***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras F
starring John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh
screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
directed by Joel Coen
by Walter Chaw For all the entirely-justified bile levelled at George Lucas's art-hating, self-abnegating decisions to redux his movies into oblivion while stashing the originals in dead formats and special features, there's been no commensurate disdain levied against the Coen Brothers for their desecration of their directorial debut, Blood Simple. Only long out-of-print VHS and LaserDisc editions offer access to the version of the film, compromised though it is, that most of us grew up with--the one that uses Neil Diamond instead of a Four Tops standard; the one that has Carter Burwell's brilliant score cue up a few seconds earlier as Abby (Frances McDormand) and her new lover Ray (John Getz) go to the house Abby shares with husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) to gather her things; the one that allows Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) an extra line as he's explaining to a hillbilly patron of the bar where he and Ray work (for Marty) why they'll be listening to Diamond's cover of The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" on the jukebox. I understand that the song was a substitution because initially they couldn't secure the rights to "The Same Old Song" for home video; what I don't understand is the further elision of an additional three minutes and the lack of any option to watch Blood Simple in that more complete form.
The rhythms are off. I'm not sure if I'm saying that because my tatty VHS of Blood Simple is so worn from multiple viewings that it's like that vinyl you can hear the other side on now or because it's actually the objective truth of it, but I swear to you that the difference between Burwell's music following that German Shepard down that hall as opposed to it starting when the dog reaches its destination is as crucial a matter of poetry as the skeezy discordance of the Jewish Elvis performing a prefab band's best-known anthem. Partly restored, partly revised, the movie's worse for wear in its Director's Cut: it's like Malick's Badlands with a Diana Ross soundtrack and a fake film historian tacked on to take a giant, colossal shit on the whole enterprise.
Hindsight being what it is, the Coens' irreverent treatment of Blood Simple provides the Rosetta stone for unravelling the philosophy underlying the entirety of their work in the intervening decades. They hate us, they hate themselves, they're not all that fond of their movies; it doesn't diminish the quality of their work, of course (unless they re-edit more of their films for no good reason and justify it like assholes), but it does give insight, for what it's worth, into issues of...embarrassment, perhaps? Rancour?...that drive their process. It's a nihilism not cleanly articulated until the diptych of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading--even Fargo has redemption; even the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse kept the baby booties. One could argue that the full flower of their acrimony didn't take root until sometime after those twin towers Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, the one examining the existential crisis of film, the other manifesting it as a precise, superior, brilliant genre exercise. Until they started in with this garbage of taking the piss out of their own work, however, their films seldom felt particularly existentialist or post-modern to me, although I can't imagine something like A Serious Man existing without it.
Marty hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh, in a singular, legendary performance) to tail Abby, doesn't like what the dick discovers, and hires him again to kill Abby and Ray. There's a double-cross, a murder (but of the wrong person), and then Ray believes that Abby's done something he hasn't. Abby believes the same of Ray, and then she won't turn out the light, and there's some unpleasantness involving a window and a knife before a classic closing line that cements the picture as perhaps America's best first film since Badlands before it. It's exceptionally well-written and matched by the squirmy, showy visuals DP Barry Sonnenfeld brought to the Coens' work through Miller's Crossing, sharing, at least at this point, a great deal with compatriot Sam Raimi's early pictures. It's audacious, self-conscious, look-at-me filmmaking that somehow remains character-driven and densely plotted. It's an honourable noir and a coming-out party for voices still vital three decades on. And it's really funny. Just the punishment visited on Marty, from a broken finger to crushed testicles to his eventual premature burial, predicts the filmmakers' penchant for mordant humour, while Walsh's nameless detective, with his slow burn and slimy amble, somehow manages to be the grossest character in a movie featuring Dan Hedaya. They're music-hall performances in the service of a good ol' fashioned dirty little noir/James M. Cain melodrama.
Better, Blood Simple appears in the middle of the '80s wonderland as something like a hybrid of the Seventies New American Cinema crime sensibility and that certain Reagan-era middle-finger insouciance of stuff like the same year's Stranger Than Paradise and 1986's Blue Velvet. It's akin to the reaction that the cinema of the 1960s had to the reserve of the 1950s, but without the attached burden of revolution-making; the best of the '80s is a conversation with the New American Cinema that doesn't take itself too seriously. In place of someone like John Cassavetes, the Eighties produces Spike Lee, who, always an asshole, doesn't become an insufferable asshole until after 1989's Do the Right Thing. I'm not sure the Coens start to make classics until the '90s turn them serious with their double-bang of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink--but with Blood Simple, they produce a still-human dry-run for, most notably, the deadly nihilism of No Country For Old Men. J. Hoberman suggests that it's not until later the Coens discover a heart in their work.
I'd argue the opposite: that somewhere at the corner of Barton Fink and Fargo is where the Coens discover the sucking emptiness at their core--the hole that allows them to remake The Big Sleep as a drugged-out, slacker comedy, retell The Odyssey as a Preston Sturges jape, put a lid on noir with the so-internal-as-to-be-near-subliminal The Man Who Wasn't There, and, of course, helm the near-irredeemably bleak Burn After Reading. Jibing perfectly with the new millennium's themes and quintessential issues, it's an emptiness that sees the brothers doing something like No Country for Old Men, one of a handful of definitive pictures for this post-9/11 cultural epoch. It's also the native asshole that, when allowed to redux one of their two 1980s films, unfortunately approaches the task with embarrassment and condescension. Blood Simple isn't Fargo--neither is Raising Arizona. It has a heart in Ray's heroic (and heroically incompetent) desire to help Abby, in Marty's jealousy and reaction to what he's done, and in Abby's desperation to solve the mystery of all the repercussions stemming from her indiscretion.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Most of that remains in the picture, of course. Universal's DVD from 2001 contained a holdover from the theatrical release of the Director's Cut, a prologue that introduced Coen fans to fictional film historian Mortimer Young of "Forever Young Films." Satirizing the likes of TCM host Robert Osborne, this was only the second-worst idea after a tie-in DVD commentary by one "Kenneth Loring" (allegedly Ethan Coen incognito), who talks about how scenes were shot upside-down, the dog was a robot, and actors learned their lines backwards. Taking a piss out of the entire practice of serious film scholarship and preservation is taking a piss out of the idea that films have any kind of value, period. In other words: fuck you, too, guys. Curiously, the Forever Young intro was dropped for Blu-ray but Loring's yakker was retained, essentially relieving the latter of all context.
Be that as it may, the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer of the movie proper is, for my money, excellent. The telecine operators appear to surrender to the grain after heavily de-noising an already-soft image in the earlygoing, and the result is something that looks more appealingly filmic than Universal's concurrent Limited Edition BD of The Big Lebowski. Colours are strong and true while depth of contrast is nicely stark without sacrificing an '80s flatness endemic to the piece. An accompanying 2.0 DTS-HD MA track unpacks well in Pro-Logic, spreading ambience to the surround field and rooting voices firmly in the centre channel. Both Burwell's score and "The Same Old Song" are reproduced with warmth, precision, and impressive-enough depth. What a shame that this disc contains only the bowdlerized Director's Cut--called simply Blood Simple on the packaging, which is really the final act of revisionism visited upon the film. Blood Simple's awesome theatrical trailer (the one that features a Hitchcock quote that, yes, used to be the movie's own opening legend), minimally restored but presented in HD, rounds out the Fox/MGM platter. Originally published: August 29, 2010.