2 BROTHERS PASS FILM TEST : By MICHAEL LONDON, Times Staff Writer

Midnight has struck in a small rented house atop the hills of Silver Lake, and the Coen brothers of Minneapolis are Trying to Explain It.

Their last extended stay in Los Angeles was a bust. Film makers Joel and Ethan spent the summer of '84 trying to interest studios in distributing "Blood Simple," a brazenly off-kilter murder tale set in deepest, darkest Texas. They also watched the film get lost amid the hundreds of offerings at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, which played "Blood Simple" on a weekday afternoon in July opposite three other pictures.

Then came September and the Toronto film festival, where independent distributors picked up the "Blood Simple" scent. And the New York Film Festival, where the movie was a critical and public hit in October. At Utah's United States Film Festival, the Coens won grand-prize honors. By the time the movie opened in New York in January, publications from Vanity Fair to USA Today, from the New York Times to the New York Post, were racing to print reviews and feature stories likening "Blood Simple" to the early works of Spielberg, Welles and, above all, Hitchcock.

"That really got our mother steamed," said Ethan in a habitual cryptic mumble. "She's a big fan of Hitchcock."

"Good reviews are nice," said Joel, the interpreter, "but it's a little off the wall to compare people who've made one movie with someone who consistently made masterpieces over 40 years."

"Also," Ethan said, "between the two of us, I don't think we weigh as much as him."

Joel, 30, and Ethan, 27, have a lot in common: wire-rim glasses, Camel Lights, deadpan humor and the habit of finishing each other's sentences, like twins with a private language.

Joel, the director, studied film at New York University and has unkempt, black wavy hair. Ethan, the producer, studied philosophy at Princeton and has unkempt, brown curly hair. The New York-based duo wrote "Blood Simple" together and plan to continue collaborating because, as they're fond of saying, "two heads are better than none."

What the Coens call the "East Coast overhype" on "Blood Simple" has left them bashful, bemused and a bit wary of a backlash. "We've already resigned ourselves to the fact that the only favorable review on our next film will probably come from Stanley Kauffman, who creamed this one," Joel said.

The Coens point out that several reviewers credited "Blood Simple" with inside jokes and hommages involving film noir thrillers that the brothers had never seen, much less hommaged. They say their "formative" influence was less Hitchcock than one Mel Jass, the huckster-host of a late-night movie show on Twin Cities television called "Epic Theatre." "The first two times I saw '8 1/2,' it was introduced by Mel Jass," Ethan said, with reverence.

The specific roots of "Blood Simple" were literary. The title is Dashiell Hammett's term for the panic that grips a murderer after a crime. The basic story elements--a murder, a romantic triangle and a boorish detective (played by veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh, in a memorable mustard-yellow leisure suit)--came from pulp fiction.

But it was the storytelling style of James M. Cain that provided the blueprint for "Blood Simple" and the source of its dark comedy. "We felt it was more interesting if the audience knew every step of the way what was happening while the characters didn't," Joel explained.

"Actually," Ethan said, "we just wanted to avoid that dull part at the end where one character explains everything."

The Coens found most of their cast among stage-trained talent in New York, and then shot in Texas. The $1.5-million budget was raised privately, mostly from doctors, lawyers and businessmen in Minneapolis. The film makers spent a frustrating year knocking on doors with their script and a sample reel.

"Tell me, why should I invest in this movie?" asked one unconvinced target. Replied the Coens, with typical aplomb: "If you don't, someone else will have to." (Someone else did have to.)

Their domestic and foreign distribution deals have already covered the investments "on paper," Joel said. Box-office returns--the film is a big hit in New York and has since opened well in several cities--should produce a profit.

Just six months ago, they were accepting the notion that the film might not be distributed at all. When they shopped it to the major studios, they heard the same line everywhere: "Blood Simple" was too "arty" for the exploitation crowd, too bloody for the "art" crowd.

The Coens argued back that the film was a thriller intended for everyone. "Art audiences jump just like Times Square audiences," Ethan said. "The only conceivable difference is that art audiences feel guilty after they jump."

The irony for the Coens: While marketing executives were saying no to "Blood Simple," their counterparts in production could barely suppress their enthusiasm. For several months, recalls one studio executive, "every production chief in town was going home early to watch the film on his VCR."

Those executives aggressively courted the Coens for future projects. "There's a naive question that runs through your mind," Ethan recalled with a grin. " 'You guys didn't like this one, so what makes you think you'll like the next one any better?' "

The Coens eventually signed a distribution deal with New York's Circle Releasing Corp. Circle is interested in financing the next undertaking by the Coens, who say that they have no desire to work under a studio "umbrella."

"It's not that we have any philosophical or ethical objections to Hollywood," Joel said. "It's just a question of control. We got spoiled on 'Blood Simple' because we had 60-some investors who were legally prohibited from interfering by the terms of a limited partnership."

During "Blood Simple" the Coens also collaborated with director Sam Raimi on the script for "The XYZ Murders," as-yet unreleased by Embassy Pictures. Raimi is the Coens' only close compatriot in the industry; he gave Joel one of his first jobs--as assistant editor of "The Evil Dead"--and now shares the Coens' Silver Lake home-away-from-home, along with "Blood Simple" lead actress Frances McDormand.

The brothers are nearing completion on the screenplay for their next film, which director John Landis has expressed interest in producing. They describe it as a screwball comedy set in the 1950s New York business world.

Why the '50s? "Because everyone dressed real sharp and talked real fast, as opposed to 'Blood Simple' where they talk slow and dress like slobs," Ethan explained.

Added Joel, with mock hauteur, as if anticipating the reviews: "It all takes place in a skyscraper, which makes it a vertical film, unlike 'Blood Simple,' which has all those horizontal Texas scenes."

Ethan pondered for a moment, searching for a topper. "Actually, what we did was go through the 'Blood Simple' script, line for line, and choose the antonym of every word. It's a total departure."

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