The Noirvember Files: Blood Simple
What is it about the neo-noir genre that attracts first-time filmmakers? Is it that the genre is minimalistic in nature, necessitating a well-constructed script and exceptional performances over high production value? Or is it because bad guys with guns and sexy ladies are cool? Either might be the case for the Coen brothers and their debut film, Blood Simple. Even though the brothers raised funds for the production by going door-to-door and used an array of homemade camera rigs, with a few tips from their friend Sam Raimi, Blood Simple doesn’t feel like a cheap film. It helps that they managed to cast the likes of John Getz, Dan Hedaya and the legendary M. Emmet Walsh, who encapsulates the kind of demented let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may type of character the Coen brothers are well-known for.
Blood Simple presents a seemingly standard murder-for-hire plot, which doesn’t go exactly as planned, as is to be expected from a Coen brothers film. Walsh’s slimy private detective Loren is hired by Marty (Hedaya) to spy on and eventually kill his cheating wife Abby (McDormand) and her lover Ray (Getz). But, of course, no one is to be trusted and every character manages to underestimate each other. Bodies pile up.
The driving force moving these men towards acts of killing is Frances McDormand, making her screen debut. McDormand exudes a sexuality and an underlying dangerous presence, so much so that the distinction of femme fatale is fitting. Blood Simple further earns its neo-noir stature by not giving any of the characters an inch. Morals are tossed away as each character is ever-reaching for the Iver Johnson revolver that becomes pivotal to their survival. The Chekov’s gun adage is in full effect, and not only does the gun go off but every bullet is accounted for and used to full effect.
Subverting the loud, soulless, noir setting of the big city, Blood Simple is set against the backdrop of a sweat-drenched Austin, TX. The film begins with a foreboding voiceover monologue by Loren set underneath a montage of the West Texas landscape. A meeting between Loren and Marty takes place on a cliff’s edge, overseeing Austin’s blossoming-green terrain. It’s all a calculated move by the Coens to show it’s not just metropolitans that have the monopoly on contract killings. It’s the type of southern-fried intrigue that they would later expand on with No Country For Old Men.
While the macro setting may be different, Blood Simple excels in the noir trope of mood, specifically smoke and strong color contrasts. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld uses neon beer signs at Marty’s bar to starkly color the film. Neon purples and greens wash over a confrontation between Ray and Marty. Reds become prominent as the violence builds. And in what is the film’s most iconic scene, the final showdown is lit low and awash with smoke. Light pours through bullet holes; the beams streaking across the smoke in a surreal, dreamlike way. This moment is so important to the Coens that they showcased an early version of it in a proof-of-concept trailer (featuring Bruce Campbell) made specifically for potential investors before production started.
As a debut, Blood Simple is a hell of a demonstration of the Coens’ potential and, in retrospect, it speaks to the themes they’ve been playing with ever since. As a neo-noir, the film bites into what draws people to the genre; a moral play with blood flowing, set in an atmospheric neon haze. For noir fans of any stripe, Blood Simple is a must.