Emmet Walsh didn’t know much about these two gangly brothers from Minnesota who wanted to make a Texas noir. And he thought he was too young to play the part of Loren, the killer in the canary-yellow suit with the cheerful laugh.
But he thought it was a part that would look good on his resume 20 years or so down the line, when he was old enough to play such roles. So he took the job – under the stipulation that he get paid in cash. So every Friday during the shoot, one of the Coen Brothers would go to the bank and withdraw seven $100 bills to pay Wash with.
The kicker? Walsh didn’t know what to do with the money, and was too nervous about leaving it at the hotel. So by the end of the shoot, he was stuck carrying around a stack of $100 bills with him everywhere he went.
This is one of many great stories on the Criterion Collection’s wonderful new Blu-ray version of the Coens’ debut film, 1984’s “Blood Simple.” It’s also a story that seems to reflect the movie in so many ways. Like the characters in the movie, Walsh tried to be clever, and ended up outsmarting himself.
The movie itself is one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies. It’s a little rougher and scruffier than the accomplished films to come, but still possesses the DNA of a Coen Brothers movie – meticulously arranged shots, black comedy two-stepping with shocking violence, and the sense of an indifferent deity watching over the proceedings, chuckling quietly to itself at all the flailings and killings. That deity might be the camera itself, which becomes a character in the film, in one iconic dolly shot rolling down the bar at last call and up and over a passed-out drunk. “Blood Simple” is like the indie label debut of a band that had already figured out their sound well before the major labels came courting.
In poring over all the special features and interviews, a recurring theme is that how much of “Blood Simple” was driven by simple necessity. The Coens made a bloody noir thriller because they knew a low-budget horror movie would stand the best chance of paying back their investors. They carefully storyboarded their shots because they didn’t have time or money to wing it during the shoot, and having the storyboards in hand made them seem more prepared to investors and potential actors. They shot in Texas because Ethan Coen had friends from a year he spent at UT that he knew would work for free, and because it was a right-to-work state it would be cheaper to get other crew. And so on.
The result of all those cold hard decisions is a delightfully nasty noir in the tradition of Jim Thompson or Dashiel Hammett, about a bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who gets more than he bargained for when he hires a dangerously cheerful private investigator Loren (Walsh) to spy on, and then kill, his wife and her lover (Frances McDormand and John Getz). Walsh fakes the killing, kills the bar owner instead, but then ends up coming after the unlucky couple anyway.
The Coen Brothers appear in a couple of special features on the Criterion Blu-ray. One is an extended interview with author Dave Eggers about the film, and the other is a very funny thing in which they watch the movie, “Mystery Science Theater”-style, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, the trio gleefully pointing out all the mistakes and the lighting that makes no sense. “The prop woman, who we fired after this shot,” Sonnenfeld says at one point.
There is something about “Blood Simple” that brings out something close to nostalgic in the notoriously wry Coens. They say the film’s “stupid brio” (Ethan) or ‘idiotic charm” (Joel) seems to carry it over the rough spots, and they both clearly have a soft spot for it. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Joel tells Eggers. “But we were keen on what we were doing.”
The interviews with Walsh and Frances McDormand are also terrific, McDormand explaining how she maintained a high level of hysteria during the chilling final scene by, just before a take, hiding under a table or having a crew member hold her tight while she struggled. She was so new to film acting that she thought this was how things were done, and the Coens were so new to filmmaking that they never questioned her methods.
It all worked out, and “Blood Simple” is top-tier Coen, the equivalent of a brick of $100 bills burning a hole in your pocket that feels both uncomfortable and delightful.