Blood Simple

by Glenn Erickson Feb 13, 2024

Neo-noir hit big in this breakthrough thriller from the Coen Bros., with a new kind of hardboiled rural naturalism. A lonely dive bar, a rotten marriage and a three-way murder & blackmail scheme criss-cross a quartet of unforgettable characterizations. The festival independent launched the star career of Frances McDormand, but also did great things for Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh and the clever cameraman Barry Sonnenfeld. The end result is unique — it’s as if the Coens had rented a special camera lens that gives film images ‘a visual drawl.’

Blood Simple
Blu-ray (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray also available)
The Criterion Collection 834
19884 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 9, 2024 / 39.95
Starring: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams.
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Designer: Jane Musky
Film Editors: Roderick Jaynes (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen), Don Wiegmann
Costume Design: Sara Medina-Pape
Original Music: Carter Burwell, Jim Roberge
Screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Produced by Daniel F. Bacaner, Ethan Coen
Directed by
Joel Coen

We aren’t going to argue where film noir stopped and neo-noir began. By the time the French identified the original style, it was almost finished, and it was long gone when America joined the party. Neo-noir is less vague in that its makers were consciously trying to recapture a certain lost vibe. The 1969 detective movie Marlowe played with the form, but it wasn’t until 1980’s Body Heat that a film pointedly opted to adapt the basics of the film style for a new era. Following up in a big way, 1984’s Blood Simple hit just as the culture adopted the term film noir as a new buzz word.

The Coen Brothers caught 3 waves at once — the sudden importance of the anti-Hollywood independent scene, some hip cinematic subject matter, and the glamour of ‘applied style’ — in which surface imagery is as important at the story being told. The producers aimed for commercial viability and broke through with a new look in fashionable genre mayhem. A fantastic cast helps, including the auspicious debut of the great Frances McDormand. She was concerned that she’d be exploited on screen, but the Coen’s assured her that they were selling violence, not sex.


Has the anti-elitist backlash against the Coen brothers finally gone away?  Thanks to a rave festival review in Daily Variety, we knew we were going to like Blood Simple several months before it arrived in theaters. The festival reviewer was charmed by the often nervously funny complications the film generated around a film noir infidelity-and-murder tale. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat popularlized neo-noir three years earlier, but Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut sizzler shifted the form into high gear. Wittily scripted, cleverly directed and given a production gloss that defies its humble origins, Blood Simple proved that there was plenty of oomph left in the old Double Indemnity formula.

The Coen brothers’ story oozes laid-back, laconic Texan passion. Bartender Ray (John Getz) is helping his boss’s disaffected wife Abby (Frances McDormand) flee across Texas when they suddenly begin a torrid affair at a motel. Little do they know that Abby’s husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) has already hired detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to get the goods on them. Thrown into a jealous tailspin, Marty then hires Visser to murder them as well. A sordid murder-for-hire becomes a study in desperate characters, littered with ironic plot twists and stone cold double-crosses.


The Coens’ initial reputation was made with clever directorial tricks, the kind that elicits envy from film students. Blood Simple shows us the clever, playfully precise trucking shots by the brothers’ first cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, such as the floating viewpoint that shadows a German shepherd down a hallway. Another show-off floor-level POV follows the tennis shoes of bartender Meurice (Samm-Art Williams). Yet another cruises down a long bar-top, soaring like a rollercoaster to avoid colliding with a passed-out patron. Some critics didn’t care for these show-off camera stunts. In this show, the ‘joking’ camera sometimes seems to be laughing at the sorry characters’ tawdry schemes. The Coens would continue with ostentatious visuals, most frequently for comedy effect. Their Raising Arizona has more actrobatic trick shots than the average Terry Gilliam fantasy.

Many viewers backtracked to Blood Simple to see Frances McDormand’s debut, after falling in love with her endearing police chief in the Coens’ superlative seriocomedy Fargo. McDormand is arrestingly good as the disaffected, not-too-bright spouse of the weasley bar owner. Dan Hedaya, he of the permanent five o’clock shadow, got everyone’s attention with this role. So did M. Emmet Walsh, whose weary, grudge-holding, Russia-obsessed Texan is tone-perfect. As Loren Visser negotiates with Marty, the insects buzzing in his hair seem to be feeding off his insanity. Murder is fine with Visser. He sees himself as a natural philosopher, both in an opening statement, and when he expresses a jaundiced amusement at the tendency of murder conspirators to ‘go simple’ afterwards.

