Film Noir as Black Comedy

by Kevin Curtis

Illustration by Brianna Ashby

Illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I remember the New York Film Festival where Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise premiered. All of a sudden the Coen Brothers get up on stage, and I recognize them from my local supermarket…I was like, “Oh my God, it’s those stoners from the neighborhood!”– Ted Hope

A good title for a memoir of my wayward intellectual youth would have to be “I Was a Teenage Postmodernist!” It would be both a confession and an apologia for my ironic detachment in those days, although in a sense I am not sorry. My life back then was an inaction-packed adventure in hyperreality where I devoured theory and media like a pretentious fiend. I wound up in a cultural studies program in college writing academic essays on the existentiovoyeuristic conunundra of Spaceballs and David Letterman. I think I might have even used the word “filmic” once or twice.

The Coen Brothers, a pair of sly semioticians obsessed with philosophy and vulgar modernism, inspired and exhilarated me in those formative years. Their work imagines an intertextual realm where pop culture collapses in upon itself, creating a spastic vortex. They present fantastical worlds onscreen that don’t actually exist and could only be brought to life as a movie. Perhaps the Coens represent a cockamamie form of pure cinema in the vein of animation, with representations and signifiers stretching beyond the infinite.

Coen Brothers’ movies aren’t meant for those who use terms like “cartoon” or “comic book” contemptuously. The Coens are lowbrows with big ideas, intellectuals who are suckers for a cheap gag, deviant pranksters who blend high and low culture without discrimination. The result onscreen is a mutated alloy of playful pastiche and self-reflexive non-sequiturs. Whether you want to write off their work as absurdist riffs on stale conventions, self-conscious condescension, or smug simulacra, the Coens warp time and space in their movies, generating something altogether new through smart ass cinematic alchemy. Engaging with their films is a crash course in ridiculous metaphysics.

Blood Simple, their 1984 debut feature, is an anomaly amongst 1980s independent filmmaking. Sharing the first wave indie kiddie pool with Jim Jarmusch, Erroll Morris, Spike Lee, John Sayles, Hal Hartley, and Lizzie Borden–filmmakers that radically departed from Hollywood aesthetics–the Coens still emerged as the odd men out. Their entertainingly irreverent movies made no substantive references to politics or social issues. Rather than dismissing popular conventions, the Coens chose to forgo the avant-garde and embraced the rules of the game. Blood Simple might not pack the punch of, say, The Thin Blue Line getting an innocent man off death row, the portrayal of a bloody coal miners’ strike in Matewan, or the racial commentary of She’s Gotta Have It, but what more did you want from a noir knockoff? The Coens had the audacity to adopt commercialism instead of shunning it, creating a godforsaken soul-sucking commodity informed by time-tested, mainstream subject matter. For a movie financed entirely outside the studio system (mostly from a consortium of Midwestern dentists), Blood Simple is grounded in the basest of genre conventions. It seems almost too familiar, with clichéd iconography and musty conventions more generic than genre.

In Blood Simple, the formalist noir setting seems, at first, firmly intact. The movie appears to be a faithful replication of the code—in line with neo-noirs like Chinatown, Body Heat, or The Last Seduction—but something altogether different is happening here, something downright silly. All the basic conventions are present: chiaroscuro lighting carved out of shadow, shifty private detective, love triangle, double cross, femme fatale, moral ambiguity, nihilist sense of impending doom, girl and a gun, et cetera, et cetera. It should just be regurgitated pulp fiction straight from the dime store, yet when you look beyond the genre trappings, Blood Simple has some genuinely weird footnotes sprinkled throughout, mocking comments scribbled in the margins of the text. It is the product of ironic artists that can’t keep a straight face while spinning their yarn.

Abby and Ray are the doomed lovers at the epicenter of forces beyond their comprehension. Through dramatic irony, the characters are unaware of the true powers manipulating them; the audience watches them squirm like insects beneath a lifted rock. Abby is married to Marty, who owns the bar where Ray works. Marty is a control freak and, perhaps, mentally ill (at least according to Abby’s version of the events, before she and Ray hop in the sack). Marty hires a PI to tail them (the original private detective in a Volkswagen Beetle) and, when he learns of their adulterous affair, he hires the investigator to kill them. The PI eventually betrays him and Marty winds up buried in a shallow grave. The whole movie leads up to a final shoot-out that is essentially an excuse for some gory effects and a bit of snazzy cinematography, involving streams of light cascading through bullet holes (film school!). I’m uncertain what was more painful to watch: the grisly footage of M. Emmet Walsh's bloody hand impaled by a twisting knife or a photo of a shirtless Dan Hedaya. The Coens did leave out one important detail, though: any sincere reason to care about these characters or their fates. They are mostly tired archetypes with little or no backstory, the script is more half-baked than hard-boiled, the plot is unoriginal, and the movie has no real depth—but the damn derivative thing still works.

The Coens’ oddball sensibility shatters the somber tone of standard noir by undercutting the movie’s dramatic tension with shades of irreverent humor. The overly-stylized world onscreen, with its stark shadows and barren landscapes, is just a tad askew. Something is slightly off-kilter in this simulation of Texas with its oil wells, cowboy hats, good ol' boys, affected Southern drawls, and honkytonks with ridiculous names like Neon Boots. Yosemite Sam might as well make an appearance. There are also more than a few self-conscious sight gags, like the moment when the camera glides across a bar at a road house, lifts itself over a passed out drunk, and then resumes its original level before proceeding further, calling attention to itself as a blatant cinematic device. After a knee to the groin, Marty’s vomit is spewed directly at the camera. The shaky-cam Joel Coen helped operate on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead makes a guest appearance during a fight sequence.

More interested in mise-en-scene than humanity, Blood Simple is a damn good thesis project that mostly succeeds despite its wooden characters, flat acting, and hackneyed tropes. It could be considered an exercise, but watching someone on the treadmill can be fascinating and hilarious under the right circumstances (see Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading). The darkly comic interjections breathe life into an otherwise stale movie: Ray’s car stalling out at Marty’s grave, a bored MC droning on at a strip club, a bug zapper that fries a fly as Marty plots to kill Abby and Ray, a paperboy delivering a newspaper that rings out like a gunshot, or the sublime instance when Ray can’t bring himself to bludgeon Marty to death with a shovel, so does the next most humane thing, and buries him alive. Sheer ludicrousness hovers over the characters’ heads every bit as much as the blade-like ceiling fans so prominently featured in the movie. With Blood Simple, the farcical, plagiaristic template for many future Coen Brothers movies is still in its infancy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of Ethan Coen’s thesis at Princeton, once wrote, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Perhaps the Coen Brothers set out to create serious movies but, due to their haphazard philosophy, a demented carbon copy palimpsest is unveiled instead. Attempting to find a deeper meaning to Blood Simple, or any Coen Brothers movie for that matter, is almost to miss the point entirely – it offers no resolution and no positivity, a truly absurd conclusion. Watching Blood Simple again for the first time in more than a decade, I was surprised to find that some of the music cues were changed from the version I watched years ago. “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops was reinstated in the movie since copyright issues had been settled. It replaced a Neil Diamond cover of the Monkees’ bubblegum hit “I’m a Believer.” I found it appropriate that “I’m a Believer” was gone from the movie because having seen nearly every damn movie they’ve ever made, it seems to me that the Coen Brothers believe in nothing.

That must be exhausting...and exhilarating.


Kevin Curtis studied film at NYU and lives in Baltimore with his wife. His movie reviews have appeared in Reverse Shot. He is currently writing a novel.