Archive for the ‘Blood Simple (1984)’ Category

Spine #834

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:35:55

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 30.92 Mbps

Notes: Criterion is also making this title available in a DVD edition. Blood Simple is also available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment, and there are also a few other DVD editions of the film. This Criterion edition seems to be the superior release.


“[To make Blood Simple] we followed the example of Sam Raimi. Sam had done this trailer, almost like a full-length version of The Evil Dead, but on Super 8. He raised like sixty or ninety thousand dollars that way, essentially by taking it around to people’s homes to find investors. He financed the movie using a common thing people making exploitation movies had used, which was a limited partnership… So Sam, also told us how to set that up and we did that in conjunction with a lawyer here and then went out and shot a two-minute trailer in 35mm… The trailer emphasized the action, the blood and guts in the movie. It was very short. We had a very effective soundtrack, which was cheap to do. And we schlepped that around for about a year to people’s homes and projected it in their living rooms and then got them to give us money to make the movie… If you call people up and you say ‘Can you give me ten minutes so I can present an opportunity to invest in a movie?’, they’re going to say, ‘No I don’t need this,’ and hang up the phone. But it’s slightly different if you call up and say, ‘Can I come over and take ten minutes and show you a piece of film?’ All of a sudden that intrigues them and gets your foot in the door. That’s something Sam made up wise to which was invaluable in terms of being able to raise the kind of money we were trying to raise… I think there ended up being about sixty-five investors in the movie, most of them in five or ten thousand increments. I think sixty to seventy per cent of them were from Minneapolis.” –Joel Coen (My First Movie, 2002)

It would be an incredible understatement to say that the Coen’s efforts had paid off. When Blood Simple was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in 1984, it was clear that the film was a rarity among independent films. It wasn’t an esoteric art-house exercise, but the neo-noir qualities that made it commercially viable didn’t limit the film’s merit as an art film either. It was the best of both worlds! The Coen Brothers had created an undeniably effective debut film, and the film industry paid immediate attention.

“…In the United States, Circle Releasing (which already had arranged to handle other neophyte independents, like David Lynch) not only agreed to distribute the film, but also offered the brothers a deal they could hardly refuse. Circle would provide financing and distribution for their next two productions, over which they would have more or less complete artistic control, including script selection and the determination of the final cut. In January 1985, Blood Simple opened in selected American art houses, with quite surprising box office success, though not on a scale of later independent blockbusters like The Blair Witch Project. Wider release soon followed, as did a cable TV run, an unusual achievement for a production that had begun life as a mini-budget independent.” –R. Barton Palmer (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004)

Most critics were overwhelmed by what was obviously an auspicious debut film, and their reviews indicated an excitement over the prospect of more films to come. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect score.

“A lot has been written about the visual style of Blood Simple, but I think the appeal of the movie is more elementary. It keys into three common nightmares: (1) You clean and clean, but there’s still blood all over the place; (2) You know you have committed a murder, but you are not sure quite how or why; (3) You know you have forgotten a small detail that will eventually get you into a lot of trouble.

Blood Simple mixes those fears and guilts into an incredibly complicated plot, with amazingly gory consequences. It tells a story in which every individual detail seems to make sense, and every individual choice seems logical, but the choices and details form a bewildering labyrinth in which there are times when even the murderers themselves don’t know who they are.

Because following the plot is one of this movie’s most basic pleasures, I will not reveal too much… The movie has been shot with a lot of style, some of it self-conscious, but deliberately so. One of the pleasures in a movie like this is enjoying the low-angle and tilt shots that draw attention to themselves, that declare themselves as being part of a movie. The movie does something interesting with its timing, too. It begins to feel inexorable. Characters think they know what has happened; they turn out to be wrong; they pay the consequences, and it all happens while the movie is marching from scene to scene like an implacable professor of logic, demonstrating one fatal error after another.

Blood Simple was directed by Joel Coen, produced by his brother, Ethan, and written by the two of them. It’s their first film, and has the high energy and intensity we associate with young filmmakers who are determined to make an impression.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, March 1, 1985)

Variety also praised the film, albeit with less flourish and authority.

“An inordinately good low-budget film noir thriller, Blood Simple is written, directed and produced by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Aside from the subtle performances, usually lacking in a film of this size (around $1.5 million)… Performances are top-notch all around, Walsh in particular conveying the villainy and scummy aspects of his character with convincing glee.” –Variety (December 31, 1983)

The loudest voice of dissention came from Pauline Kael, who wrote a negative review of the film that is as obnoxious as it is obtuse. Some of her points aren’t totally inaccurate, but her reaction to them is usually biased and inappropriate. However, her opinions usually completely contradict those of her contemporaries (for example, her negative reaction to the acting in the film), and they are often way off base.

Blood Simple has no sense of what we normally think of as ‘reality,’ and it has no connections with ‘experience.’ It’s not a great exercise in style, either. It derives from pop sources—from movies such as Diabolique and grubby B pictures and hardboiled steamy fiction such as that of James M. Cain. It’s so derivative that it isn’t a thriller—it’s a crude, ghoulish comedy on thriller themes. The director, Joel Coen, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Ethan, who was the producer, is inventive and amusing when it comes to highly composed camera setups or burying someone alive. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the actors; they give their words too much deliberation and weight, and they always look primed for the camera. So they come across as amateurs.

