This Day In History: January 18

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The hard-boiled, often gruesome black comedy Blood Simple, the debut offering from the Minnesota-born brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, premieres on January 18, 1985. The film told the story of Julian Marty (played by Dan Hedaya), a bar owner who hires a private detective (M. Emmett Walsh) to follow his wife (Frances McDormand). When the detective finds out that Marty’s wife is two-timing him with a handsome bartender (John Getz), Marty hires the detective to kill the pair.

The offspring of two university professors, Joel and Ethan Coen were just 29 and 26 years old, respectively, when they made Blood Simple. They wrote the screenplay together, and Joel, a graduate of New York University’s film school, was given a director credit while Ethan served as the producer. (At the time, guild rules prohibited giving a joint directing credit; on their later films, the brothers are both listed as directors.) Blood Simple was also the first film featuring the work of the cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who later became a noted director (Men in Black) himself, and of McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife (they married in 1984).

Shot in Texas on a low budget, mostly with money from Minneapolis investors, Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, which had recently been taken over by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and is now held in Park City, Utah, every January. Building on the buzz of that award, the entertainment media went crazy over the two young brothers, comparing their debut with the work of such luminaries as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was one of the dissenting voices amid the praise, writing that “Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes. Blood Simple has no openness–it doesn’t breathe.”

After writing the screenplay for the Sam Raimi-directed thriller Crimewave, the Coens returned to directing with the outlandish comedy Raising Arizona (1987), which had a lighter tone than Blood Simple and appealed more to a mass audience. After Barton Fink (1991) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the brothers raised their profile (while preserving their offbeat, gruesome sense of style) with the success of Fargo (1996), which earned McDormand an Oscar, for Best Actress, and the Coens another, for Best Original Screenplay. 

Though movies like the cult hit The Big Lebowski (1998) and O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) earned praise from critics and the devotion of Coen fans, their next several films, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) failed to impress either group. In 2007, however, the Coens returned with their most critically acclaimed success yet, the gritty Western No Country for Old Men, starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations and won four Oscars, including statues for the Coens for Best Director (they were the first directing team ever to win an Academy Award), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Bardem took home the fourth gold statuette, for Best Supporting Actor. 

The brothers' later films include Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Hail, Caesar! (2016) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), which earned three Academy Award nominations.