From Arthur Penn’s The Chase forward, many movies have pictured Texas as an alien planet where the heat makes lovers more desperate and villains more venal. Blood Simple pegs the sour mood with the first look on every actor’s sweaty face.


This movie doesn’t need a fast pace to hold our attention — we know we’re in the hands of master storytellers. Carter Burwell’s music syncs up with the windshield wipers of the lovers’ car, not with Psycho’s nervous strings but a droning Texas beat. Lean budgeting limits the interior locations to a bar and a couple of residences but the wide-open highways and plowed fields keep claustrophobia at bay. We’re too busy watching the characters’ every facial twitch, anyway. The show’s final 2/3 are non-stop tension scenes.

The subject at hand is killing and double-crosses, but we’re enticed into the drama by a Hitchcockian concern with incidental detail. The viewer must contend with a steady flow of potentially relevant clues….  The pearl handled revolver.  The envelope with incriminating photos.  The cigarette lighter.  Marty’s fishing catch, rotting on his desk like the uncooked rabbit in Repulsion.  The safe.  The hammer.  A shirt with bloodstains.  The back seat of a car with more bloodstains. We watch the four characters interpret these objects, a mystery for which none of them has a complete picture. Each acts in concert with their disposition and nature. The slimy boss formulates his counter-extortion plan. The unethical detective uses his cackling laugh to cover up an inner rage. The runaway wife is frustrated in her search for a single trustworthy human.


The violent, funny and unpredictable chain of mayhem and misunderstandings has the feel of a demented episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Show, except that almost every scene in the last act introduces a new ironic twist. Neatly tricked out with those expressive (and yes, gimmicky) camera angles, Blood Simple almost looks too good to be an independent quickie. The Coens’ storytelling style seems to have burst in full bloom without need for development.

With multiple participants acting on a completely false set of assumptions, anything can happen. The only resolution for the personal conflicts is violence. Who will be the first to act?  Who will keep their nerve, and who will fold in defeat?

Here’s a good post-movie game to play. A few minutes after the film’s last event, the cops show up and have to figure out what the heck happened. Abby only thinks she knows the whole story. Question one: after studying the crime scenes and conducting interviews, what will the law settle on as the official sequence of criminal activity?  Question two: will the survivor(s) evade prosecution, or will they charged with murder?



The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Blood Simple is not the exact same release from 2016, but a new and restored digital transfer. The HD image is immaculate. These independent filmmakers impressed festivalgoers with the quality of their images — when it came time to dish out praise, cameraman Barry Sonnenfeld was mentioned almost as often as the Coens.

We’d like to note here that there is another new Blood Simple package available, a  4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray. Judging by the quality of the Blu-ray we received, the 4K is a real beauty.

The extras are the same group offered in 2016. The Coen bros. sit politely for a long discussion and engage with Barry Sonnenfeld to reassess their film’s visual achievement. We also get input from the sound engineer and composer, followed by lengthy, satisfying interview segments with Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, who is terrific. We find out that Walsh was a Northerner despite his convincing Texas drawl as Loren Visser. Ms. McDormand happily tells us the way she won the part — her roommate Holly Hunter turned it down.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Blood Simple
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Conversation between Sonnenfeld and the Coens
Conversation between author Dave Eggers and the Coens about the production from inception to release
Interviews with composer Carter Burwell, sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and actors Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh
Insert folder essay by Nathaniel Rich.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
February 11, 2024

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Dennis Fischer

Not sure why, but the Coens altered s bit of the diegetic music from the original release. Expertly drafted with wonderful tension scenes and fun, showboating camerawork, and is entertaining from start to finish. From then on, I noticed Hedaya and Walsh whenever they appeared.

Jeffrey Nelson

I really wish the original theatrical cut would be released on Blu-ray. The Coens later mucked with it and snipped out footage, just like they did with the latest release of Miller’s Crossing. So bloody annoying. I’m sticking with the uncut laserdisc for this one, as all DVD and Blu-ray releases are cut.

Neal Newman

Nobody mentions John
Getz. Wasn’t he the lead?


“As Loren Visser negotiates with Marty, the insects buzzing in his hair seem to be feeding off his insanity,” is just a beautiful line of writing. I know this movie inside-out and still found insights in this review.

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