. Marty knows this and hires a private detective to bring him the proof. He takes on the services of the sleazy and cunning Detective Vesser. Once his worst fears are confirmed, Marty confronts Ray and tells him one day Abby will betray him too and tell him point blank to his face that she “hasn’t done anything funny”. After the confrontation, Marty decides to pay Vesser to kill Abby and Ray.
Vesser has his own agenda. He figures that if he murders Marty, he can take the money from the safe in the saloon and wipe out the only person who knows about the hit. Two birds with one stone and all that. He steals Abby’s gun to frame her for the crime.
Only it doesn’t work out quite so simply.
Vesser shoots Marty point blank but fails to kill him. Then he accidentally leaves his lighter behind, making him traceable to the crime scene. When Vesser leaves the saloon, Ray is the first to discover the body and gun. He assumes this is Abby’s handy work and finishes the job. When he confronts her about it later, she tells him she hasn’t done anything funny.
I love a good crime thriller such as this. Each act of desperation, each moment of misunderstanding leads to the next bloody moment. The story unfolds like a finely constructed Rube Goldberg system.
Blood Simple is a dirty and grimy pot boiler and that sense of uncleanliness permeates every scene. The film is a sensory experience in the grossest way. All the characters are drenched in sweat. There’s an exchange between Marty and Vesser where a fly keeps landing on the Detective’s forehead. The smell at the murder scene must be something else. Not only is the floor caked in blood, but there’s rotting fish and milk on the counter. The violence in the film is unglamorous, protracted and wince inducing. Anyone who has seen Blood Simple will surely remember the moment when Visser attacks Abby in the bathroom. He extends his hand out a window and into the adjacent room only for Abby to slam the window frame and spike the hand in its place with a knife. The sight of an anguished, bloodied and contorted Visser flailing on the spot is harrowing stuff. It’s this sort of detail that makes Blood Simple so memorable, despite its modest budget and production values.
And what a cast. Dan Hedaya is a highlight as Marty. He is a deadbeat and a loser, betrayed by his wife and unable to catch a break. He tries to kidnap his wife but she fights him off by kicking him in the unmentionables. He’s the kind of unlucky bastard who gets shot but doesn’t die quickly. A guy who has a chance to draw a gun on his would-be killer but finds he doesn’t have any bullets in the chamber.
M Emmet Walsh made a career out of playing larger than life sleazebags and he’s in fine form as Detective Vesser. Vesser is vile, predatory and unscrupulous. But he seems perfectly content with his lot in life and whistles cheerily in the face of anyone who tries to disrespect him.
In a film populated with scummy and desperate men, Abby is a fierce and unyielding presence. The film never judges her for leaving Marty. We never really get into her head. She is soft spoken and introspective, even in the drastic circumstances she finds herself in. But when she is pushed by the men around her, she pushes back. Hard.
Judged on its own merits, Blood Simple is an entertainingly grungy thriller that has the dark humour and enigmatic presence you’d expect of a Coen Brothers production. Revisiting it today, it’s a fascinating showcase of the talent and vision the duo had from their very first film and a sign of all the entertaining, absurd and colourful tales that they would go on to tell in the years to come.