“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett
Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson
What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?
The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating. He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions. Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon. Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.
Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.
The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.
Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.
The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words. McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.
This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.