Movie review of Blood Simple

Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It's a bloody mini-masterpiece. Not since Orson Welles bucked out of the chute with Citizen Kane did we see a debut film as confident as this one. Blood Simple takes a tired genre – film noir – and turns it on its head.

Now a stunning newly restored director's cut with remixed sound reminds us that those gadzooks of the north – Joel and Ethan Coen – jump-started their filmmaking careers in Texas in 1982.

Inspired by the hard-boiled works of James M. Cain, the 1984 movie takes its title from Dashiell Hammett's slang term meaning the state of fear and confusion that follows an act of murder.

The plot revolves around a jealous saloon owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a smarmy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to first trail, and then kill, his cuckolding wife (Frances McDormand) and bartender boyfriend (John Getz). Instead, the detective turns the tables on his employer and events take a grisly (as in buried alive) turn.

When they wrote the dark, but decidedly humorous, script, the Minneapolis natives were living on New York's Upper West Side. Joel was editing splatter films and Ethan was the statistical typist at Macy's department store.

Director Joel had studied filmmaking at New York University; producer Ethan, philosophy at Princeton. But before they made the gothic thriller on a shoestring ($1.5 million) in Austin and Hutto, neither had ever been on a feature set.

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, later to direct Men in Black, The Addams Family and Get Shorty, never had shot a feature; Carter Burwell never had composed a film score; and Yale drama school graduate Frances McDormand, later wed to Joel, never had acted in a movie.

Despite their lack of experience, the double-cross tale is deliciously acted, dimly, but deftly, lighted (if only by a bug zapper or blazing incinerator) and sparely, creatively scored.

The sleazy detective was written for Mr. Walsh, who liked to razz the brothers, calling this their "student movie." But as slimy Visser, he steals every scene, no mean trick when up against grim-visaged Hedaya stuffed in a Volkswagen atop what looks to be Austin's Mount Bonnell.

Even before we see him, we hear his warning growl: "Down here [meaning Texas] you're on your own." From his engraved "Elks' Man of the Year" lighter to his final ironic laughter, he's the movie's glue, binding together the filmmakers' dazzling tricks and dim characters.

No scenes or dialogue were added to the new "digitally enhanced and tastefully restored" version introduced in a wonderful spoof by preservationist Mortimer Young.

In fact, it's a few minutes shorter. "The idea," Ethan says, "is we've taken out some of the boring parts." He must be kidding. Blood Simple is anything but dull.