Two weeks ago, "Blood Simple," a film noir thriller shot on a budget of a mere $1.5 million by people who had never made a feature film, opened in an exclusive engagement at New York's Cinema I. The marquee named no stars; there were no television ads, and the movie was released not by a major studio, but by a Washington company called Circle Releasing Corp. that was barely six months old.

When receipts were toted up at week's end, it was concluded that "Blood Simple" had made the most spectacular debut for a film of its kind that anyone could remember -- the grosses totaled $62,000 ("The Killing Fields," for purposes of comparison, only logged $52,000 in its first week in Gotham), and the reviews were uniformly ecstatic. In Hollywood, the studio executives, all of whom had passed on the opportunity to distribute the movie, were scratching their heads; in Washington, the executives of Circle Releasing led by president Ted Pedas, were whooping it up. Only the guys who actually made the film -- director Joel Coen, a product of the New York University Film School, and his brother and producer Ethan, who cowrote the script, remained unimpressed.

"I'm curious if it'll work with more of an exploitation audience," says Joel Coen. The movie, in which marital infidelity leads to a rondelet of murder, opens in Washington on Friday. "What would be really gratifying to us is if it works with more of a Times Square audience. [Drive-in movie critic] Joe Bob Briggs said it was the one movie Joe Bob would consider going indoors to see. It wasn't intended as an art film or anything."

"We figure the reviewers were just sort of coaxing our chins out so they can repudiate us in the second movie," says Ethan.

"Ethan keeps asking me, 'When are they gonna turn on us?' "

At 30, Joel Coen is very much the big brother; wearing black sneakers and a T-shirt under a black ski jacket, flashing a sickly smile, he looks, with his long mane of black hair, like the president of the Riverside Drive branch of the Hell's Angels. Affecting a tweed jacket, jeans, bowling shoes and small wire-rimmed glasses that might have been borrowed from Trotsky, younger brother Ethan, 27, looks as if he never left Princeton; often, he'll lick his lips before speaking, as if mere words were a particularly delicious re'moulade. When they make the movie about the Coen brothers, you'll see Bruce Dern as Joel, Robert Carradine as Ethan -- and it'll be called something like "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and It Has a Big Gun."

When they're together (which is almost always), the Coens' conversation has a seamless quality, as if you've stumbled upon somebody talking to himself. "They're like an ecosystem or something," says Barry Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer of "Blood Simple." "They just support each other in a total bubble." Michael Miller, the sound editor for the picture, agrees: "You get a sense of two guys who grew up in beds across from one another, staying up till 4 in the morning when their parents thought they were sleeping."

Both Coens chain-smoke Camel Lights; they think alike and talk with the same broad Midwestern accent and communicate in a sort of code. Joel leads the conversation; Ethan fills in. "There's all this intense energy fusing inside Ethan's tiny skull, but outside he's very quiet," says their friend, director Sam Raimi. "Sometimes he'll only say one sentence a day, and that's usually, 'Where are the butts?' "

The seed of "Blood Simple" was planted in the Coens when they started reading novelist James M. Cain "for laughs." "We wanted the story to operate in a James M. Cain type of way, in that we weren't interested in doing a whodunit," says Joel. "What appealed to us about this story is that the characters don't know what's going on, but the audience does, every step of the way."

"The idea was, 'All right, we've got these characters in a bad situation -- how can we make it worse?' " says Ethan. "We weren't thinking of other movies a lot. We weren't film noir buffs or anything like that. It was more the case that we were thinking of the sort of stories those movies come from."

"We didn't want venetian blinds," Joel says. "That was definitely not the idea."

Armed with a script, a prospectus and a short trailer film suggesting some of the action that would be included in the movie, the Coens returned to their native Minneapolis (they now live in New York) to try to interest investors in the project. "I bought a 16-millimeter projector, and we'd shlep it around to people's homes and offices and stuff," remembers Joel. "Anybody that'd give us 10 minutes and let us get our foot in the door. We'd show up with the trailer and invade their space before they could say no. And that worked. They'd have a good time with it, and then they'd sit down and talk to us."

"A guy in St. Paul asked us, 'Tell me, why should I invest in the movie?' " remembers Ethan. "Which nobody had asked us point-blank before. So we thought about it and said, 'If you don't, somebody else will have to.' He walked out and never gave us a nickel."

But enough others did, so the Coens were off to Texas with their crew, many of whom had never worked on a feature film, and a cast that included Dan Hedaya as Julian Marty, the cuckolded tavern owner at the center of "Blood Simple," and veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh, whom the Coens remembered from his brilliant performance in "Straight Time," as a jovially perverse Texas detective named Visser.

