Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Film Appreciation - Dead in the Heart of Texas

Film Appreciation learns that breaking up is hard as Cody Hamman writes about the Coen brothers' 1984 crime thriller Blood Simple.

Blood Simple starts the way several of the Coen brothers' movies do - with narration over a montage. In this case, it's M. Emmet Walsh discussing how nothing comes with a guarantee, things can always go wrong for anyone, and you're not likely to get much help from others when the chips are down. This plays out over shots of dusty Texas landscapes. The narrator knows Texas, and "down here, you're on your own."

An opening narration is one of many things that the Coens established here that went on to be regular elements throughout their career, including their subtle brand of storytelling, smart dialogue, dark humor, a score by Carter Burwell (who's provided the score for every one of their films except for O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and fantastic cinematography, in this case provided by Barry Sonnenfeld, who shot their first three films before moving on to direct his own movies.

The story is a noir-ish tale of bar owner Marty, who is informed by a Private Detective that his wife Abby is cheating on him with one of his bartenders, Ray. The private dick claims that he'll take any job "if it pays right", so Marty, an already not-so-good guy who's now been driven over the edge, hires him to kill Abby and Ray. Twists, turns, misunderstandings, murders, and double crosses follow.

All of the lead actors give great performances. Dan Hedaya is the conflicted and tormented Marty. John Getz's Ray is an easy-going man of few words. Frances McDormand made her own film debut as Abby (and also married Joel Coen this same year) and her character is quirky and likeable. The standout of the film is M. Emmet Walsh as the exceptionally sleazy Private Detective.

Samm-Art Williams also appears as an entertaining side character, a bartender who likes to play The Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song" on the jukebox. Apparently there were rights issues with the song, so it was replaced by Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer" in the initial U.S. home video release, but when it hit DVD it had the intended "Same Old Song".

The look Sonnenfeld provided Blood Simple mixes deep shadows with beautiful lighting, and it's especially impressive when taking into account that this was a relatively low budget first film.

There's also a lot of great camera movement in here. In one notably fun shot, the camera is moving down the middle of a bar. A drunken patron has passed out and slumped over the bar right in the camera's path, so the camera rises up and over the drunk's head, then settles back down into place as it continues moving forward. It's sort of a Sam Raimi type of shot, and there is a Raimi influence evident in the direction here, as there was in the Coens' next film, Raising Arizona.

In the Raimiest of shots, Marty is carrying Abby out of a house, holding her from behind. They come out the front door and the camera speeds toward them from across the yard at a low level, rising as it reaches them to end in a close-up of Abby's face as she breaks one of Marty's fingers.

There was a Raimi touch seen in the Coens' early days because they were good friends after Joel worked on The Evil Dead as an assistant editor. It was Sam Raimi who suggested to the Coens how they could raise the money to get Blood Simple made: shoot a short trailer for the film to show to potential investors. One of the best parts of the movie is a nearly twenty minute sequence dealing with the clean-up of a murder scene and disposal of the body, and part of this was shot for the teaser the Coens made. In the teaser version, Bruce Campbell played Marty. Campbell didn't make it into the finished film, but the buzzing fly sound effect from The Evil Dead did.

A special edition DVD of Blood Simple was released in late 2001, that's how I first saw the film and I can tell you the exact day of my first viewing: January 6th, 2002. I know this because I was in the Red Bank, New Jersey area for Kevin Smith's 2002 Vulgarthon movie marathon, which was held the next day. I was lying in bed in a hotel room when I watched the Blood Simple disc on a portable DVD player. I enjoyed the film immensely, and was particularly blown away by the aforementioned "cleaning/disposal" sequence and the film's other big setpiece, the climactic sequence in which Abby is attacked in her new apartment. When the film ended, I had to rewind to see the final shots and listen to "It's the Same Old Song" over the end credits a few times.

Blood Simple is one of the best examples of a first film that you're likely to find. The Coens have made a lot of great movies in their career, and Blood Simple is one of my favorites.

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