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. Written by
A living, breathing specimen of a species we thought had been extinct for decades
I'm sorry, but I like my black and white black and white - ESPECIALLY in a film that sets out to be the most pure film noir of all. The shadows should be, simply, black, not black tinted with dark green. The greys should be, simply, grey, not pearl grey or slate grey or any of the other shades of paint-catalogue grey that are the result (I presume) of trying to make a black and white film without using any actual black and white film. I don't know the precise technological explanation; I do know that the film would be at least twice as good if the Coens would simply take the master print and transfer it to whatever material they use when they screen, say, "Double Indemnity". This is not hyperbole.
Not that it's not good already. Joel Coen, who in "O Brother, Where Art Thou" showed himself to be one of the few living directors capable of fully exploiting colour, shows himself here to be one of the few living directors capable of fully exploiting light and shade. I particularly liked the scene where the defence lawyer explains why if we look at something too closely, we fail to see it, while his face (and only his face) is bathed in JUST enough too much light to prevent us from seeing it properly. It sounds academic, but it works: the Coens never use an idea if they can't make it breathe.
As a rule, first-person narration breathes life into books but kills films - with the exception of one genre: film noir. And the Coens understand why it works, when it does, in this rare exception. Like most noir protagonists, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is almost perfectly uncommunicative: neither his conversation nor his actions tell us anything about him. We need direct access to his very thoughts, put into words, to be able to understand what's going on and to appreciate his story. And it's only fitting that we're allowed to listen to him as HE takes stock of his own story, for the very first time, now that it's all over. -And maybe the Coens don't even need this justification. Ethan has written what may be the most delicious, perceptive and apt first-person voice-over the genre has seen.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is not as magnificent an achievement as "Barton Fink" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou" - but then, no noir film is. (It's really a constricting genre; Billy Wilder's finest works aren't noir, either.) The fact that there are so many good noir films should be regarded as a miracle. Here is another miracle.
57 of 87 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?