When the fifteenth anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut Blood Simple rolled around in 2000, the brothers reportedly tweaked it a bit for its re-release, making some trims and additions. You’d be forgiven for doubting this: it would be just like the prankish Coens to re-release their first film, claiming to have made it new in some way (in keeping with the current trend in “special editions” with new or altered footage, since apparently a movie in and of itself isn’t worth re-releasing any more) but actually not changing it at all. (These, after all, are the same jokers who routinely credit the editing on their movies to one “Roderick Jaynes,” actually the Coens themselves. It was a nice joke when “Jaynes” got his first Oscar nomination for editing Fargo.)
And indeed, I can’t find much of anything new added to, or anything old missing from, the newly restored Blood Simple. A consultation of the Internet Movie Database’s alternate versions page on the movie reveals no changes except that the movie has reverted to its original end-credits song as heard in the 1985 theatrical release (“It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops — for years on home video it was Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” probably due to rights issues). Roger Ebert, in his review of the re-release, reported that the Coens simply tightened some dialogue scenes. Again, not much tightening appears to have been done — Blood Simple still moves about as fast as clotted blood.
I’m on record as an unreserved Coens fan — “never made a bad movie” and all that — yet, oddly, the movie that got them noticed and won them comparisons to Hitchcock and Welles does the least for me, at least nowadays. Perhaps it’s because many critics, back in 1985, saw great promise in the Coens’ debut, whereas I’ve seen all the stuff they’ve done in the years since and therefore know they went on to much better things. Blood Simple isn’t bad, just self-consciously poky and austere — a James M. Cain homage, rural-art-film division.
The Coens did know how to plot their thriller as immaculately as Cain did. Pathetic roadhouse owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him. She is — with one of Marty’s bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Marty hires a slimy “private investigator,” Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to follow Abby; after Visser has brought back proof and specifics, Marty offers Visser $10,000 to kill Abby and Ray. What follows is a series of double-crosses and stupid decisions — as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review, the audience knows everything, but the characters don’t, and we watch them fuck up constantly. It doesn’t help that most of the protagonists are none too bright — Ray is such a yo-yo he tries to mop up blood with a windbreaker.
It also doesn’t help that the leads, Abby and Ray, are fairly colorless — maybe the Coens were commenting on the traditional blankness of film noir heroes and heroines, hollowed out and leaving nothing except greed, desperation, paranoia. Getz would give a zesty performance two years later as Geena Davis’s snide ex-lover in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and we all know Frances McDormand would go on to do great work, not least in Fargo. Their performances here, though, are calculatedly laconic; the Coens are a bit too willing to let you see their hands moving these pawns. I’ll admit it’s interesting to see the usual film noir confrontation scenes underplayed at a crawl — Getz lets out a small, bitter chuckle during one such scene with McDormand, and it makes you aware of how little emotion you’ve been seeing.
The Coens seem to view Abby and Ray as nothing more than mechanisms pushing the plot forward. They seem more interested in film-geek overhead shots (have there ever been so many ceiling-fan-POV shots in one movie?) and in weird touches like a pair of dead fish and a glass of milk left to rot and curdle on a table, or the way even freshly spilled gore has a dark and syrupy consistency, as if the victim’s blood already knew it would be running soon and decided to clot ahead of time. Blood Simple‘s centerpiece is the celebrated buried-alive scene, whose effect on us depends on our detachment from the characters. Abby and Ray begin to distrust each other, but from what we can see there’s no great love lost between them; they’re hardly even in lust.
Happily, there are other people to watch on the margins. Dan Hedaya’s Marty, a slob Rasputin, quietly conveys a man who wants to seem tougher than he is, who doesn’t really have the stomach for rough Texas revenge (literally — he vomits no fewer than three times). And M. Emmet Walsh’s Visser is a cheerfully gelatinous creation, the most entertaining bucket of pus to slime his way through a movie since Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. The Coens come up with some great cynical dialogue for him (everyone else’s lines are rather naturalistic and dulled-out), and the baroque final scene they devise for him is eminently worthy of both Visser and his portrayer. Blood Simple ultimately seems to be about Visser, easily the film’s most compelling addition to film noir history. When he speaks, you hear the future voice of the Coens loud and clear.