Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression for centuries to come.
Sometimes a movie starts playing and it only takes moments to draw the viewer in. Sometimes it’s the mood, the dialogue, or the cinematography. Different aspects of a movie will speak to you. This week’s strange and fantastic tale is Joel and Ethan Coen’s directorial debut Blood Simple, a neo- noir film that grips the audience with its opening scene and developing tension. The clever writing and sharp direction of the Coen Brothers mingled with Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography craft a film where the real heart of the story is in what is not seen.
Blood Simple tells the story of Ray (John Getz), a bartender who starts an affair with the boss’s wife Abby (Francis McDormand). Despite the affair scenario, Ray and Abby have a very simple relationship. They just like each other. The complication is Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), Abby’s husband and Ray’s boss. Marty is aware of the relationship and hires a private detective to kill them, but the plan quickly goes awry.
The film opens on a dark desert road, a couple speaks in hushed tones while rain beats against the windshield and they occasionally pass a set of oncoming headlights. The combination of sounds and the isolation of the scene are captivating. The camera angle is from the backseat so the audience mainly sees silhouettes until a light shines on their profiles.
Ray and Abby’s dialogue clue us in that they are having an affair and that is a potentially dangerous situation. As they drive in darkness, Abby is aware that a Volkswagon bug is tailing them and that is when the danger starts.
Dan Hedaya gives an amazing performance. Both sinister and pitiful, the quiet calmness Hedaya puts into Julian Martin’s character is haunting. Much of the film is dimly lit with splashes of headlights through window blinds or moonlight illuminating faces and activities.
Julian Martin sits in his dark office contemplating his next move while Abby and Ray engage in sex that is partially lit through traffic. Many of the scenes have a cool blue tone to them casting an eeriness to the film.
In addition to the overall look, the piano score and songs like Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and “It’s the Same Old Song” by The Four Tops intermingle the grimness of murder with the dark comedy of the film.
There are a lot of great performances in this film. Getz and McDormand have a unique chemistry while M. Emmet Walsh steals a lot of the film as an over the top Texas private investigator turned murderer. Set in Texas, the desert and wild nature of the state provide a perfect backdrop to this tale of love, greed, and vengeance. Funny and suspenseful, Blood Simple plays with tension and powerful dialogue to create an unforgettable film.
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