Blood Simple has its own climate: infernal, sticky, nearly as hot as the flames blazing from the incinerator behind the Neon Boots bar. The air is so heavy that the ubiquitous ceiling fans, rotating lethargically in every room, become a running joke. When we first meet the cuckolded bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) in his office at the Neon Boots, he is glistening under the pink neon lights like a rotisserie chicken. The sebaceous private investigator sitting opposite him, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, channeling Larry Flynt), perspires slime. It’s sweaty in here and will only get sweatier.
Blood Simple has its own smell: the putrescence of the iridescent fish left to rot on Marty’s desk long after he has been murdered, a sour metonym of promise spoiled. It has its own texture: granular and dusty, like the soil tossed on Marty’s body as he is buried alive in a plowed field. (The body squirming beneath the dirt is actually Ethan Coen’s—rookie filmmakers can demand only so much of their actors.) And Blood Simple has its own sound, the thorny silence that dilates between the lines of confused dialogue as the characters fail to make themselves understood. “Down here, you’re on your own,” says Visser in the voice-over that begins the film. “Here” refers to Texas, but he might be describing the film or, for that matter, nearly every film made by Joel and Ethan Coen. Blood Simple’s four principals—the fuming cuckold Marty, the grubby PI Visser, the unfaithful young wife Abby, and her callow lover Ray—are on their own and powerless to do anything about it. With every word they speak, the distances between them expand. All of the violence and death in Blood Simple derives from miscommunication. This accounts for the film’s tone, an unusual synthesis of horror and farce.
The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines blood simple as “crazed by violence.” The citation is from a James Ellroy short story, “Torch Number” (1990): “The caper went blood simple: guards snuffed, stray bullets flying.” But the coinage is Dashiell Hammett’s, from Red Harvest (1929). The Continental Op speaks of going “blood-simple like the natives” of Personville, where sixteen murders have occurred in less than a week:
This is the first time I’ve ever got the fever. It’s this damned burg. You can’t go straight here. I got myself tangled . . . I had to swing the job the best way I could. How could I help it if the best way was bound to lead to a lot of killing?
No one in Blood Simple can go straight. They all settle on blood as the only way out. But as any readers of Hammett know, blood is never a way out. It’s only a way in—to more blood.
The term is never uttered in the Coens’ debut film, but it is suggested in several variations. “You’ve been thinking about it so much it’s driving you simple,” says Visser, when Marty proposes the double murder of his wife and her lover. Visser warns Marty not to “go simple” on him after he commits the murders; later, Visser complains of letting himself go “money simple,” agreeing to the hit job without thinking of the consequences. “Simple” describes a manic single-mindedness, an obsession, one driven by flawed premises and leading, implacably, to doom.
Misguided obsession is elemental to film noir, a genre that Blood Simple was credited with reanimating upon its appearance in 1984. By then, the noir family tree had bifurcated so many times that the classification had little meaning. It was an evasive one to begin with, first applied by the French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 to four recent Hollywood films: The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, and Murder, My Sweet. Scholars in Europe began to embrace the term in 1955, when Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, in their book Panorama du film noir américain, used it more broadly to describe the wave of American crime films after World War II that, among many other attributes, featured insulted, beaten heroes driven by desperation to acts of violence. American critics did not come around until the early 1970s, particularly after the publication of Paul Schrader’s essay in Film Comment “Notes on Film Noir,” in which he anatomized “the new mood of cynicism, pessimism, and darkness which had crept into the American cinema” after the war. As the national mood turned cynical in the seventies, a younger generation of directors began to borrow devices, plots, and stylistic maneuvers from noir’s classic period—commonly defined as running from 1941 (The Maltese Falcon) to 1958 (Touch of Evil, Vertigo)—while often twisting these devices to new effect. If noir was a language that had gone extinct, neonoir was a patois that no two directors spoke exactly the same way.
In the early eighties, as the studios regained much of the power they had ceded to the new wave of young auteurs during the previous decade, what passed for noir was largely confined to forgettable remakes and nostalgic homage, films like Hammett, Against All Odds (a remake of Out of the Past), Still of the Night, Jim McBride’s Breathless, and Bob Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The opening of Blood Simple feints in the same direction, with a montage of postcards from the noir picture book: a two-lane highway through the desert (as in the opening shots of Detour and Desert Fury); abandoned oil derricks standing in a field like mastodon skeletons (Nightfall, Touch of Evil); a distant skyline flickering in the haze (The Maltese Falcon, The Dark Mirror, The Lady from Shanghai, countless others); a couple, shot from the backseat (Gun Crazy), driving at night through a relentless rain (the ur-noir image). There are technical inheritances as well: the expressionist play of shadows, the severe camera angles, the many shots through windows, windshields, the blades of a ceiling fan. But the Coens are not interested in pure pastiche. They alloy these familiar noir touches with elements inherited from a second, unlikely source: the horror film. Specifically the eighties splatter flick, with its tongue-in-cheek melodrama, slapstick gore, and absurdist hysteria.
