Film Noir is a term coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, used to describe a slew of American films produced during the Nazi occupation of France. Frank said of the then recently released The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Laura (1944):
“After movies like these, the characters of the usual police bands look like puppets. But there is nothing to which the spectator of today is more sensitive to than this imprint of life… to certain atrocities that actually exist and that he has never used anything to hide; the struggle for life is not a current invention.”
America was left in a disillusioned state after the second World War. Many of the films produced in Hollywood during that time had typically been pro-war propaganda films to boost the morale of the country and distract from the horrors of reality. Audiences needed a new kind of movie that reflected this cynical worldview they now had. Done away were the over-the-top melodramas and righteous morality of the western heroes. The shadows of the sleazy city streets and questionable morals of protagonists like Philip Marlowe or Walter Neff fit the bill perfectly.
Film noir can be difficult to define, though, as — ironically enough — it cannot be classified in “black and white” terms; it is not technically a genre like the crime thriller or western similarly of the time. Noir can only be defined by the atmosphere and mood of the piece, and a list of tropes that are often synonymous with the style. Tough-as-nails gumshoes, harsh shadows, and treacherous femme fatales are just several key identifiable traits of film noir. That is, of course, not to say that all noir must possess these traits; some of the best don’t. You can’t define film noir by a checklist of what the film does or doesn’t have. A spectrum of noir elements would be more fitting, i.e., the more aspects it has, the more of a noir it is. The one thing that every noir is, however, is dark. Noir literally translates to “black,” describing both the shadow-filled scenery of the style as well as the bleak tone and setting of the stories.
Alas, noir films had petered out by the end of the ’50s, typically marked by the last masterpiece of the genre, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). After nearly 20 years of studios churning out a seemingly endless amount of noir pictures, the style had grown derivative. Each story the same as the last, the tropes all played out, and the characters all carbon copies of the ones before. New life was breathed into noir in the early 70s with films like The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974) after the introduction of the MPAA Film Rating System in 1968 as a replacement for the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code). These “neo-noir” films aimed to recreate the style of the film noirs, but were now able to tackle the racier subjects that could only be alluded to before due to the restrictions of the Production Code. Sex, violence, drugs, and all the other taboos film noir surrounded itself with could finally be exposed without any censorship. Color had become the industry standard by this time as well, which helped to set apart these new films from the classic style.
Despite the rapid expansion in creative possibilities, filmmakers generally chose to leave behind the classic conventions of film noir and opted to tell their stories with a more modern approach. In many ways, a neo-noir film can be more difficult to define than a noir of the classic period because of the variety of ways used to tell the stories. The creative limitations imposed on earlier noir films make them easier to identify than their modern counterparts. The balance of classic noir elements and creative technique unbound by restrictions is the fine line one walks when crafting a neo-noir film. Lean too hard into it and the film becomes more of a pastiche; stray too far away and you lose what makes it a noir. You can see many aspects of noir in the filmographies of some of the most prestigious directors working today. David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) is a pitch-black detective story with strong visual influences, and Christopher Nolan’s breakout film Memento (2000) tells a deceptive tale with fantastic voice-over, and a large portion of black-and-white photography to boot, but a different breakout film comes to mind when discussing the delicate balance of neo-noir: the Coen Brothers’ masterfully macabre debut, Blood Simple (1984).
The fundamental reason that Blood Simple remains a seminal neo-noir is because it was born out of the same circumstances that forged the beginnings of film noir itself. They both began as low-budget/B-picture movies meant to turn a profit, which necessitated an embrace of more provocative and exploitative stories to draw interest from an audience. The Coens decided their first film should be a noir for “…practical reasons. [They] knew [they] weren’t going to have a big budget.” They took inspiration from the writings of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett for Blood Simple, with the title even coming from a passage in the latter’s novel, Red Harvest. They managed to raise a modest $550,000 before beginning production by going door-to-door with a hastily-made trailer to show potential investors. The trailer is dark and maintains a disturbing presence. Included are many shots that translate to the final film almost exactly. The shattered glass on the floor, a man crawling out to the front of the car, and the dark room lit only by the light from the bullet holes as shots continue to fire. As any good trailer ought to do, the investment trailer for Blood Simple perfectly encapsulated the dark vision the Coens had for their film.
Blood Simple wastes no time in setting its tone from the start. M. Emmet Walsh’s opening narration begins the film with a cynical edge, similar to the likes of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). “The world is full of complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee,” he says. In the following scene our two lead characters carry on a conversation in silhouette, as rain pours across the windshield of their car, and from there, the staples of noir continue to permeate throughout the film: marital affairs, private investigators, femme fatales, double crosses, and so on. There’s even a handful of homages to classic noirs in the film: the Texas setting and the corrupt, rotund villain of the film are reminiscent of Touch of Evil; Ray’s car not starting after he finishes burying Marty is ripped straight from Double Indemnity. Blood Simple has more of the familiar traits and characters than even some of the noirs of the classic period, but its characterization is only solidified by the definitive chiaroscuro lighting.
