The Man Who Wasn't There

USA, 2001, 116 mins
Director: Joel Coen

In October 1942, Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to Blanche Knopf, wife and associate of his American publisher, in which he described his resentment at having ‘to ride around on [Dashiell] Hammett and James Cain, like an organ grinder’s monkey.’ Hammett is ‘all right’, he allowed, ‘but James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.’

The disingenuously fastidious Chandler wasn’t beyond writing to ‘Dear Jim’ five months later to boast of his and Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity, a task that had apparently been made harder by the need to sharpen Cain’s ‘remote’ dialogue, or so Chandler graciously informed him. The famously agonising collaboration with Wilder paid off, of course, and Double Indemnity remains one of the few noirs that is an undisputed masterpiece, despite its sentimental subplot. The musky The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), also from Cain, runs it close, and if Ossessione (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), Slightly Scarlet (1955) and the 1981 Postman remake are lesser Cain adaptations, there’s no question that the prose so reviled by Chandler makes for a potent brand of dank, carnal thriller.

The Coen brothers, whose first film Blood Simple (1983) bore Cain’s narrative imprint, have now made another movie on which Cain was apparently the prime influence. ‘Cain’s stories nearly always had as their heroes schlubs – losers, guys who were involved in rather dreary and banal existences,’ Ethan Coen has said. Accordingly, he and brother Joel made the protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There, set in the northern California town of Santa Rosa (like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) in 1949, a barber who blackmails and stabs to death the department-store boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) who has been cuckolding him. As if to underscore the Cain connection, the boss’ wife is the archly named Ann Nirdlinger – thus a cousin of Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Nirdlinger, whom Barbara Stanwyck transformed into Glendale siren Phyllis Dietrichson – and a county medical examiner is called Diedrichson.

And yet The Man Who Wasn’t There is unlike the various Cain adaptations. In making Billy Bob Thornton’s passive, asexual Ed Crane the hero, the Coens have deliberately kept the chilli powder out of what in other hands might have been a sweat-inducing stew. Early in the film Crane acknowledges in voiceover that he’s none too bothered by his wife’s adultery – ‘It’s a free country’ – and there’s a startling scene towards the close when Scarlett Johansson’s adolescent Birdy tries to thank Ed, who has attempted to sponsor her as a piano student, with a sexual favour he tenderly refuses. Imagine the worn-out Mr Dietrichson as the hero of Double Indemnity instead of Fred MacMurray’s priapic Neff, or the buffoonish Nick the Greek as the hero of the original Postman instead of John Garfield’s virile Frank, and you have a sense of the moralising effect.

Similarly Ed’s wife Doris (Frances McDormand), though promisingly glimpsed from behind as a burnished blonde snapping on a girdle in the scene that introduces her, emerges as a peculiarly dreary adulteress, one who plays bingo, says ‘Love ya, honey’ to Ed while she shaves her legs in the bath and demonstrates no particular desire for her lover. Femmes fatales are supposed to be phantasmic black widows who frequent roadhouses and bars; Doris is an enthusiastic book keeper and a sloppy drunk who eventually stings herself.

Stylistically, meanwhile, the mise en scène of The Man Who Wasn’t There has those exact aesthetic values Chandler missed in Cain’s stories: visually it’s as ‘hard and clean and cold and ventilated’ as the barber’s shop where Ed works. The black-and-white film has been photographed, cut and sound-edited to Kubrickian pristineness: it offers us trails of cigarette smoke spiralling deliberately into a back yard hymned by cicadas; the dappled effect of light shining through trees; Tony Shalhoub’s barnstorming lawyer transfixed in a vault of light as he offers some spurious wisdom; and a flying hubcap that metamorphoses fleetingly into a UFO from a Jack Arnold movie – a 3-D missile from the film’s subtextual paranoia, which destroys Doris and Big Dave and renders Ann Nirdlinger a nut but doesn’t threaten Ed’s equanimity even when he’s doomed.

If classic films noirs are febrile, there’s a case to be made that The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is languid to the point of sluggishness, is not only an anti-_noir_ – as if the Coens were trying to catch out all the film reviewers who will inevitably mislabel it – but a puritanical revision of Cain too. Cain’s paradigmatic noir stories were about the feverish desire to make a wish come true and the price that’s paid when it does. In Postman and Double Indemnity, Michael Walker has written in The Movie Book of Film Noir (1992), ‘the hero becomes so obsessed sexually by a woman that he is persuaded to murder her husband, and the noir world which he enters is psychological rather than physical, characterised above all by guilt and the fear of discovery.’ Nothing like Ed, in other words.

The somnambulistic barber – ‘it was like I was a ghost walking down the street,’ he reports after Doris meets her fate – is a cypher in his own story, like the Western ‘hero’ nobody noticed in the Pete Atkin / Clive James song ‘Stranger in Town’. As the title suggests, the film is built around a structuring absence. Usually that means the absence of a parent or a spouse, but here it means the absence of ego. So what does Ed want, if not money, success, a prime piece of jailbait or even to be a small-town barber? Or, to frame the question as Ed’s brother-in-law Frank and Big Dave put it, ‘What kind of man are you?’ Although the Coens have Ed voice an existential question about the pointlessness of life when, giving a kid a crew cut, he muses on the inexorability and disposability of human hair, there’s an overriding sense that he wants nothing and is no kind of man but a dead man walking.
Graham Fuller, Sight and Sound, October 2001