The movie is set in a familiar, cartoon version of Texas… The one real novelty in the conception is that the audience has a God’s-eye view of who is doing what to whom, while the characters have a blinkered view and, misinterpreting what they see, sometimes take totally inexpedient action. Blood Simple gets almost all its limited charge from sticking to this device, which gives the movie the pattern of farce—it works best when someone misinterprets who the enemy is but has the right response anyway. (It’s like a bedroom farce, except that the people sneaking into each other’s homes have vicious rather than amorous intentions.)…

…When Abby, practically overnight, turns out to be living in a magnificent loft with huge arched windows, you may do a double take—she didn’t seem to be that chic a girl. Is it a gag when bullets are fired into a wall of her loft and the holes might have been made by cannonballs? I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Blood Simple isn’t much of a movie; it’s thin—a rain-on-the-windshield picture that doesn’t develop enough suspense until about the last ten minutes, when the action is so grisly that it has a kick.

At moments, the awkwardness of the line readings is reminiscent of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but Blood Simple doesn’t have the genuine creepiness of the Romero film. And though the dialogue is much sharper and smarter than Romero’s dialogue, the actors talk so slowly it’s as if the script were written in cement on Hollywood Boulevard. The picture is over calculated—pulpy yet art-conscious. It has the look of film noir, but it lacks the hypnotic feel, the heat and the dreaminess of effective noir. Even when the material leads us to anticipate something nasty, it often doesn’t payoff. When Ray goes to see Marty and tries to collect the two weeks’ pay that’s due him, they talk together while we look out the window that’s between them: there’s a huge, blazing incinerator behind the Neon Boot, and a couple of people are tossing large objects into it. In a movie as uninhabited as this one, if a gigantic prop like the incinerator isn’t going to be used for body disposal, surely whatever it is used for has to be comic? Coen sets up an inferno and then, except for a bloody jacket being thrown into it, nothing comes of it, one way or the other. Nothing comes of Opal, the German shepherd, either; she disappears, and nobody seems to notice—not even Marty. (This happened in Rocky and Silkwood, too. Sometimes I get the feeling that The Current Cinema is turning into The Lost Dogs Department.)

Joel Coen may flub the point of some of the scenes, and toss in inane close-ups of a bludgeoning weapon to show us that it’s a piggy bank, but he knows how to place the characters and the props in the film frame in a way that makes the audience feel knowing and in on the joke. The film’s technique is spelled out for the audience to recognize. Coen’s style is deadpan and klutzy, and he uses the klutziness as his trump card. It’s how he gets his laughs. The audience responds (as it did at Halloween) to the crudeness of the hyperbole, and enjoys not having to take things seriously. The cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, works in ghouls’ colors—thick, dirty greens, magentas, and sulfurous yellows. The film looks grimy and lurid; it seems to take its visual cues from the neon signs in the bar and a string of fish putrefying in Marty’s office. What’s at work here is a visually sophisticated form of gross-out humor…

…Film students looking at old movies seem to find it exciting when a cheap B thriller or an exploitation picture has art qualities, and they often make draggy, empty short films that aren’t interested in anything but imitating those pictures and their ‘great shots.’ (The student directors of those shorts never know what to do with the actors—there’s nothing for them to express.) Blood Simple is that kind of student film on a larger scale. It isn’t really about anything except making a commercial narrative movie outside the industry.

The Coens, who live in New York (Joel graduated from N.Y.U. film school), raised their million-and-a-half budget from private investors, most of them in Minneapolis, where the boys grew up. In interviews, the brothers (Joel was twenty-nine when he made the film and Ethan only twenty-six) are quick and bright; they sound as if they’d popped out of a Tom Stoppard play. But I don’t quite understand the press’s enthusiasm for these two young, well-educated Americans, the sons of college-professor parents, who want to make the most commercial kind of Hollywood movies but to do it more economically and with more freedom outside the industry. What’s the glory of making films outside the industry if they’re Hollywood films at heart, or, worse than that—Hollywood by-product? Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes. Blood Simple has no openness—it doesn’t breathe.

The reviewers who hail the film as a great début and rank the Coens with Welles, Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Sergio Leone may be transported by seeing so many tricks and flourishes from sources they’re familiar with. But the reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of ‘touches’ on routine themes. (These art touches are their jokes.) Blood Simple comes on as self-mocking, but it has no self to mock. Nobody in the moviemaking team or in the audience is committed to anything; nothing is being risked except the million and a half.” -Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, Plain and Simple, February 25, 1985)

Of course, time has proven that Kael’s review to be nothing more than the bitter rantings of yet another pretentious film critic. The Coen Brothers have become one (or rather two) of cinema’s greatest contemporary auteurs (a word Kael would have loathed), and Blood Simple stands as one of the great independent debut films of American cinema.


