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[whitespace] Frances McDormand
Sanguinary School: Frances McDormand plays a straying wife in 'Blood Simple.'

Fresh 'Blood'

The re-release of 'Blood Simple' shows the Coen brothers learning the ropes

By Richard von Busack

COMPARED TO THE postmodern swath the Coen brothers have cut through the movies during the past 15 years, their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, seems like a prank, easily understood as the work of a film-school grad just starting out.

One of the film's signature scenes is the seemingly endless death of Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), a man so ornery that even his blood refuses to dry. The slow demise of the unkillable Marty is taken, Joel and Ethan Coen admit in an interview occasioned by the re-release of Blood Simple, from the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain depicting Paul Newman's painful efforts to snuff an Eastern-bloc secret policeman.

In the other famous bit in Blood Simple, bullets pierce a thin wall into a dark room, letting in rays of light through the holes. Those bullets may have a pedigree, too, descending from the punch line of Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944). Lang, however, used the trick to much more shocking effect. One well-placed bullet is a surprise; the discharge of an entire revolver is kind of a redundancy.

The Coens--director Joel, who co-writes with his brother, Ethan--made Blood Simple as a story of murder in Texas. Marty, a scorned husband, hires a detective to kill his wife and her lover, Ray (John Getz), who works as a bartender in Marty's club.

As in Hitchcock, the mechanical effects are sometimes more thought-out than the performances. Often when the Coens' films seem too much, it's because an actor--John Turturro or Jon Polito, for example--gives a performance too oversized for the story. In Blood Simple, though, the acting fits. The young Frances McDormand plays the straying wife, and M. Emmet Walsh is memorable as the flannel-mouthed detective, originally named Visser and now credited only as Private Detective.

THE COENS are a little dismissive of this reissue, as well they might be. "We said it was restored, we didn't say it was any good," they joke. The new version includes a lofty onscreen introduction by "Mortimer Young"--a pretentious fictional film preservationist. One of the other changes in the re-release print, which has a few minor re-edits, is a more modest version of the sex scene than in the 1984 original.

I agree with the Coens. Blood Simple has faded over the years, with little drive to it and artiness that can't cover gaps in the plot. The leads, John Getz and Samm-Art Williams, deliver B-movie performances without B-movie funk.

The once-bold moves, like the tracking shot past a sleeping drunk, the camera swaying over the body as if it were a speed bump, are surpassed in the Coens' first really great movie, Raising Arizona (1987). The film's "shaky-cam" scenes, brought about by Sam Raimi's device of mounting a camera on a couple of boards and running, are bested by Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy and his disowned 1985 movie, Crimewave, co-written by the Coens.

The Coens, with the one exception of Fargo, are much more likable being cartoonish than they are trying to be profound. Miller's Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) are both, in essence, deep-dish cartoons. Mawkishness damages the former just as character assassination mars the latter, with its slurs on Louis B. Mayer, Clifford Odets and William Faulkner. A slur is forgivable but an unfunny slur isn't.

The Hudsucker Proxy--a 1994 pastiche of screwball comedies--is mixed like the cat's breakfast. It boasts cyclopean office towers, more ghastly than any skyscraper in Gotham City, Jennifer Jason Leigh's perfect Jean Arthur imitation and Tim Robbins as an excellent stand-in for Jimmy Stewart.

The Big Lebowski (1998) has a '60s burnout play that man out of time, detective Philip Marlowe, who is reincarnated as a stoned Los Angeles trophy-bowler, and Bridges' warm Cheech-and-Chong-style interpretation is rich stuff. The Coens are at their best out West (or at least our Midwest). They always come alive when they can get have the Zen of the bumming, seedy side of Los Angeles, the painted deserts in Raising Arizona and the Siberian sprawl of Minneapolis in Fargo (1996).

Fargo is the Coens' best work, thanks to Joel Coen's tender direction of his wife, McDormand. Most viewers were charmed by McDormand's accent in her portrayal of the highway patrolman solving a circle of murders for money. Few, I think, noted how McDormand's character represented one of the few occasions of a postmod director coming up with a mythic creation, whose inner strength matches the strength of Paul Bunyan, referred to throughout the movie.

AS A MIXTURE of bloody noir and comedy, Blood Simple has influenced cult films like Red Rock West and One False Move, and it graded the roadway for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. With help from cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and soundtrack composer Carter Burwell, the Coens have laid out not a cinema of consistency in Blood Simple but, instead, one of absurd and haunting images.

Those images start with the hopeless tangle of plumbing that M. Emmet Walsh sees under a sink in Blood Simple and expand to the comparison of the matching tattoos in Raising Arizona, the machine-gun dance in Miller's Crossing, the roaring of John Goodman in the corridors of his purgatorial, fiery hotel in Barton Fink, the upper half of a set of dentures binding up the gears of Time in The Hudsucker Proxy, McDormand eating a Hardee's roast-beef sandwich in her car in Fargo--all the way to Bridges' bowling-alley relaxation tape in The Big Lebowski.

The Coens are heroic native surrealists. Thus Blood Simple is a prelude for one of the most consistently fertile careers of the last 15 years.

Blood Simple (R; 97 min.), directed by Joel Coen, written by Ethan and Joel Coen, photographed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Getz, Samm-Art Williams, Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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