Back in 1984, director brother Joel and Ethan Coen teamed with first-time cinematographer Barry Sonnefeld to deliver their first feature film, Blood Simple. They would go on to work together again on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, but their combined filmography includes O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country For Old Men, Men in Black, Fargo, Get Shorty, and a host of other well-known hits. Today, thanks to the Criterion Collection, you can watch their breakthrough noir thriller and hear them pick it apart shot by shot, lighting choice by lighting choice, sound by sound.
The plot revolves around the affair of Abby (Frances McDormand, and Joel’s real-life wife) and Ray (Joe Getz), who anger Abby’s jealous husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya). Marty then hires the morality-free Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), and all hell slowly breaks loose as double-crosses and unintended violence color the Coens’ most colorful neon film. But there are no good guys here – only broken vows of all shapes and sizes.
While the Criterion Collection includes a look at the moody music of Carter Burwell, and an essay by Nathaniel Rich, the best feature provided to fans of the film, the Coens, and cinematography in general is the commentary provided by Sonnefeld and the Coens. Here, the three men – who obviously admire each other – gamely pick their first film apart. [For the record, have you checked out your first anything? Poem, sermon, art project, sound recording? It can be a truly miserable experience!] But from the very get go, when they dive into the way that they used three different cars to shoot one scene from the film, they are self-deprecating and insightful.
The three of these men talk about decisions made in wardrobe, location, light, casting, crew, and more throughout the film, with telestrators to draw our eyes to things they liked … or didn’t like. While the film itself is dark and foreboding, the relaxed nature of the conversations is hilarious at times, as they pick at themselves and each other. It underlies the hard work of filmmakers to produce the 90 to 120 minutes we devour easily, like a good meal cooked all day can be inhaled in a matter of minutes.
While there are things to learn about Sonnenfeld and the Coens, some of my favorite thoughts included:
-The Coens’ reflection on other films that influenced them, like Mad Max or The Evil Dead.
-Sonnenfeld’s recollection that Kathryn Bigelow wanted him to shoot Near Dark based solely on a shoot-out scene in Blood Simple.
-That they chose short people to throw trash into a dumpster in one scene because they couldn’t find a bigger dumpster and wanted to give the impression that it was larger.
Seriously, who thinks of this stuff? Directors. And thanks to the Criterion Collection, we get to hear directly from some of the best.