"I don't think Emmet really believed, when we first started, that we really knew what we were doing," says Sonnenfeld, whose daring, stylish camera work is one of the many pleasures of the movie. "We took him out to lunch before we started shooting and he kept asking us questions like, 'So Joel, uh, is it your parents that have all this money?' "

Like the Coens, Sonnenfeld had never made a feature film before. "Barry threw up a lot," Joel says. "He never betrayed any nervousness, except he threw up about 18 times. It got to the point where we'd ignore him, and people thought we were being callous. We'd just seen it so much. We'd laugh, as a matter of fact."

"Whenever we needed a realistic sound effect," Ethan says, "we'd make Barry throw up."

The success of "Blood Simple" comes as a crucial triumph for Circle Releasing Corp., a company founded last July with financing from the Pedas brothers, Ted and Jim, of the Circle Theaters. The pattern is as old as Hollywood itself -- Karl Laemmle, the founder of Universal, started out as an exhibitor, showing silent movies in his Chicago dry goods store. More recently, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus owned theaters before they started Cannon.

As an exhibitor, Circle has an important psychological advantage over the Hollywood studios: when a movie bombs, everyone loses, but where the studio head reads the tale as a row of numbers, the exhibitor actually sees the empty seats. As a result, the distributor with exhibition experience is more circumspect, less likely to let a budget get out of hand -- he knows what it feels like to be left holding the bag.

But Ted Pedas and his partner Ben Barenholtz (the famous "Father of the Midnight Movie" and vice president of Circle Releasing) started out specializing in foreign and independent films, so they're aware of the special attention such films need in designing an ad campaign and a strategy for release. Most important, because of their low overhead, the "back end of the deal" -- the profit -- is a larger piece of the pie, a windfall that the filmmakers can join in (unlike Hollywood, where accounting legerdemain often ensures that, no matter how successful a movie, the "net profit" turns out zero).

The inception of Circle comes at a time when the hunger for new "product," because of the growth of such ancillary markets as cable TV, videocassettes and overseas release, is voracious. At the same time, the quality of both Hollywood and foreign films is at an ebb; the most exciting work is being done by young American filmmakers who, because they insist on creative control, eschew Hollywood. So the niche for a company like Circle is tailor-made. "The philosophy is to zero in on those real attractive, real hip English language films that appeal to what our marketing consultant calls 'the hipoisie,' " says Circle's Chris Zarpas.

Circle plans to produce pictures as well (including, perhaps, the Coens' next feature). As a distributor, the plan is to release four to six movies a year. Circle kicked off last year with two foreign films, "The Family Game" and "The Go Masters," neither of which did big business. It is "Blood Simple" that will put Circle on the map.

Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minneapolis. "Like suburbia everywhere," says Ethan. "The same Jewish part," Joel adds, "where there's a Rosenbloom on every corner." "That's why they call it the City of Flowers," Ethan puns.

Their parents were university professors, teaching economics and fine arts in the Minnesota state system. The brothers' career as filmmakers began early, with Super 8 remakes of old Hollywood movies, and original titles like "Henry Kissinger -- Man on the Go" and "Lumberjacks of the North." "You use the milieu that you have," explains Joel. "We found ourselves trapped in this subarctic environment, where we went out and all we saw was a lot of, like, snow, so we'd go into the woods and say, 'Snow and woods -- let's make a lumberjack movie.' "

"I think the main reason was we had a couple of flannel shirts," says Ethan.

After high school, Joel enrolled in NYU Film School. "I wanted to keep making movies, and that was an easy school to get into," he remembers. "I was sort of applying to places at the last minute."

"Given the kind of movie we ended up making in 'Blood Simple,' we called Joel 'The Shame of NYU,' " says his brother.

Joel was more out of NYU than in it; in making "Blood Simple," he discovered himself "in the middle of this weird NYU nexus" of crew members who had been contemporaries of his at NYU, but whom he hadn't known at the time. It was at NYU that Joel made his first movie, "Soundings," a 30-minute black-and-white film about a deaf person whose girlfriend fantasizes about someone else while she's making love to him. "Knowing that he's deaf, she actually verbalizes it. And the guy she's fantasizing about is the other guy in the apartment, who hears it. So it's about the boyfriend trying to figure out what's going on between his girlfriend and this other guy without being able to hear."

Ethan, on the other hand, enrolled in Princeton to major in philosophy. "It's sort of like 'Tom Brown's Schooldays,' " he remembers. "You've got your eating clubs. I went into Ivy once and they had a billiard room without pockets in the table. That's a real tip-off of something or other."

He had a run-in with the administration when, after taking a year off, he neglected to notify the school that he was coming back. "It's supposed to be a pro forma thing," he says. "But I was late and I didn't really have any excuse for being late, so I said in my letter that I had been involved in a hunting accident in my brother-in-law's living room and had lost my left arm."

