Ethan Coen’s “A Fever In The Blood”: A darkly comic noir-ish short film by filmmaker Andrew Pulver

By on October 30, 2015

Andrew Pulver’s brilliant little short film A Fever In The Blood — about a private eye named Victor Shapiro, who gets his ear bitten off in an alley fight and then must re-adjust to working as “hearing-impaired” detective — was adapted from a darkly comic noir-ish short story written by Ethan Coen, one-half of the Coen Brothers. We’re happy to provide an excerpt from the original story with the kind permission of the publisher, HarperCollins.

Pulver’s twelve-minute short won the Kodak Award at the Cannes Film Festival: Best Short Film, in 2002. It also features three songs by Barry Adamson (ex-Magazine, Visage, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). Photos by costume designer Rebecca Gore.

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Ethan Coen’s stories are just as clever as you’d expect from the co-screenwriter and producer (with his brother Joel) of movies like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and so many others.

“A Fever In The Blood” was always one of our favorites, and was originally published in Vanity Fair magazine in 1998, perfectly capturing the distinctly noir-ish first-person narrative of soft-boiled private investigators of the 1940s and 50s.

Coen’s story gets underway during an alleyfight between P.I. Victor Strang (changed to Shapiro for Pulver’s short film) and a mobster were learn later is named Johnny Marchetta. Victor wins the fight, taking out Marchetta with the roaring revolver in his hand, but he loses an ear, and when he wakes up in a hospital bed, he learns that the trauma of having his ear chomped off in the fight has caused a psychosomatic deafness in his other ear.

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An excerpt from Ethan Coen’s “A Fever In The Blood”:

I moved my head, dozed. Still warm. I opened my eyes.

Sunlight was streaming in the window. The white room was still quiet, quiet on top of quiet.

I said it, not knowing whether I said it aloud. “I am deaf.”

The doctor, sitting beside my bed, holding a notepad in his lap, nodded.

I felt my voice rumble through my throat. “Why? Why? The bastard in the alley only got one ear.”

The doctor wrote on his notepad and handed it to me.

“Nothing organically wrong with your left ear. Psychological deafness. Hysterical reaction. Not uncommon after severe bodily trauma.”

At least he could hear me.

I looked around the room. A white-haired guy was in the next bed, staring at me. His hands were shaking. One good sneeze would kill him.

The doctor touched my arm and showed me the pad.

“That’s Mr. Nardiello. He used to be a very important businessman.” The doctor smiled.

“Where’s the nurse?”

The doctor looked at me funny. Then he wrote, “She asked to be transferred to another ward.”

Huh.

I said, “Will I have to learn Braille?”

He shook his head no. Of course not.

I’m not such a big reader anyway.

Two policemen were in the room.

They showed me their badges. They wrote questions about the bastard. They asked me if I’d been working on a case, so they must have gone through my things and found my P.I.’s license. I told them no, that I’d never seen the guy before. They wrote that his name was Johnny Marchetta, that he’d been one of Ray Scalese’s punks, all of which was news to me. I couldn’t tell them anything and they didn’t much care; my ear made it justifiable homicide open and shut. They asked me if I had any idea why he’d bitten it off. I told them no, which was the truth at the time. I didn’t know then that it was something in the Marchetta blood.

The doctor couldn’t tell me how long I’d be deaf. The right ear was a total loss, but the left ear was mental, and about the mind you can never tell. The doctor suggested I take the sign-language course at the Y. Finger waving. Fat chance. Bad enough I couldn’t even hear myself talk. All the deaf people I ever heard, they sound like Gomer Pyle on downers. The doctor gave me the name of a psychiatrist he said might be able to help me hear. Yeah. Probably his brother-in-law. I was just happy to leave the bonehouse.

I watched a lot of television. The high point of the day was the captioned news. Sometimes I’d go for long walks in the park. When I saw people staring at me I knew I’d been singing. One day I got hit in the head with a Frisbee. I turned around and saw a kid running towards me, holding his hands up, saying something. I beat the hell out of him.

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The book jacket describes the story this way: “Meet Victor Strang, a hapless private investigator who gets one ear bitten off in a vicious attack and loses hearing in the other from the trauma. Struggling to make sense of his life (as well as interpret his surreal dreams of the Pope lifting weights), he visits a psychiatrist. But what good is therapy when you can’t hear what your shrink is saying?”

Along the way, Strang learns he’s going to have to adapt to this new disability and develop a specialized little rep off the “windings and goofballs and dumbskies” he expects might walk in his door to his office, the door with the words “hearing impaired” now stenciled on the pebbled-glass between his name and his occupation.

One of those new clients even turns out to be a blind man who must use Strang’s manual Underwood to communicate, typing out that his wife is cheating on him. That is, once he has his fingers on the right keys.

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“A Fever In The Blood” is currently available in a collection of Coen’s wonderful and mostly darkly comic short stories, Gates Of Eden (HarperCollins, 2008).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.