Monday, December 6, 2010
The title is taken from Dashiell Hammett's (my favorite author) novel Red Harvest, and it refers to the stupid mindset people can find themselves in after prolonged exposure to violence. They get jumpy, they get dumb, they get...well, simple. Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) are secret lovers, trying their best to hid the fact from Julian (Dan Hedaya), Abby's husband and Ray's boss. They don't realize that Julian has hired a private detective, Loren (M. Emmett Walsh), to dig up the truth. And dig it up, he does. Loren takes pictures of the couple in a steamy embrace; yes, it's part of the job, but he's a dirty pervert, too, so he goes home with a smile. Not one to take cuckolding lying down, Julian makes a menacing call to the couple and then hires Loren to kill them. What follows is a game of cat and mouse, where the players aren't even sure who's hunting who.
Normally, I would go on and on about what a great actress Frances McDormand is, but the fact of the matter is that she was pretty young when this was filmed, and her performance is solid, but nothing spectacular. She certainly outshines John Getz, but I would say that her performance was about as good as Hedaya's. That's not a knock, since he plays a greasy jealous husband so well, but it's less impressive than her many later Coen Brothers roles. The star of this picture is M. Emmett Walsh, who is amazing as the sociopathic scumbag private dick/assassin. He is so sleazy, I wanted to clean my TV screen after the movie finished. Walsh is normally a decent, but not exceptional supporting player, but his nastiness here makes him one of the best noir villains I have seen. This is the first film by the Coen Brothers, and it serves as an indicator of where their careers would lead; the most stunning character was a supporting role, the cinematography was great, and the basic plot is simple, with all sorts of complications woven over it. This was obviously a low-budget film, with most of the violence implied and not seen, but when it is shown, the violence is jarring and very effective. The cinematography is very noticeable, with several shots being at extreme low angles, but it is very effective on the whole; I particularly liked the frequent zooming in on unmentioned, but important just the same, details in particular scenes. This was Barry Sonnenfeld's fist professional work (as a cinematographer --- he eventually went on to direct big movies like Men In Black), and he does a beautiful job.
This is often cited as a neo-noir, and while I usually debate the assignment of "noir" to any gritty story, it definitely is appropriate here. It's not about the feelings of the lovers, or even the hate of the jilted husband, it's about life, death, and moodiness. And I love me some noir, so that's a good thing. The movie starts out fairly quietly, but the Coens are able to grab your attention early and the succeed in ratcheting up the suspense as the film progresses. I liked that much of the story was left out of the dialogue, so the viewer had to fill in the (moderately obvious) gaps on their own. It was shot extremely well, even if some moments betrayed the amateur nature of the filmmakers. Some people argue that this is the best Coen Brothers movie, that their later work gets a little too kooky; they have a point, and this is a great movie, but "too kooky"? I don't know if the Coens have reached that point yet.