The Man Who Wasn't ThereOctober 26, 2001
A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife's boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong.
Release Year: 2001
Rating: 7.7/10 (51,428 voted)
Critic's Score: 73/100
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco
1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen.
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Billy Bob Thornton
Big Dave Brewster
Ann Nirdlinger Brewster
The New Man
The last thing on his mind is murder.
Release Date: 26 October 2001
Filming Locations: Glendale, California, USA
Box Office Details
Opening Weekend: £419,609
(28 October 2001)
(24 February 2002)
Did You Know?
In the scene with Ed Crane at the French piano teacher's studio (Jacques Carcanogues), the actor portraying him, Adam Alexi-Malle, plays the opening of the Piano Concerto #1 by Franz Liszt. This was unplanned and spontaneous during one of the takes during shooting as the Coens were unaware that Adam was in fact an accomplished concert pianist.
In the fight between Ed and Dave, Ed is thrown to the ground. To his right is a three-prong electrical socket, not introduced until much later.
Yeah, I worked in a barbershop, but I never considered myself a barber. I stumbling into it. Or married into it, more precisely.
Black and White and Gray All Over
Billy Bob Thornton has the perfect face for film noir. His craggy, drawn
features lead up to sunken but large and staring eyes, and cheeks that
to be made out of plaster. Particularly when shot in black and white, his
face becomes a landscape of shifting shadows, while he doesn't move a
muscle. He is able to give the impression of a man at war with himself
while sitting perfectly still and staring ahead. He's Jeremy Irons, only
without that unsettling accent. The Coen brothers take great advantage of
their stars' granite physiognomy throughout "The Man That Wasn't There,"
constructing several shots around Thornton staring into a point just
slightly away from the camera, impassive as an Easter Island head, moving
only to smoke an ever-present cigarette while the obligatory noir
narration runs. His voice is perfect, too: a kind of calm, measured
rumbling, which describes incredible events but never seems amazed by
Thornton says "I don't talk much," and it's true: he doesn't do much
but he is still fascinating, and commands our attention.
The Coens take great relish in the noir conventions, even beyond the 1940s
setting and the black and white photography (let's face it, we're so used
'40s movies in black and white that color would look a little weird). The
story follows classic lines (with a few wild divergences): Thornton's
character is a barber in one of those small postwar California towns that
Hitchcock was so enamored of. He comes up with a scheme to raise some
money, which naturally spins a little beyond what he anticipated. That's
all I can say in good conscience, and the plot goes pretty far afield (I
mean REALLY far afield, catering to fans both of Dashiell Hammett and
vs. the Flying Saucers"). But really, you know what to expect, if you've
ever seen one of these movies before: greed, dark secrets, and murder, in
world of fedoras, cigarette smoke, snapping lighters, and deep moral
turpitude. A world where nothing or no one is what they seem, and the
sure thing is that, in the end, some sap is gonna get it.
As good as Thornton is, he can't carry the movie alone. Fortunately, he
surrounded by a top-notch cast, including a lot of familiar Coen veterans,
and it is this that really makes this movie work. Michael Badalucco puts
a hilarious turn as Thornton's gabby brother-in-law, Frances McDormand is
effective in her relatively few scenes as his brittle wife, and James
Gandolfini plays yet another boorish tough guy to a turn. Practically
shoplifting the movie is Tony Shalhoub, playing a fast-talking Sacramento
lawyer who doesn't so much speak as summate. His discussion of Heisenberg
is almost worth the ticket price alone. Christopher Kriesa and Brian
get a lot of mileage out of their brief appearances as a pair of slightly
dim cops (aren't they all in these movies?)
Joel Coen, who directed, makes sure that the movie is consistently
interesting to watch, too. Black and white photography being mostly about
shades of gray, noir is perhaps the only genre that benefits from the
relative primitiveness of its visual technology. Coen, therefore, sticks
with it, unlike the colors he used in the '30s themed "O Brother Where Art
Thou?" which managed to be both more fanciful and less surreal than this
movie. He uses the light-and-shadow character of black and white to great
effect here, carefully crafting his images to make best use of it. In
if the movie has a fault, it's that the images are a little TOO carefully
crafted. The purest noir was cleverly filmed, but it allowed its
to seep into the background. You have to watch a few times to pick up on
how sharp the filmmaking is. Coen is unable to hide his arty cleverness,
and so in the end, fun as it is to watch, the movie is a bit too pretty to
truly capture the essence of its forbears. Perhaps realizing this, the
Coens tweak the conventions mercilessly, and inject a streak of humor that
is funnier for being played so straight (there are lots of funny lines,
don't be surprised if you are the only one in the theater laughing.
Actually, don't be surprised if you are the only one in the theater,
period.) The movie does require a bit of patience; the pacing is intense
but quite slow, and the story wanders like a drunk driver. In the end, it
is somewhat debatable whether the twisty plot is fully resolved, or
that even matters. "The Man That Wasn't There" is best viewed as a wicked
cinematic joke, and in that regard, it succeeds, in (Sam)
But what do I know? I'm just some sap.