As far as indicators of things to come are concerned, Blood Simple has everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers right there in the opening. Okay, maybe not everything — after all, daring to think you’ve nailed down the Coens is, as critic David Edelstein put it, “a sure way of looking like an ass.” The most immediate hallmark is a somewhat superficial one, what with Blood Simple sporting the same exact opening (drawling narration over barren establishing shots) as later Coen films The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men. But from there, the way light and shadow pass through Blood Simple serves as a solid marker of the artistry for which the first-time filmmakers would someday be known.
After the opening narration, credits roll over Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) having a conversation in the car at night. The credits don’t roll, actually, but flash brightly whenever passing headlights illuminate the car’s interior. The pair have a cryptic conversation about Abby leaving Marty (Dan Hedaya) to be with Ray, and in the next scene they’re rolling around in a motel room bed, headlights from the highway still illuminating them briefly.
The net effect is nearly kaleidoscopic, and paired with the sound design (the music subtly mimicking wipers on a windshield) Blood Simple‘s opening achieves a numbing effect that sets the tone for the remainder of the film. But light and shadow are thematic, too, with Abby and Ray’s fling seemingly successful only under cover of darkness. Marty’s watching, though, via a sleazy private investigator, and those brief flashes of light give Abby and Ray away: one of them is the flash of a camera.
It’s tough not to notice how the pair are framed in shadow throughout the rest of the film:
In the sequence below, Abby can only track Ray’s movements through the light under the slit of the door, a device which would return under maximum tension in No Country for Old Men:
Light plays into Blood Simple‘s editing, too. With action provided as Abby moves out of and back into the frame, the Coens save a cut and show the passage of time by simply leaving the camera where it is through an accelerated, seconds-long sunrise:
Later, approaching the midway point of the film, the same exact thing happens again. But this time when Abby moves away from the window, a streetlight illuminates the Beetle from the first scene:
Diegetic light —often from car headlights, streetlights, the neon glare of a barroom — is probably as prevalent as traditional film lighting in Blood Simple, most apparently in shots like this:
The two most notable sequences in the film — Ray trying to kill Marty and Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) trying to kill Abby — rely almost entirely on diegetic light and shadow to build suspense and direct the attention of both the viewer and the characters:
Another pair of headlights approaching down the freeway draws Ray’s attention in this scene, and ours, in a precursor to a nearly-identical scene in Fargo:
But the pièce de résistance is Blood Simple‘s climax. Abby and Ray’s relationship being threatened in the daylight is made explicit, as Visser hunts the pair (half-successfully) with the aid of a single lightbulb:
The gruesome impalement of Visser’s hand steals a lot of Blood Simple‘s thunder, but the immediate result of that event — shafts of light bursting violently through bullet holes in a wall — essentially became an established film noir trope after the Coens did it here:
Inasmuch as “neo-noir” refers simply to a revival of the classic film genre, Blood Simple pays homage to the black-and-white era of hardboiled crime by leaning so heavily on light and shadow as storytelling tools. This Director Series will likely return to the Coens’ use of lighting, particularly in the black-and-white Man Who Wasn’t There and their frequent collaborations with cinematographer Roger Deakins. The characters they would go on to create may largely be dim bulbs, but the interplay of light and dark would continue to muddle the morals of those characters. Their second and third films, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, would solidify those themes. But even judging from Blood Simple alone, the future of Coen was bright.