Like the gaseous glow from a neon MOTEL sign somewhere in Texas, 1984's Blood Simple continues to serve as a beacon across the long, dark night of America's independent cinema. Before Blood Simple, "independent" meant earnestly PC films about farmers losing their farms. (Sundance was teasingly known as the Gingham and Granola Festival.) After Blood Simple, it meant...sex, lies and murder, not to mention sex, lies and videotape, which put both Sundance and independent film on the map back in 1989. Some would argue that the effect hasn't been altogether positive; for every Reservoir Dogs or Usual Suspects, there have been a number of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. But we can hardly blame the Coen brothers (whose debut feature is being rereleased in theaters as part of the warm-up for their next film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) for leaving other directors a little soft in the head. They got their title from a Dashiell Hammett novel. "Blood simple" refers to the way murdering someone can leave you nervous and confused, apt to screw up. Otherwise, the Coens--Joel and Ethan, who've maintained their symbiotic producer-director-writer relationship through Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo and The Big Lebowski--leaned on James Cain, whose pulp fiction veered toward the literary. A comic variation on Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blood Simple is about what happens when you and your boyfriend kill your husband but your husband won't stay dead and your boyfriend's a clod. Fargo's Frances McDormand would be the movie's femme fatale if the movie had a femme fatale, but it turns out she's as soft in the head as everybody else. Nobody understands the cosmic web he or she is caught in. Only the spiders do: Joel and Ethan. And us. One of the great pleasures of watching Blood Simple, which plays like a slow-mo Roadrunner cartoon, is knowing what's around the corner before the characters do. Throughout their careers, the Coens have been accused of condescending to their characters, but the condescension works in film noir, where fate plays its little jokes on everyone. And if the characters in this neo-noir are a little flesh-and-bloodless, they have wonderful skin tones--e.g., M. Emmett Walsh's private detective, whose grizzled face has settled into a sarcoptic mange. A superb actor who'd been waiting his whole life for a role like this, Walsh sank his teeth into the Faulknerian Visser, who prowls the Texas plains in a VW Bug and a canary-yellow leisure suit. (He looks like Tweety Bird after one hell of a bender.) There's also Dan Hedaya's Marty, the husband who does not go gentle into that good night. It's Wile E. Coyote as played by Richard Nixon. Although the plot has the pleasing intricacy of a double-crossword puzzle (complete with double-cross), Blood Simple is more about the journey than the destination. Over the years, the Coens have been labeled showoffs for what Ethan calls their "stylistic burps," but has any director this side of Hitchcock (and Brian De Palma) provided so much pleasure with the camera alone? Blood Simple contains a couple of set-pieces--long, wordless sequences--that the Master of Suspense would surely have approved of, so deftly do the Coens pull the strings. And, like Hitch, they know how to choose just the right prop, as when the boyfriend tries to wipe up the husband's syrupy blood with a nonabsorbent windbreaker. Ordinary objects are imbued with extraordinary power. When the morning newspaper comes floating onto the boyfriend's front doorstep, it lands with an outrageously loud bang, like a gun going off. With a David Lynchian soundtrack (that incinerator in the distance, which roars like a dragon) and the first of many wonderful collaborations with composer Carter Burwell, Blood Simple is a sophisticated piece of pulp. And Barry Sonnenfeld's lit-up-like-a-jukebox cinematography gives the story a nice B-movie sheen. (Neo-noir meets neon-noir.) Finally, the script has a tangy twang--hard-boiled, but juicy. The Coens' version of Texas is no more authentic than their version of Arizona in Raising Arizona or their version of Minnesota in Fargo, and this kind of heightened regionalism is a key to their work, part of their '80s-art-school hip detachment. Perhaps that's why Pauline Kael, who was one of the few critics to say no when Blood Simple first came out, referred to the movie as "thin." It "has no openness," she wrote. "It doesn't breathe." If you ask me, it breathes just fine, whereas the audience is sometimes left gasping for air.
In the movie's final scenes, for instance, which involve a window, a hand and a knife. Here, the Coens' penchant for extreme cruelty is on full display. And unfortunately that's what subsequent directors have tended to pick up on--Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs, Tony Scott in True Romance, Danny Boyle in Shallow Grave, etc. But you only have to remember what state film noir was in at the time to appreciate the shot in the arm the Coens gave it. Body Heat had tried, more or less unsuccessfully, to bring the corpse back to life, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid had danced, rather clumsily, on its grave. For the rerelease, the Coens, as playfully perverse as ever, have trimmed five minutes from the original--surely a first in the history of director's cuts--and added an intro by some guy named Mortimer Young, who attests to the movie's sheer greatness. That pang in your funny bone is the Coens mocking their own considerable achievement.