The Coen Brothers are easily some of my favorite film makers. They are consistently good. I can find something to both enjoy and think about in all of their films. I don’t think I truly understand them though. They have produced a wide variety of films, in different settings, in different styles, and with different themes. I still can’t piece together any kind of pattern, or pin them down to a particular worldview. However, I do get the sense that there is something to their work beyond simple entertainment. So in an attempt to get a better understanding of who the Coens are, and what makes their films work, I am going to be going over each of their films one by one, in chronological order (except for The Big Lebowski, which is my favorite of their films, so I will save it for last). Hopefully after some discussions, and re-viewings, and re-writings, things will become a little more clear.
One of the things I have come to understand about the Coens is that they love Noir, and coincidentally, so do I. In fact, their first film – Blood Simple – was a Western Noir.
The term ‘Noir’ is a little vague and perhaps requires more of a discussion than a definition. ‘Noir’ has been tacked onto the descriptions of many different types of films, from Gumshoes like The Maltese Falcon, to westerns like A Touch of Evil, to sci-fis like Blade Runner. Noir isn’t so much of a genre of film as it is a quality that a film has. I have a loose set of criteria that I have hacked together over time for what makes a film a Noir. Maybe these criteria are way off, its the best I can do.Wikipedia has a great article on Noir, and to be honest, it has been the basis for a lot of what I think I understand about Noir.
At its basis a Noir is a morality tale, in the vein of the Medieval morality plays like Everyman. There is a strong sense of what is good and what is evil in Noir, and evil is often shown in great detail and in monstrous proportions. This does not mean that Noir is preachy, or that the bad guys always get their just deserts, or even say that morality can be attained. But you will know what is good and what is evil, and everything is painted in terms of the knowledge of good and evil. Take for example Billy Wilder’s Scarlet Street, a film that helped define Noir for myself. In this film, the main character comes to ruin because of an extra-marital affair. We know that what he is doing is wrong, and he knows it as well, but he succumbs to weakness and is ruined.
Another, perhaps more distinctive, characteristic of Noir is a constant sense of confusion about what is the truth. The plot of a Noir twists and turns. The hero may starts on what he thinks is a sure path, having taken everything he ‘knows’ into consideration, only to have to try to get back to where he was very quickly. Jack Nicholson’s character does this repeatedly in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Nicholson thinks he understands the facts of the case, and he takes action, only to be shown that he was wrong once again and has to start back at square one. Sometimes this confusion is a moral one, such as the case of Holly Martins in The Third Man, who must come to grips with the fact that his boyhood friend, Harry Lime, has become a monster, something that he can not reconcile
Something I love about Noir is the way it uses symbolic personification (another link to the morality play?). The Femme Fatal is a good example of this. Femme Fatal means ‘deadly woman,’ and represents temptation.
This temptation can lead to death, as in Scarlet Street, or the loss of the hero’s moral goal, as was almost the case in Chinatown (he hero doesn’t always succumb). Other personifications I have seen in Noirs have been of Vengance in A Touch of Evil, or of blind authority as in The Big Sleep.
The tone of Noir is generally a pessimistic one, and it’s focus is on human weakness. The ending is usually unhappy and the hero probably won’t ever gain any sort of clarity. The hero is usually obviously flawed, has a less than pristine past, and has a certain air of powerlessness. In fact, oftentimes this powerlessness is a strong feature of the plot, things happen to the hero, he doesn’t really understand why, or how to handle those events. In a way Noir is a study of human weakness.
There are several technical characteristics of Noir, such as the use of single point lighting; maybe I will go into these in another post. They aren’t really important to Blood simple, so I won’t explore those topics here.
There are spoilers from here on. My analysis of this film depends on your knowing the plot of the movie. This is a film that I don’t think can be spoiled. It doesn’t depend on any shock value to make its point. The visuals are strong, and worth seeing in their own right. Besides, the plot is so complicated that you will probably forget it by the time you get around to seeing this movie. Anyway, you were warned.
Blood Simple is plainly a Noir, even though it is set in modern (80’s, modern at the time) Texas. I believe that many of the Coens films owe a lot to Noir, and it is telling that their first film was a Noir. The very first scene in the film includes many Noir tropes, strong signals that we should interpret the films through that lens. The hero, Ray, is driving the Femme Fatal, Abby, through the rain (I mean there isn’t a textbook that says: “Your Noir movie must have a scene with rain” but come on, that’s kind of a Noirish thing).
