Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, receives a new Blu-ray release from Criterion, making use of a new 4K restoration scanned from the original negative. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc at 1080p/24hz. The disc presents the newer 96-minute director’s cut similar to the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases from Universal and MGM.
This new transfer and restoration offers a tremendous improvement over the previous releases, the fairly noisy Universal DVD and the MGM Blu-ray, which probably used the same master as that previous DVD, though at least improved upon compression. It’s quite revelatory really just how much better this is. I found the colours and black levels were the first obvious improvements, offering better saturation, the neon lights scattered about coming off particularly brilliant. I was also impressed with how much better Walsh’s yellow jacket and pants look here as well. The film does look darker in some scenes in comparison to the MGM Blu-ray (which looks to have been brightened anyways), since certain features are more hidden in the shadows, but the blacks here are rich and deep, not crushing out details in the process, which is most important considering a lot of the film does take place in the shadows.
Detail has also been drastically improved upon and the level of clarity in every shot, long and close-up, far exceeded my expectations. Depth and textures look better because of this drastic improvement. Film grain is fine but clear and rendered naturally, looking far nicer here in comparison to MGM’s, which now looks muddy and undefined. The restoration has also cleared up blemishes and damage, and I don’t recall anything of note popping up. In the end the film now looks like it could have been made within the last year or so. It’s a spectacular looking presentation. 10/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion chooses to include a new 5.1 mix for the film, presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. This is actually an upgrade over the previous editions, which presented the audio in 2.0 stereo surround. The film’s sound design is exceptional and the track certainly does it justice. The Criterion is certainly sharper and clearer, though I don’t think it sounds too different in comparison to the old. This one definitely makes use of the discrete channel presentation and is better at directing sound, naturally, shown first off during the opening credits where passing traffic is directed more to the left of the environment. Bass is a bit more noticeable and distinct here as well, though I didn’t find it overbearing and it adds just the right ominous effect for the film.
The biggest improvement is probably found in the presentation of Carter Burwell’s score, which sounds crisp and sharp, with some wonderful range to it. It’s mixed nicely throughout the speakers as well and fills the environment beautifully. Dialogue, which sticks primarily to the fronts, most specifically the center, sounds clear and is easy to hear, the mix never drowning out dialogue.
Overall I rather liked it. It makes nice use of the surround environment and isn’t overly showy, but impresses when it needs to. I rather liked it. 8/10
The previous Universal DVD and MGM Blu-ray for the film only sported a couple of gag supplements: a fake introduction and then an audio commentary that spoofed most academic tracks, the participant (a Kenneth Loring) reading things into the film that simply weren’t there. Because of this, and the limited features present on releases for their other films, I always figured the Coens, at one point, looked down on supplementary material. With their participation on Inside Llewyn Davis and now this film (as well as appearances on other releases for their titles) it seems this either isn’t the case or they’ve turned around on the idea.
This edition drops those gag supplements but replaces them with a number of fantastic features covering the film’s production and release. The biggest surprise feature on here is the 70-minute Shooting Blood Simple, featuring Barry Sonnenfeld and the Coens. It’s not really an interview, though, but more of something along the lines of a select-scene audio commentary, with the three talking over sequences from the film covering its look, its framing, and so on. Even then, though, it’s still not a traditional commentary track. The three are also working with Telestrators, using colour-coded pens to draw over the film. This is used often but not overly so and is not a gimmick: the three use the technology to point out the framing of scenes, positioning of the camera, the use of empty space, mistakes, or to point out something specific to the viewer. Freeze-frames and replays are also employed to concentrate on certain moments (the feature also cuts away occasionally to the three in front of their stations, just “because” I guess). In all of this there are also plenty of anecdotes and other production notes with a few interesting surprises (they hired short actors to make the fire pit in the back of the bar look much bigger than it is, for example). It’s very academic and technical but is still able to be entertaining and fascinating. A very nicely put together feature.
