The phenomenon that became the writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen began back in 1984 with their first feature film, the hidden gem crime thriller “Blood Simple.” Like its title, it is a simple tale of a jealous rich Texas bar owner who hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her lover. The film is loaded with rich film noir visual style and starred John Getz, Dan Hedeya and Frances Mc Dormand in her screen debut.
After this impressive beginning what followed for the inventive Coens was a string of some of the most innovative creative films: from “Raising Arizona” (1987), “The Big Lebowski” (1989), “Barton Fink” (1991), “Fargo” (1996), and their Oscar-winning best picture “No Country for Old Men” (2007).
Taking its title from famed crime novelist Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” the term refers to the frightening fearful mindset that criminals are often in after a prolonged immersion in violent situations.
From the film’s opening credit sequence we’re invited into the sleazy world of the film’s main characters. A voice-over narration from a character we’ll later learn is Loren, the private investigator, reveals, “The world is full of complainers. The fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee…something can all go wrong…what I know about Texas, …down here, you’re on your own.”
It’s a dark night and a young couple, Ray and Abby, are driving their car through a pouring rainstorm talking about their relationship. In the shadowy darkness, they find their way to a motel room and share several hours of passion before waking the next morning to the sun shining through their room window. Their motel phone rings and Ray quickly answers and hangs up. Abby asks, “Who is it?” Ray quietly replies, “Your husband.”
In the very next scene, we see Detective Loren Visser (E. Emmet Walsh) sharing photos he took of Ray and Abby with Julian Marty, the local bar owner and Abby’s jealous husband. In a day or so later Ray quits his job at Julian’s bar; Julian reveals to Abby he knows what’s going on. Then in one tense scene, when Abby thinks she’s alone in the middle of the night, Julian grabs Abby intending to choke her. Shortly thereafter Julian contacts Loren offering him $10,000 to get rid of Abby and her lover. But unbeknownst to Julian, Abby has similar plans for him.
The real highlight of this Coen film is its striking visual style, thanks in part to Barry Sonnefeld’s fine cinematography and always intriguing framing choices. Actors’ faces are in constant mysterious shadows. Neon lights glimmer in streams of blue and pinkish-red in many nocturnal scenes. Various odd low and high angles are utilized for maximum psychological effects, like floor level shots showing the ominous view of swirling ceiling fans above or then shot from above these fans looking down on brooding Julian.
While not the most passionately sensual lovers, (at least by “Double Indemnity” standards) John Getz and Frances McDormand command our attention with moving performances. The more impressive roles are played by the sleazy Dan Hedeya, as Julian. Looking a bit like former President Richard Nixon, he’s a fine mix of the most greasy, repulsive and pitiful soul. Walsh’s private detective is complete with a thick Texas accent, Stetson hat and dusting cowboy boots. It’s a joy to watch such seasoned villains.
In my original Daily Illini review of the film (3/19/1985) I noted, “The rookie Coens’ film strikes a fine middle ground between the bloody crime story and stylish thriller. Let’s hope they have a few more tales to tell in the near future.”—boy did they ever live up to that promise shown in “Blood Simple” all those years ago.