"So he gets a letter back from the dean," says Joel, continuing the story, "saying, 'We're sorry to hear about your arm, and send a letter from your doctor saying whether or not you're going to be able to attend your classes.' So he wrote a letter back from the Reverend Doctor Samson Gaziorwitz of the Our Lady of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. They still don't get the joke, right? Then they finally got it and they said, 'We think you ought to come down here and submit yourself to a battery of psychiatric examinations before we'll readmit you to school.' And I've got to admit, the letter from Dr. Gaziorwitz said things like Ethan had also lost his legs, and so his classes should be scheduled close together. And he should be kept away from the taunts of classmates because 'Young Ethan has become quite adept at wielding his hooks.' "

"So I go down there," Ethan says, "and the psychiatrist was nuts. He was too good to be true. He had this laundry list of mental illnesses. He said, 'Are you aggressive/sadistic?' I said, 'No.' 'Are you manic/depressive?' 'No.' I just answered no to all the questions, so he gave me a clean bill of health."

To which Joel adds: "I suggested that if he wanted to get back at these guys, he should hang himself in the dormitory the next year, and leave a note that said, 'I sought help, but none was offered.' "

After NYU, Joel began working as a film editor with Edna Paul, who specializes in low-budget horror movies; Ethan left Princeton to become an office temporary doing, among other things, statistical person whose girlfriend fantasizes about someone else while she's making love to him. "Knowing that he's deaf, she actually verbalizes it. And the guy she's fantasizing about is the other guy in the apartment, who hears it. So it's about the boyfriend trying to figure out what's going on between his girlfriend and this other guy without being able to hear."

Ethan, on the other hand, enrolled in Princeton to major in philosophy. "It's sort of like 'Tom Brown's Schooldays,' " he remembers. "You've got your eating clubs. I went into Ivy once and they had a billiard room without pockets in the table. That's a real tip-off of something or other."

He had a run-in with the administration when, after taking a year off, he neglected to notify the school that he was coming back. "It's supposed to be a pro forma thing," he says. "But I was late and I didn't really have any excuse for being late, so I said in my letter that I had been involved in a hunting accident in my brother-in-law's living room and had lost my left arm."

"So he gets a letter back from the dean," says Joel, continuing the story, "saying, 'We're sorry to hear about your arm, and send a letter from your doctor saying whether or not you're going to be able to attend your classes.' So he wrote a letter back from the Reverend Doctor Samson Gaziorwitz of the Our Lady of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. They still don't get the joke, right? Then they finally got it and they said, 'We think you ought to come down here and submit yourself to a battery of psychiatric examinations before we'll readmit you to school.' And I've got to admit, the letter from Dr. Gaziorwitz said things like Ethan had also lost his legs, and so his classes should be scheduled close together. And he should be kept away from the taunts of classmates because 'Young Ethan has become quite adept at wielding his hooks.' "

"So I go down there," Ethan says, "and the psychiatrist was nuts. He was too good to be true. He had this laundry list of mental illnesses. He said, 'Are you aggressive/sadistic?' I said, 'No.' 'Are you manic/depressive?' 'No.' I just answered no to all the questions, so he gave me a clean bill of health."

To which Joel adds: "I suggested that if he wanted to get back at these guys, he should hang himself in the dormitory the next year, and leave a note that said, 'I sought help, but none was offered.' "

After NYU, Joel began working as a film editor with Edna Paul, who specializes in low-budget horror movies; Ethan left Princeton to become an office temporary doing, among other things, statisticaldy," says Joel. "It's completely different from 'Blood Simple' -- we kind of reached the supersaturation point on that kind of movie."

"It takes place in New York in the late '50s," says Ethan. "One of those movies where everybody dresses real sharp and talks real fast."

" 'Executive Suite,' sort of," says Joel.

"You don't have your girl at the cigarette counter, but it's the kind of movie where you might have," Ethan says.

In the new movie, a crew-cut Raimi will play Buzz the Elevator Gnat ("My name is Buzz, I've got the fuzz, I make the elevator do what it does"). The Coens and Raimi put references to each other's films in their own: a spinning headline in "The XYZ Murders" includes, lower on the same page, "Elks to Honor Texas Detective" (an allusion to Visser of "Blood Simple"; in "Blood Simple," the bartender gets a message on his answering machine from Helene Trend, a character in "XYZ Murders."

"We just put it there to get a laugh out of Sam," says Joel. "We're trying to weave a grand Balzacian tapestry."

Will the brothers continue to work as a team?

"Joel doesn't know this, but I've got my own TV show now," says Ethan.

"Ethan had nightmares of finding me doing an episode of 'The Incredible Hulk' with chains around my neck saying, 'Hey, I gotta eat, don't I?' "