Joel Coen had worked closely with one of that form’s rejuvenators, Sam Raimi, as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead (1981), and both Coen brothers collaborated with Raimi on the script for his next film, Crimewave (1985). (The three also wrote, in 1981, a first draft of The Hudsucker Proxy, which the Coens did not make until 1994.) The influence of Raimi’s showmanship is visible in Blood Simple, in the histrionic chimes and synthesized percussion of Carter Burwell’s soundtrack; the live burial (in The Evil Dead the victim is not alive so much as undead); the low tracking shots filmed from the perspective of a mysterious home intruder; and the screwball action of the final scene, in which a wall separates the squirming Visser from his impaled hand (Raimi would do the Coens one better in 1987’s Evil Dead 2, when his hero is tormented by his own dissevered, demonically possessed hand). The Coens also borrowed Raimi’s shaky-cam technique, achieved by attaching the camera to the center of a pole that is carried by two grips who run with it toward the subject of a scene. This creates a jumpy, homemade zoom effect, giving the viewer the impression of racing toward, instead of away from, some new horror. Raimi repaid the homage in Evil Dead 2 by achieving what the Coens had failed to do in Blood Simple—using the eponymous term in a sentence: “Crazy buck’s gone blood simple!” As in Raimi’s splatter films, the horror in Blood Simple, however grotesque, never takes itself too seriously. You can imagine the Coens laughing behind the camera, or at least smirking.
The Coens would never return to the hybrid style of Blood Simple, though Miller’s Crossing (1990) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) are both, in different ways, more deliberate exercises in noir. The horror-film tropes resurface only intermittently in their later films: a hand bursting out of the ground, recalling the final shot of Carrie, during the prison break in 1987’s Raising Arizona (a shot also used in The Evil Dead); the wood chipper that in Fargo (1996) is put to the grisly use that Marty had intended for his incinerator; Anton Chigurh’s slasher murders in No Country for Old Men (2007); and, most acutely of all, in Barton Fink (1991), a film about a writer’s worst nightmare, writer’s block, complete with sweating wallpaper, expanding plumes of blood, and a hellfire climax. There is, however, one significant point of continuity between the Coens’ first film and their next sixteen. In Blood Simple, they first articulated the cosmic fatalism that defines their sensibility, which is to say, their style.
The traditional noir hero is a decent moral man who, brought low by injustice or fate, turns toward criminality in a moment of weakness, in the hope of redemption. But the first crime begets a second, and a third, and before long the hero is spiraling to moral bottom, stepped in blood so far that, should he wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Macbeth, driven by greed and vanity, is not quite a noir hero, but he ends up in the same lonely place.) Blood Simple has not one noir hero but four. Each makes a rational, if immoral, decision that initiates a Rube Goldberg–like chain of events leading, ultimately, to his or her own ruin. This is the essential noir condition—the more the hero tries to return to a lost past, the more lost he becomes. This condition is shared by the heroes of nearly all of the Coens’ films. H. I. McDunnough, the Dude, Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis—each pulls a thread that gradually unravels his entire life, until it lies untangled at his feet.
At the 1984 New York Film Festival, Ethan Coen responded to a question about his aesthetic sense by quoting Raimi’s three laws of horror pictures: the innocent must suffer; the guilty must be punished; and you must taste blood to be a man, which is to say that the hero must achieve catharsis through bloodshed. Blood Simple satisfies all three laws—all in just the final scene, in fact. In their later films, the Coens prove largely indifferent to the second law, and abandon the third. But the innocent continue to suffer. No bad deed goes unpunished. No good deed either.
In Blood Simple, the Coens emphasize the horrific consequences of human folly, but there are moments that gesture to the broader scope of their future career: the inane repetition of the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song”; Abby, after taking careful aim, tossing her sandals at her apartment’s ceiling lightbulb; Visser’s dying laughter as he stares into the bowels of the bathroom sink. He is laughing because he realizes that he is a victim of mistaken identity, but the joke is bigger than that. It’s the great cosmic joke that is played on us all. It’s a joke that can make you laugh or scream or cry, depending on how it’s told, and no filmmakers tell it with greater conviction than Joel and Ethan Coen.