A Conversation with David Eggers is a rather entertaining 35-minute discussion between writer David Eggers and Joel and Ethan Coen. With a few segues into some of their other work and what interests them (as well as stating their disinterest in politics, which people like to read into their films), the conversation is primarily about the film and its production. On top of talking about their horror background (they worked with Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead) and how they incorporated some of those elements into the film, the two spend a lot of time talking about the huge task of raising the money for the film, going around with their demo trailer to show off, clearly remembering many of the people that both rejected and funded them (I’m really impressed with what they remember actually). They also laugh a bit at just how green they were, admitting they were fairly clueless about certain aspects of filmmaking and recall how weird it was working with someone they had seen in the movies before (Walsh). They had issues finding a distributor until it was shown at the NYFF where it received its fair share of praise (and a pan from J. Hoberman, which the two claim to have found funny) and then an eventual release, finally getting a distributor.
The theme of the two’s inexperience carries over into the other interviews to a certain degree, with two new ones featuring Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh. McDormand recalls how she and the filmmakers worked on her “hysteria” at the end of the film, which she admits probably wouldn’t have happened with anyone else (this was her first film as well) and then Walsh talks about how untrusting he was about actually getting paid by these two newcomers (he was promised a percentage of the profits and figuring that any percent of $0.00 is $0.00, he ended up pocketing his per diem).
In each of their interviews (McDormand’s running 25-minutes and Walsh’s running 16) the two also recall getting their parts, and working with the Coens. This was of course McDormand’s first role (getting it after Holly Hunter was unable to do it) so she was obviously the more unsure, depending a lot on the new directors and making sure she wasn’t too theatrical (she suggests if her mouth is open in a scene she was working on holding herself back). Walsh admits to being unsure of them at first, doing the role more to take a stab at the Sydney Greenstreet type character and work on it (he figured no one would see the film anyways) but he worked with them, gained respect for them, and (sounding as though he was surprised) ended up liking the film.
Both interviews are good, McDormand talking about her working relationship with the two (she is, of course, also married to Joel Coen) but I admit that of the two I liked the Walsh one more. Walsh talks extensively about his career and explains why he was usually cast in a film, either because he could play beautifully off of other actors, making them look good or because the writing stunk and he can make it sound good. He also shares a couple of funny stories from the production of Blood Simple, but I was especially amused at his recollection in creating the accent for his character if only because the Coens mention in their interview they admit to not being sure, as newcomers, how to tell the professional actor not to use that accent. It’s a funny, energetic (and the guy interview and one of my favourites of the year so far.
The final interview may not be as engaging as any of the previous ones but still worth viewing. Covering the sound and music of the film, composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay talk about their experience on this film, with this being Burwell’s first film (Lievsay had done some work prior). The two talk about the film’s sound design and score, while also marrying the two. After a number of interviews that are actually fairly high energy this one is a bit more subdued but still worth watching.
The disc then closes with a collection of trailers. The fund-raising trailer—the trailer the brothers used to show prospective investors their intentions for the film—is here, highlighting a couple of key sequences in the film. It’s also noteworthy for featuring Bruce Campbell as Marty (the role that would go to Dan Hedaya). The disc also includes the original trailer and then Janus Film’s rerelease trailer. Author Nathaniel Rich then provides a short essay on the film in the included insert, going over its noir elements and the more horror elements (probably related to their work on The Evil Dead) that get worked in.
Though the essay does add the scholarly slant to the release, and the select-scene commentary is more academic in nature, I’m a bit surprised there aren’t other scholarly interviews about the film or the Coens, or even about the film’s twists on the genre (though when one considers the mocking fake-commentary on the original Blood Simple releases, it can be easy to conclude they don’t care for academic analysis). It also would have been nice to maybe get more details about the differences between this version of the film (that first appeared on the 2001 DVD) and the original theatrical version, or get more insight into why and how the Coens went about creating this edit. True, most of the trims were actually just cutting a second or two off of a number of shots, tightening it up, but a couple of lengthier sequences were excised. As it is, though, I’m happy to finally get some actual insightful material after the joke supplements of the previous editions, and all of the material here was definitely worth going through. 9/10