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'Blood Simple': Simply Good

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2000


    'Blood Simple' Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand in a film that's still entertaining after all these years. (USA Films)
In a hilarious, pithy piece for the New Yorker, Ethan Coen decries the need for the director's cut release of the 1984 "Blood Simple," the movie he made with his brother Joel.

The new director's cut movie, declares Coen in the July 3 issue, is "an act of commercial jujitsu whereby a studio flatters a star director into adding back scenes once shed to satisfy the market's need for mindless brevity, and the studio proves, by selling the ungainly results, that it despises money."

Instead of following the usual rules of the director's cut movie – i.e., making it longer and restoring those artsy scenes – the brothers decided to cut more.

"We more abjectly pandered to the market's mindless bias for brevity. We made the movie about five minutes shorter so that a pace that was once glacial is now merely slow." Some additional editing, Coen continues, helped upgrade scenes from "inept" to "merely awkward."

Of course, this is a kind of false modesty. Coen must know he's undeservedly selling the movie short. Yes, this movie's available on video – and soon to be available on DVD. And yes, the rerelease is probably something to do with distributor greed or financial spring cleaning. And yes, the Coen Brothers have gone on to greater things. But there is every reason to watch this remixed, recut movie, or rewatch it.

Hey, for one thing, you'll recognize the voice of Holly Hunter, whose uncredited voice can be heard leaving a message on an answering machine. You'll also notice in the credits that the cinematogapher is Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct "Men in Black," "The Addams Family" and "Get Shorty." And you'll see so many parallels with the Coens' later, better "Fargo."

When "Blood Simple" came out in 1984, along with Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," independently made movies were a much bigger deal (or smaller deal, perhaps I should say) than the falsely hip projects they are now.

There were no Sundance Film Festival accolades or guest appearances from over-the-hill actors to sell them. There was no Miramax, which has made a three-ring circus out of American independent cinema. It was plain hard work to make and distribute movies without front-end studio participation. And I think "Blood Simple" is still more interesting than the hundreds of bad imitations that have followed.

I still like and appreciate the movie, about a sad-sack, jealous husband named Marty (Dan Hedaya) who hires an unnamed detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). I love the movie's originality, its sense of macabre humor, its resourcefulness, and the great Walsh, whose memorable narration kicks off the movie.

"In Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else," he drawls.

"What I know about is Texas. Down here, you're on your own."

In this movie, everyone is very much on their own. So when Abby realizes the detective is trying to kill her, she has to take matters into her own hands. Or take matters to her opponent's hand. In the movie's most memorably gruesome scene, she slams a window onto the murderous detective's hand, then pins it to the window sill with a hunting knife.

But it's the noir-style humor, not the violence, that makes this tribute to James M. Cain and Alfred Hitchcock so good. When the detective produces incriminating photographs of Abby and her lover, Marty looks at them with horror. And the detective, who's clearly enjoying his client's discomfort, gives a wicked smile and says, "I know where you can get those framed."

There's much more of that kind of dour comedy. And McDormand looks wonderful – almost like a young Jane Fonda. And even if the movie does drag a little toward the end, it's worth a visit to the theater, just to watch a true independent film again. That's assuming, of course, the screen in the theater is bigger than the one you have at home.

BLOOD SIMPLE (R, 97 minutes) – Contains gory violence, nudity and sex scenes.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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