(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today Brad Cook explores the new Blu-Ray release of Blood Simple, the writing/editing/producing and directing debut by the Coen Brothers.)
Blood Simple handily serves as a useful template for the Coen brothers’ career, if you want to introduce someone to their movies and are trying to figure out a good first film. It uses many of the tropes that would later serve them well: black humor; plans gone awry in unpredictable ways; characters desperately trying to find their way through the messes they’ve made; and endings that often bring all the moving pieces of the plot to a standstill but don’t necessarily solve the characters’ problems.
Yes, not every Coen brothers film uses all those tropes, and some use techniques not found in Blood Simple, but their first film is still a useful guidepost for the rest of their output. It features Frances McDormand in her big screen debut as Abby, who’s having an affair with Ray (John Getz), a bartender at a bar owned by Abby’s husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya). Marty, as he’s called, suspects their affair and hires a private detective, Loren (M. Emmet Walsh), to provide him with proof.
Confronted over the affair, Ray quits. Marty hires Loren to kill the couple, but the detective doctors a photo as proof of his deed and shoots Marty with Abby’s gun. When Ray returns to demand his final paycheck, he finds Marty and realizes Abby’s gun was used, so he tries to clean up the murder. As the Coens explain in one of the bonus features on this new Blu-ray disc, it’s very hard to kill someone, and Ray soon finds out that covering up the crime is harder than he thought. Unsurprisingly, the situation spirals out of control from there, leading to a tragic ending that manages to yield some dark humor in the form of Loren’s lines, the last ones in the film.
This new Blu-ray release of the film from Criterion features a new 4K transfer approved by the Coen brothers and director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld. The three of them also conducted an hour-long discussion in which they watch scenes from the movie and mark them up with a Telestrator, much like analysts marking up plays during a football game. They’re very self-critical, so it’s an amusing exercise to watch them make fun of things like the lighting in many scenes, where, for example, a character might have a lamp on their right side but a strong lighting source on their left side. That’s the kind of stuff I admit I don’t usually catch while watching a movie, so the discussion definitely has a bit of a film class vibe to it.
The Coens also sat down for an interview with Dave Eggers to talk about the movie from inception to release. Shots from the trailer they made to entice investors are shown, and if they pique your interest, you can always go to the trailers section of the disc to see the whole thing. The original theatrical release and re-release trailers are included too.
Finally, this disc also contains interviews with McDormand, Walsh, sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and composer Carter Burwell; the last two guys have been working with the Coens since their first film. The obligatory booklet contains an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.
All of the bonus features on this disc are newly created pieces, making this release a must-have for fans. The movie is 95 minutes long, so I assume it’s the same version as the director’s cut released by MGM on Blu-ray in 2011. (That one was listed as 96 minutes, but as far as I can tell after some Googling, it’s the same version. I guess the discrepancy is due to one company rounding the running time.) The theatrical version was 99 minutes long, but I’m not sure of the differences between it and this one. I can only assume that the Coens see this version of the film as their definitive one, since they signed off on the new transfer, but it would have been nice to have the deleted footage included here for posterity’s sake.
That MGM disc was a bare bones one, however, so this is a significant upgrade over that release. The film was also released in 2001 on DVD, with an introduction by “Mortimer Young,” a fictional film historian who talked about the director’s cut removing “the boring bits,” among other things. Another character, “Kenneth Loring,” conducted a commentary for that one in which he spouted many made-up facts, such as a claim that Marty’s dog was animatronic. The Coens, who have long been known to be reticent about doing commentaries or trying to talk about any meaning behind their films (Eggers fails to get any Cold War symbolism out of them, for example), created scripts for Young and Loring as their way to have some fun with fans.
Those extras aren’t included here, but that’s not a major loss. However, if you’re a completist and own that disc, you’ll probably want to hang on to it.
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)