We aren’t five minutes into the film before Ray succumbs to temptation and sleeps with Abby. This leads to some serious problems for the two of them, because Abby is married to Ray’s boss, Marty. Marty hires an assassin to kill both Ray and Abby. The assassin instead doctors some photographs to make it appear that the couple were killed, shoots Marty with Abby’s revolver and steals his money. Ray then finds Marty’s body while trying to steal his back-pay from the bar’s cash register, and assumes that Abby had done the deed. Ray takes it upon himself to save Abby from justice and cleans up the crime scene. Ray then has to dispose of the body, he drives out to a field to bury it when Marty begins to show signs of life (it isn’ clear whether or not Marty was dead the whole time, or if he came back to life, I like to think it is the later). Ray tries to kill Marty, but he won’t die, and Ray has to eventually bury him alive. Ray goes back to Abby expecting to run to Mexico with her. Instead of gratitude, Ray finds that Abby won’t own up to the crime, and assumes that she has left him for another man, and is willing to let him take the fall for the murder of Marty.
Meanwhile Abby is haunted by Marty’s ghost and Ray, can not wash the spots of Marty’s blood out of the back seat of his car. Abby finds out that Marty is dead, and assumes that Ray killed him. When she comes to this theory, she asks Ray if he killed Marty or not. This leads Ray to understand that someone besides himself or Abby had committed the murder, so he goes back to the bar to look for clues. He finds the photograph that supposedly documented his and Abby’s death, and realizes that Marty had hired a killer. The assassin is meanwhile discovering that he is not the only one who knows about the deal he made with Marty (he realizes that the photograph was missing). Now the assassin has to kill the two lovers for real. I won’t spoil the final showdown scene (too much), I might as well not spoil the whole movie. Sufice it to say that Ray is killed through an innocent action of Abby’s (by that I mean that she doesn’t intend the action to kill Ray). Abby doesn’t ever come to understand the whole story of what happened.
This is not a pleasant or light hearted film, nor is it for the feint hearted – I remember feeling sick to my stomach the first time I watched it. It is strange to think that the same two people also created the more or less light hearted O’ Brother Where Art Thou? Despite this I like the film very much (it’s not as shocking the second time around). It is professionally done, even though it was done on a very low budget. The acting is fine. The cinematography is intentional and pointed, which is all anyone can ask for. The characters are very human – I could associate with all of them except the assassin, who was more of a foil than anything. There is even a touch of macabre humor sprinkled throughout (for instance Ray keeps saying that he isn’t a marriage counselor). Most importantly, it had something to say. Blood Simple is not simply a string of exciting events, or a background for some character to swashbuckle around on. It is about relate-able characters making decisions about how they live their lives, and then dealing with the consequences.
I also enjoy this film because of how it uses Noir themes. I think this framework allows me to make several interpretations that may have been a little shaky otherwise. Besides all of the other similarities to Noir that I am sure you picked up on, this film puts symbolic personification to pretty heavy work. Marty is the personification of guilt. He torments Ray as he is being buried, a fairly traumatic process for everyone involved, and his blood will not wash out of Rays car, reminiscent of Lady MacBeth.
At one point in the film Abby describes Marty as ‘anal;’ guilt is a stickler for the details. The assassin represents hate, which does succeed in destroying its object, Ray; but not before it destroys Marty. Abby, as the Femme Fatal, represents temptation. She is the object of Ray’s lust, which destroys him. Ray is the one character which is not a symbol. He is the hapless Noir hero, the everyman, you and me. I noted before that Abbys destruction of Ray was not intentional, this is important because she does not represent evil in this film. The moral responsibility for Ray’s actions are still Ray’s, Abby is only the accidental medium of his death.
Even though the Noir symbolism is the most interesting thing about this film, I think the key it holds to understanding the Coens is in its plot. Most of the Coens’ films have this Noirish, meandering plot, that doesn’t have a strong climax. In fact, Nigel and I have spent a lot of time discussing the exact location of climaxes in Coen films, or whether or not they even exist at all. You can see this in nearly all of their films from O’ Brother to Hail, Ceasar. The Coen’s seem to defy traditional story structure in this way, but I think their particular brand of structure is an extension of the classic Noir structures. This meandering plot is one carry-over from this film to their, and our, next film, Raising Arizona. Raising Arizona is a little more familiar territory for Coen fans, as it is a comedy.