The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Michael Boland’s original artwork is brilliantly conceived and probably equals the film’s original one sheet artwork. An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring an essay entitled “Down Here, You’re on Your Own” by Nathaniel Rich.

The disc’s menus utilize footage from the actual film coupled with Carter Burwell’s original score and other sounds from the film.


Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

It is worth noting that Joel Coen and Ethan Coen supervised this excellent 4K restoration of Blood Simple in an effort to ensure that the final result would reflect their original vision, and they both approved this transfer (as did Barry Sonnenfeld). It must be said that the end result is gorgeous. As always, the film’s restoration is explained in technical detail in a leaflet provided in the disc’s case:

“This new digital transfer was created in 4K 16-bit on a Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Image Systems’ Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise reduction… Additional restoration was performed by the Criterion Collection using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.” –Liner Notes

The image is vastly superior to the earlier MGM Blu-ray transfer as it boasts richer colors and better detail, depth, and clarity. The image is appropriately darker than earlier releases, but this is an intentional creative choice that reflects the filmmaker’s original intentions. It should also be mentioned that unlike MGM’s release of the film, this transfer doesn’t tend to crush any important detail. The transfer is also less noisy than the earlier releases, but Criterion manages to maintain the film’s original grain structure (which never becomes unwieldy). The improvements here are absolutely revelatory!


Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite an improvement over MGM’s flatter 2.0 sound mix. The track is rather subdued, but there are some very subtle separations that enhance one’s viewing experience without calling attention to itself. This is especially evident in the film’s score. Every aspect of this track is sensational, and the overall result is a pristine audio track that comes as close to replicating the theatrical experience as the viewer has any right to expect.


Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion gives cinephiles an incredible assortment of supplemental material, which is more than welcome after decades of suffering through MGM’s spoof introduction and commentary by a fictional scholar named “Kenneth Loring.” These comedic additions to the previous MGM releases probably had a fan base, but it should be said that this reviewer loathed them. It is actually very pleasing to see that they aren’t included in this terrific package.

Shooting Blood Simple – (01:10:29)

It’s difficult to state conclusively that this is the best program featured in the disc’s supplemental package, but it is probably the most substantial. It reminds this reviewer of a commentary track with NFL-like Telestrator video illustrations to help Barry Sonnenfeld and the two Coens illustrate their statements. A good deal of time is spent on lighting and camera choices—with all participants lamenting what they perceive to be mistakes (although, this reviewer feels that they are much too hard on themselves). They occasionally pause, rewind, and fast-forward through footage to either address something more clearly or get the footage to a different part of the film. Only occasionally do we cut away from the film to show the three men together as they discuss a point. This is a unique feature that should appeal to anyone interested in the technical aspects of film production.

Conversation with Dave Eggers – (35:00)

Conversation with Dave Eggers really should’ve been called Conversation with the Coen Brothers or The Coens onBlood Simple’ because Dave Eggers is hardly the focus of this interesting interview. Eggers guides the Coens through a conversation that covers the process of making Blood Simple—including the difficult process of finding investors. The discussion took place in May of 2016, so there is a retrospective quality to the interview. It might very well be the best supplement on a disc full of terrific bonus materials.

Interview with and Frances McDormand – (25:05)

Frances McDormand is an articulate and personable interviewee that clearly goes through her experiences on Blood Simple. Far from navel-gazing self-congratulation, McDormand’s recollections add to one’s understanding of the process from an actor’s standpoint while illuminating the Coen’s working methods at that early point in their career.

Interview with M. Emmet Walsh – (16:33)

M. Emmet Walsh expands on McDormand’s interview but his particular point-of-view is quite different. He too reminisces about his experiences while shooting this small independent debut film. It seems he may have been slightly combative on the set but also claims to have enjoyed the finished product.

Interview with Carter Burwell (composer) and Skip Lievsay (sound mixer) – (23:45)

Carter Burwell (composer) and Skip Lievsay (sound editor) discuss the film’s music and sound design in a surprising amount of detail and is an incredibly informative resource and every bit as enjoyable as the aforementioned programs included here.

Fund Raising Trailer – (02:08)
Frankly, this disc would seem naked without this essential artifact from the Coen’s fundraising campaign. The trailer was made so that they might interest prospective investors. Bruce Campbell’s appearance in the trailer is evidence of the well-known fact that Sam Raimi was responsible for giving the brothers the idea to shoot something to show people as he had done for Evil Dead (which also starred Bruce Campbell).

Original Theatrical Trailer – (01:34)

The film’s original theatrical trailer is a moody time capsule that makes interesting use of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more macabre quotes: “…It [is] very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.” Hitchcock was commenting on the infamous murder scene from Torn Curtain, but this vintage trailer uses the quote in effective bid to generate interest in Blood Simple. It was really a rather appropriate way to create a mystique around the Coen’s debut feature. It is nice to have it included here.

Theatrical Re-Release Trailer – (01:50)

This trailer was created to advertise the theatrical release of Janus Films restoration of Blood Simple, and it is actually very well done. Some will probably prefer it to the original trailer.


Final Words:

Criterion has given the director’s cut of Blood Simple a wonderful Blu-ray release, and one can only hope that other Coen titles will follow.