“Chiaroscuro” is an Italian term used to describe the deep contrast of light and dark in various art forms. German Expressionism films of the 1920s were early examples of this kind of lighting in movies that were later implemented into the noir style by many of those same German filmmakers (e.g., Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang). The Coens directly follow in the footsteps of these filmmakers before them, intentionally lighting each scene with minimal, and often only practical, lighting. The scenes that take place in Ray’s home are lit with low hanging lights, or occasionally a lonely table lamp. The “Neon Boots Bar” remains mostly in darkness during the scenes of tense confrontation, and scenes solely lit by the car’s headlights, or bullet holes through the wall, are particularly creative.
Not even the morning sun is enough to illuminate the characters either, as even during the day, characters are masked in shadows. As Marty sits in Visser’s car, ironing out the deals for the catalystic crime, both of them are draped in shadows, reflecting the shady scheme being brewed. Even the supposed heroes of the story can’t escape the darkness. Blood Simple is filled with cascading shadows intended to visually realize the inner turmoil buried in each and every character.
The Coen Brothers have a distinct knack for breathing creative life into seemingly dead genres by implementing modern sensibilities. No Country for Old Men (2007) is very clearly a modern western with a reflective perspective of the genre, and Miller’s Crossing (1990) is a gangster film more true to the original style than other evolved films like The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990). More so than any other though, the Coens continually return to film noir for inspiration, as can be seen throughout their filmographies. Even in their previously mentioned films, we see examples of a morally questionable protagonist in over his head, tense moments accentuated by dark lighting, and a bitterly grim ending. This blending of styles is a hallmark of the Coen Brothers’ work, and is what allows their writing to remain relevant and engaging, in what would otherwise leave their films to be labeled as genre pieces of a bygone era.
Blood Simple makes use of its freedom to explore creative avenues in noir, beginning with its unconventional setting. With few exceptions, noir films take place almost exclusively in metropolitan cities like New York or Los Angeles. Notable films such as Night of the Hunter (1955) and Touch of Evil manage to stand out despite this, but you’d be hard pressed to find many others. Aside from a nice change in scenery, these new environments allow for different kinds of characters to step into the familiar roles. Densely populated cities are bloated with police officers and witnesses on every corner, so the criminals have to be able to outsmart the systems at play and work incognito to delay their inevitable justice. The rural Texas setting of Blood Simple allows for more naïve characters whose mistakes we can relate with, without getting immediately caught in the process.
These more myopic characters allow the Coen brothers to seamlessly weave in elements of other exploitation genres to make for a more enticing premise. When Frances McDormand first read the script, she asked Joel Coen about a sex scene in the film, concerned with having to appear completely nude. Joel reassured her that, “We’re not selling this film with sex, we’re selling it with violence.” The Coens took additional inspiration for Blood Simple from a string of low-budget, independently financed horror films that Joel had worked on as an assistant editor in New York, especially Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981). The incorporation of horror elements into Blood Simple immensely raises the tension in the film’s most intense moments, and effectively brings the gritty realism of noir to the logical conclusions that traditional noir was barred from portraying.
The best example may be the famous 18-minute sequence of Ray disposing of Marty’s “dead” body. Beginning with the single shot Visser puts in Marty’s chest, causing blood to ooze down, and eventually form a large puddle at his feet, the Coens hold on every moment, pouring more dread into each elongated second as Ray attempts to piece everything together. The entire sequence plays out in complete silence, except for a sudden jolt when Ray realizes that Marty is still barely clinging onto life. The whole scene culminates in Ray unable to consciously deal the final blow, and opting to end Marty’s suffering slowly by burying him alive instead. The petrifying anguish of the scene sticks with us like an agonizing nightmare, and the seemingly endless amount of blood spattered throughout mirrors the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
The effectiveness of this killing is chilling in a way that could never be depicted in the time of the Production Code. Those restrictions diminished the potential of the stark realism noir was meant to portray, as can be seen in a similar scene from Out of the Past (1947). The death and subsequent burial of the Fisher character is entirely done off-screen. While the emotional impact of the scene is preserved, one can imagine its effectiveness could only be heightened if not for the stifling restrictions imposed at the time.
The Coens continually claim they had no idea what they were doing when they set out to make Blood Simple. Whenever the film is brought up in interviews with them, there’s always an amusing story highlighting their inexperience. Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld said: “We all felt we could have done a better job: the pacing is too slow, and I could have shot it better. These days, we’d do it for 10 times the price, and it would be 8% better.” Despite their pessimistic attitude towards the film, the artistic intent shines through the sophomoric mistakes they dwell upon. An argument could be made that the slow pace and amateur cinematography are crucial components that ground the film in the gritty realism of a noir landscape. It comes as no surprise the Coens are more critical of their first project comparatively to the rest of their filmography, but to say they had no idea what they were doing is absurd at best.
The intentional artistic decisions made clearly demonstrate an understanding of the material needed to craft an atypical neo-noir film. Blood Simple is at once an unmistakably dark noir film, while managing to be different in ways that break conventions of the style. The Coens’ talent for weaving noir elements into even their most ridiculous films exposes their unparalleled understanding for the style, and this prowess is still best exemplified in Blood Simple. Other neo-noirs to come such as L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Usual Suspects (1995) also deserve their share of celebration, but they lack the creative departure from the style that makes Blood Simple such a success. The film remains a shining example of creativity in simplicity, a feat rarely matched within the style.