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Cinema: Same Old Song Blood Simple

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

The setting is a town off the dirt road from Southwest Nowhere, but the emotional topography bears the mark of James M. Cain. A scorching sun boils the conversation into lies and insults; on the hot, empty nights there is little for a woman to do but cheat on her husband, and little for the husband to do but plot his mortal revenge. It sounds all too familiar: the slapping of thigh on thigh, the contagious guilt of working-class adulterers, the geometry of ricocheting recriminations, fate twisting duplicitous lovers slowly in the wind–The Postman with Body Heat Rings Double Indemnity.

Not this time. Blood Simple (the title comes from Dashiell Hammett) works terse, elegant variations on a theme as old as the Fall; it subverts the film noir genre in order to revitalize it; it offers the satisfactions and surprises of a conniving visual style. Most important, it displays the whirligig wit of two young men–Joel Coen, 30, a graduate of New York University film school, and his brother Ethan, 27–in a debut film as scarifyingly assured as any since Orson Welles was just this wide.

The put-upon husband in this galvanizing redneck gothic is Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya); he owns a roadside bar and moves and thinks with a gorilla’s heavy resolve. His wife is Abby (Frances McDormand), whose sexual desperation has drawn her into a liaison with Ray (John Getz), a bartender at Marty’s place. They may not have much more in common than boredom, but it beats sleeping alone, or with Marty. The cuckold is aware of this, so he hires a mean, giggly detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill them. The detective has a better idea. He’ll kill his client instead, pocket the ten grand and frame the intended victims as the murderers. Just two problems: Ray, not the police, finds Marty’s corpse; and Marty is not quite dead. So Ray, thinking that Abby did the deed to be with him, must finish the detective’s messy job.

Here is film noir stripped down to its basics–a road, a bar, a motel, an affair, a private eye, a murder, a pinwheeling series of betrayals–then customized with camera style. Strapped to a car fender, or sauntering at ankle level through a rowdy party, or tracking smoothly down a long bar counter (and over a passed-out customer), the Coens’ camera is a participant in the action, and worlds hipper than anyone on-screen. “Hi, I’m here,” it as much as says, “and I’m soooo smart.” It is too; it creates elegant riddles of space and time, then solves them with an originality that hits the viewer like a rabbit- punch line. The lovers repose in bed, a turnstile fan lazing above them, Venetian blinds notching shadows on their backs, and outside their window looms the detective. For a moment the low growl of Marty’s backyard incinerator can be heard, and then the screen whitens in an atomic flash, as if the lovers had been cremated. It is the flash of the detective’s camera.

Blood Simple has plenty of flash–the sort of cinema virtuosity that can be overpraised precisely because it is so difficult to describe. Just as easily, the movie can be underrated as a film-school exercise, with visual strategies reminiscent of both Terrence Malick and Sergio Leone, and a grisly climax that borrows from Psycho and Ministry of Fear. But Blood Simple infiltrates the central nervous system even as it opens the cultist’s sharp eye. Watch this film, and these film makers, closely. Neither will disappoint.

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