Directed by: Joel Coen
©: Gramercy Pictures
Presented by: USA Films
Production Company: Working Title Films
Executive Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Produced by: Ethan Coen
Co-producer: John Cameron
Associate Producer: Robert Graf
Unit Production Manager: John Cameron
Production Co-ordinator: Karen Ruth Getchell
Production Accountant: Cheryl Kurk
Location Manager: Ned Shapiro
Post-production Supervisor: David Diliberto
1st Assistant Director: Betsy Magruder
Script Supervisor: Donald Murphy
Casting by: Ellen Chenoweth
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Camera Operator: Clint Dougherty
1st Assistant Camera: Andy Harris
Key Grip: Bob Gray
Visual Effects Supervisor: Janek Sirrs
Special Visual Effects: LLC Manex Visual Effects
Special Effects Supervisor: Peter Chesney
Film Editors: Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke
Associate Film Editor: David Diliberto
Production Designer: Dennis Gassner
Art Director: Chris Gorak
Set Designer: Jeff Markwith
Set Decorator: Chris Spellman
Property Master: Ritchie Kremer
Costume Designers: Mary Zophres, Maria Aguilar
Make-up Supervisors: Jean Black, Amy Schmiederer
Special Effects Make-up: Make-up & Monster Studios
Hair Designer: Paul Leblanc
Key Hairstylist: Joani Yarbrough, Carol Doran
Title Design: Balsmeyer & Everett Inc, Randall Balsmeyer
Opticals: Pacific Title
Original Score: Carter Burwell, Dean Parker
Piano Performances: Jonathan Feldman, Aquim Krajka
Orchestrated and Conducted by: Carter Burwell
Choreographer: Bill Landrum, Jacqui Landrum
Sound Design: Eugene Gearty
Production Sound Mixer: Peter Kurland
Boom Operator: Randy Johnson
Re-recording Mixer: Skip Lievsay
Supervising Sound Editor: Skip Lievsay
Sound Editor: Jerry Ross
Dialogue Editor: Fred Rosenberg
ADR Editor: Kenton Jakub
Foley Supervisor: Jennifer Ralston
Foley Artist: Marko Costanzo
Foley Mixer: George A. Lara
Foley Editor: Ben Cheah
Stunt Co-ordinator: Jery Hewitt

Billy Bob Thornton (Ed Crane)
Frances McDormand (Doris Crane)
Adam Alexi-Malle (Carcanogues)
Michael Badalucco (Frank)
Katherine Borowitz (Ann Nirdlinger)
Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas)
Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas)
Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver)
Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider)
James Gandolfini (Big Dave Nirdlinger)
Christopher Kriesa (Persky)
Brian Haley (Krebs)
Jack Mcgee (Burns)
Gregg Binkley (the new man)
Alan Fudge (Diedrichson)
Lilyan Chauvin (medium)
Ted Rooney (bingo caller)
Abraham Benrubi (young man)
Christian Ferratti (child)
Rhoda Gemignani (Costanza)
E.J. Callahan (customer)
Brooke Smith (sobbing prisoner)
Ron Ross (banker)
Hallie Singleton (waitress)
Jon Donnelly (gatto eater)
Dan Martin (bailiff)
Nicholas Lanier (Tony)
Tom Dahlgren (judge 1)
Booth Colman (judge 2)
Stanley Desantis (new man’s customer)
Peter Siragusa (bartender)
Christopher McDonald (macadam salesman)
John Michael Higgins (doctor)
Rick Scarry (district attorney)
George Ives (Lloyd Garroway)
Devin Cole Borisoff (swimming boy)
Mary Bogue (prisoner visitor)
Don Donati (pie contest timer)
Arthur Reeves (flophouse clerk)
Michelle Rae Weber (dancer)
Randi Pareira (dancer)
Robert Loftin (dancer)
Kenneth Hughes (dancer)
Gordon Hart (dancer)
Brenda Mae Hamilton (dancer)
Lloyd Gordon (dancer)
Leonard Crofoot (dancer)
Rita Bland (dancer)
Audrey Baranishyn (dancer)
Qyn Hughes (dancer)
Rachel Mcdonald (dancer)

USA 2001
116 mins

Sweet Smell of Success
Fri 4 Jun 15:00; Sun 13 Jun 15:45; Sat 26 Jun 11:40
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Fri 4 Jun 17:50; Sun 27 Jun 18:20
L’eclisse (The Eclipse)
Sat 5 Jun 12:10; Tue 15 Jun 17:50
Touch of Evil
Sat 5 Jun 17:50; Sun 20 Jun 18:15
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
Sun 6 Jun 18:10; Sat 26 Jun 16:30
Le Doulos + pre-recorded intro by Professor Ginette Vincendeau, King’s College London
Mon 7 Jun 14:15; Thu 17 Jun 20:45; Wed 30 Jun 17:45
The Last Picture Show (Director’s Cut)
Mon 7 Jun 17:45
The Killers + pre-recorded intro by Imogen Sara Smith, author of ‘In Lonely Places: Film Noir beyond the City’
Tue 8 Jun 14:30; Wed 23 Jun 17:50
The Night of the Hunter
Tue 8 Jun 20:50; Wed 16 Jun 18:15 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
The Tango Lesson
Wed 9 Jun 17:50 (+ pre-recorded intro by So Mayer, author of ‘The Cinema of Sally Potter’)
Cleo from 5 to 7 Cléo de 5 à 7
Thu 10 Jun 21:00; Mon 21 Jun 14:30
Man Hunt
Sat 12 Jun 16:00; Tue 29 Jun 14:15
Mon 14 Jun 21:00; Thu 24 Jun 21:10
La Haine
Wed 16 Jun 21:00; Fri 18 Jun 20:40
Bitter Victory
Sun 20 Jun 13:00; Mon 28 Jun 17:55
Citizen Kane
Mon 21 Jun 20:45
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Tue 22 Jun 18:30
The Big City (Mahanagar)
Wed 23 Jun 17:40
The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo)
Thu 24 Jun 17:40
Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten)
Fri 25 Jun 20:45
Mon 28 Jun 21:00

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