Harsh Texture

Blood Simple

A shady private eye helps prod a love triangle into a series of murders

Chinatown wasn’t the first neo-noir, but it remains the strongest. It and many other films embraced the noir by challenging its central tenets. Jake Gittes matches wits with a femme fatale, he corners the guilty man and announces the particulars of the murder, but where Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell succeeded, he failed. Blood Simple belongs to this tradition. After delivering a sage treatise on the nature of justice in Texas, M. Emmet Walsh is discovered trailing a pair of illicit lovers within the first five minutes of screen time. I think back on Bogart in The Maltese Falcon: “Miles hadn't many brains, but too much experience as a detective to be caught by a man he was shadowing”.

Blood Simple rounds a familiar bend. Here we have the basic outlines of a love triangle leading to murder. The rightfully jealous husband, the good-ol-boy paramore, the icy blonde between them, and the wildcard private eye of dubious morals. All of the men have clear motivations and straightforward intentions. When Julian (Dan Hedaya) stares at an incinerator behind his bar after getting proof of his wife’s infidelity it's immediately clear how he’d like the rest of the film to play out. Only Abby (Frances MacDormand) moves through the film with an air of ambiguity.

Though this was their first picture the Coens already show a mastery of the form. Most of the bumbling of their characters wouldn’t register so strongly as black humor if it wasn’t presented with such great skill. The characters amble through long tracking shots, beautiful compositions, and artful fades. At this early stage the Coens do take a cue from their friend and collaborator, Sam Raimi, and provide an especially vivid sound production for a thriller. Every environment has a distinct sound with beating ceiling fans, groaning refrigerators, and clunky car engines. The accumulation of these gently tugs the tone of the film toward horror. It makes for a bit of dissonance between the sound design and the overall flow of the narrative. The Coen’s would become such consummate craftsmen so quickly however that I read such incongruence as charming in this early feature.

One of the marks of the Coen’s skill is how the film gracefully shifts perspective between Julian, then Ray, and finally Abby dividing the film into thirds. M. Emmet Walsh’s private detective stays mostly in the background, providing connective tissue between them. Each of the three segments ends in murder, but the running theme through each is how no one character grasps the significance of their larger world. None of the victims ever learn why they wind up murdered. The audience does, and the totems of the world gleam in the frame while the characters try to clean up other messes completely oblivious.

Published: Sept. 3, 2017, 4:17 p.m.
Updated: Sept. 3, 2017, 4:17 p.m.