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This article was published 26/12/2008 (4040 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is a film noir for devotees. This latest picture by moviemaking aces Joel and Ethan Coen should appeal mightily to anyone who likes the classic old American crime story: the crisp, smart, brutal storytelling in the novels of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, or in vintage '40s thrillers like "Double Indemnity," "Detour" or "Out of the Past."
Cain is the main model here. Like his novels "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," this is the story of an ordinary guy who becomes ensnared in evil and crime. Set in 1949 in Santa Rosa, Calif. which was also the site of Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" the Coens' film is both a loving re-creation and a witty re-jiggering of '40s noir. Like Hitch's movie, it's a portrait not especially violent, but seething with angst and menace of a quiet, unexceptional small-town life that suddenly turns mean and dangerous.
"The Man" of the title is a taciturn barber named Ed Crane, a chain-smoking middle-class loser trapped in a joyless existence, who narrates the story of his own downfall in a flat, toneless voice so empty of emotion it can chill you with nameless dread.
Ed is a role that Billy Bob Thornton beautifully underplays. He suggests what Humphrey Bogart might have done with milquetoast roles. In fact, with Thornton's dark complexion, sad eyes, fedora and constant cigarette, he often looks and sounds like a suburbanite Bogey, robbed of his energy and his irony.
Ed is one of those people so freakily detached from life that everyone else usually ignores him which never seems to bother him. People talk at him, through him or right by him as he cuts hair expertly at the barbershop of his endlessly talkative brother-in-law, Frank Raffo (Michael Badalucco) and then goes home to his faithless and contemptuous wife, Doris (Frances McDormand). He even sits placidly at regular dinners where the Cranes' main guest is Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), Doris' employer and lover, accompanied by Dave's wife, Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz). (The Nirdlingers own the clothing stores where Dave is the boss and Doris is the bookkeeper.) Ed is perfectly aware of his cuckoldry but oblivious.
One person who doesn't ignore Ed is a squirmy, fast-talking itinerant little customer named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito, the pint-size gangster of "Miller's Crossing"). Tolliver doffs his toupee at Raffo's barbershop and later not only offers Ed a tasty business proposition to become his silent partner in a new, trendsetting string of dry-cleaning emporiums but even makes a flirty pass at the long-chaste Ed in Tolliver's fleabag little hotel room. ("You're out of line, mister," Ed reacts tonelessly, but the pass doesn't stop the deal.)
This financial temptation proves to be the loose string that unravels all their lives. Ed promises Tolliver his $5,000 seed money, a sum he intends to get by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave over Dave's adulterous affair. What follows is a succession of catastrophes that spill out with the relentless inevitability of circus clowns tumbling out of a Volkswagen: murder, embezzlement, mad love, guilty secrets, disappearance, disgrace and arrest (not necessarily in that order), and a spectacular trial where Sacramento's hottest, glibbest and greediest lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), takes center stage.
You probably don't need to be told that the postman will ring more than twice here. So we'll leave most of the rest of the details to the movie, save one other significant development. During the course of his foray into crime and business, Ed falls in love with teen-age neighbor Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), who rends his heart when he hears her practicing a Beethoven piano sonata at Dave's store. Birdy isn't very good but even indifferently played Beethoven is a cultural beacon in the darkness that surrounds Ed and all the others. Still, there's a mystery. Why does Ed fall for Birdy after he plunges into his private hell? In most classic noirs, she would have been the cause of his downfall.
The Coens have made three other noirs: "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing" and "Fargo." But this movie is the first they've done in the classic post-expressionist visual style: black and white, deep shadows, threatening angles. Set in the immediate postwar era, in the same year that "Criss Cross," "Caught" and "Gun Crazy" were all released, it's been lit and shot by the Coens' great cinematographer Roger Deakins in an amazing replica of the old bleak noir visual style. Meanwhile, Thornton narrates in the terse, no-frills tones of writers like Thompson and Cain.
Yet "The Man Who Wasn't There" is also a deliberate departure, as modern a take on noir as Godard's "Breathless" and Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player" were in the early '60s. The photography, shot on Technicolor stock with modern equipment, has more richness and softness. It's closer to "Breathless" than to "Double Indemnity." And though the film is obviously a pastiche of Cain's kind of story, the Coens have an enlarged perspective. Cain was a favorite writer of the French existentialist novelist Albert Camus. In a way, Camus' most famous novel, "The Stranger," is his version of a James M. Cain story. And "The Man Who Wasn't There" is obviously the work of writers who know Camus as well as Cain, and who also know the reasons why film noir today is considered art and not trash.
Like all the Coens' movies, "Man" is supremely self-aware and darkly, hellishly funny. It's also brilliantly written and acted to a fare-thee-well by an outrageously good cast. Everyone in the cast including newcomer Adam Alexi-Malle as a prima donna piano teacher, and all the smaller role-players seems unimprovable. (Gandolfini is at his absolute non-"Sopranos" best.)
But, perhaps thanks to Thornton and McDormand, who bring startling levels of repressed feeling to their seemingly taciturn roles, this is also a sad film. It has an almost cosmic melancholy. The Coens' most typical themes are stupidity, self-delusion and mischance, and they can regard them either affectionately, as they did in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" or ferociously and comically as they do in "Blood Simple" and "Fargo." "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a bit of both. Like its anti-hero Ed, it's soft-spoken and full of fear; it keeps us uneasily awaiting the postman's last ring.
"The Man Who Wasn't There"
Directed by Joel Coen; written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes (a Coen pseudonym), Tricia Cooke; production designed by Dennis Gassner; music by Carter Burwell; produced by Ethan Coen. A USA Films release; opens Friday, Nov. 2. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: R (a scene of violence).
Ed Billy Bob Thornton
Doris Frances McDormand
Big Dave James Gandolfini
Frank Michael Badalucco
Ann Nirdlinger Katherine Borowitz
Creighton Tolliver Jon Polito
Birdy Abundas Scarlett Johansson
Freddy Riedenschneider Tony Shalhoub