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The Man Who Wasn't There

From Academic Kids

The Man Who Wasn't There is a 2001 Neo-noir film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Billy Bob Thornton stars in the title role. Also featured are James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, and Coen regulars Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, and Jon Polito.

It's also title of a French film directed by RenÚ Feret starring Feret and Claude Jade, released in 1987. Original Title: L'homme qui n'Útait pas lÓ. The crime-story based on a novel by Roderick McLeish.

Analysis

The film was inspired by a poster that the Coen brothers saw while filming The Hudsucker Proxy; the poster showed various haircuts from the 1940s. The story takes place in the 1940s and, Joel Coen admits, is "heavily influenced by" the work of James M. Cain, a pulp fiction writer most known for the stories for Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.

The cinematography is straightforward and traditional. Most shots are made with the camera at eye level, with normal lensing and a long depth of focus. The lighting is textbook, with the usual sort of quarter-light setup. The cinematography, combined with the consistent, accurate use of 1950s props and sets, could make even a careful viewer think the film was made 50 years ago. When Ed appears onscreen, he is almost always shown smoking a cigarette, another characteristic true to the era in which the film is set.

The film has several mentions of UFOs throughout it, in dreams and in conversation, as well as in various props, including an ashtray.

The story

All of the action takes place in and around Santa Rosa, California in approximately 1949, and gets much of its period feel from being filmed in black and white.

Ed Crane (Thornton), a suburban barber, is married to Doris (McDormand), a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Ed is taciturn and mellow; he says little to the people around him and typically reacts with no more than a nod, even when witnessing outlandish events. Ed provides the film's narration, starting off by explaining that he married into the barber business. His coworker and brother-in-law Frank (Badalucco) owns the barbershop, and talks incessantly.

Ed's wife works at Nirdlinger's, a local department store hoping to franchise. While at work one day, Ed is approached by Creighton Tolliver (Polito), a businessman looking for investors in a new technology called dry cleaning. Ed wants to make some money and move up in station, so he goes to the man's hotel room to talk about it. After rebuffing a pass, Ed decides he wants to invest; Tolliver is referred to throughout the rest of the film as "the pansy." Ed anonymously blackmails his wife's boss and lover "Big Dave" Brewster (Gandolfini of The Sopranos fame) for the $10,000 needed to invest. Big Dave delivers the money without seeing Ed make the pick-up.

In the noir tradition, from that point forward, nothing goes right.

Ed delivers the money to Tolliver, who subsequently disappears, leaving Ed to believe that he has been scammed. Meanwhile, Doris's alcoholism and his alienation from her are both apparent. After returning from a relative's wedding, Ed gets a call from Big Dave, who wants Ed to meet him at Nirdlinger's. Tolliver had also approached Brewster, asking him for $10,000. Thinking it too much of a coincidence that he was asked for the same sum of money he was blackmailed for, Brewster tracked the man down and beat a confession out of him. Enraged that he approached Ed for consolation about being blackmailed, and that Ed told him to pay the money, Brewster attacks Ed and begins to strangle him. Ed stabs him in the neck with a cigar cutter and Brewster dies. Ed goes home, where his wife is passed out still from her drinks at the wedding. He sits beside her, thinking about how they met.

Shortly thereafter, Doris is arrested for the murder of Big Dave. The police have examined Nirdlinger's books, discovered several irregularities, and suspect Doris, since she kept the books. Ed's brother-in-law mortgages the barbershop to pay for the best lawyer available, Freddy Riedenschneider (Shalhoub). In a conference with Riedenschneider and Ed's wife, Ed tells Riedenschnedier that he killed Nirdlinger, but the lawyer thinks Ed is simply covering for his wife and that the story would never stand up in court since their only alibi is each other. He works out an elaborate plan for Doris's defense, involving the uncertainty principle and various other tangents, all bizarre if not ingenious. On the day the trial is to start, Doris is late, and so is the judge. When the judge arrives, he calls the counsel to the bench and dismisses the case. Doris has committed suicide.

Ed visits Birdy Abundas (Johansson), a friend's teenage daughter. The girl is a pianist; Ed wants to pay for her to have lessons. Driving her back from an unsuccessful attempt to impress a piano teacher, the girl makes a pass at Ed and is rather insistent about it, unzipping his pants. Ed tries to stop her; the car swerves across the road and hits an oncoming car. When Ed comes to, he is being told he's under arrest. In response to his questions, the police and doctor tell him the girl has a broken clavicle but is otherwise well.

A young boy swimming in a lake discovered a car with a man inside: the "pansy." Brewster didn't simply beat a confession out of him; he killed him. In his briefcase is the contract Ed signed; the police now believe that Ed coerced his wife into embezzling the money from Nirdlinger's to use in the investment, and that Ed is the person who killed the "pansy."

Ed is arraigned for the murder and mortgages his house to re-hire Riedenschneider. His opening statement to the jury is interrupted when Ed's brother-in-law Frank attacks Ed; a mistrial is declared. With no money and nothing left to mortgage, Ed is given the lawyer Riedenschneider showed such scorn for, whom he said was good at holding his hand on clients' shoulders as they were thrown on the mercy of the court. The man does hold his hand on Ed's shoulder, and Ed is thrown on the mercy of the court--he's painted as a sociopath, remorseless, dangerous. He's sentenced to death. Ed writes his story out from his cell on death row, to sell to a tabloid magazine that pays him by the word. At the end of the film he is walked to the electric chair and strapped in, where he sits thinking about meeting his wife and possibly having the words to explain his thoughts to her.

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