From the Desk of Bigger Boat Pictures:
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) –
A Dark Homage to Noir
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Reviewed by James Rosario
Since they made their very first film, Blood Simple (1985), Joel and Ethan Coen have been testing us as fans of cinema. They push genre boundaries, and sometimes taste boundaries, but they always deliver compelling and unforgettable stories in a way that no other directors can. The older of the two, Joel, studied film at NYU, while his younger brother, Ethan, earned a degree in philosophy from Princeton. This choice of schooling is very telling of the types of movies they have made over the years. Their films are full of deep, and not so deep, thinkers who do their best to stay sane in often insane scenarios. They have tackled almost every genre that you could think of, often mixing and matching them in order to increase the absurdity, tension, or whatever else may be needed in order to move their characters along through the odd and dangerous worlds that they create.
The Coens are fans of film and film history, and it shows. This is evidenced in any number of their wildly different films, but one that stands out is their modern take on classic Film Noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). They’ve made a handful of Neo Noirs over the years, such as Fargo (1996) and the aforementioned Blood Simple, but The Man Who Wasn’t There is different, it is a direct homage to the classic genre. With its roots in German Expressionist filmmaking and philosophy, Film Noir was tailor made for the Coen Brothers. This black and white film uses light and shadow to its advantage, and in the truest of Noir fashions, explores deep philosophical theories with humor and vigor. Our protagonist, Ed Crane (Billy Bod Thornton), is a hapless barber who gets lulled into a web of lies, murder, and double crosses, all while calmly smoking cigarettes, cutting hair, and narrating his own story in a profoundly deep way.
The Coen Brothers capture the spirit of Film Noir so successfully, that if one didn’t know better, they may believe that the film was actually made in the 1940s. Through a perfect black and white world filled with deep shadows both literal and figurative, Joel and Ethan Coen deliver a modern Film Noir worthy of, not only their German Expressionist forefathers such as Lang and Murnau, but Jung and Nietzsche, the thinkers who inspired them.
In The Man Who Wasn’t There, we are introduced to Ed Crane, a barber by trade, and a resident of Santa Rosa, CA in 1949. He isn’t so much as angry about his lot in life, as he is dissatisfied with it. The Coens’ films are no strangers to criminals, criminality, and the depths one is willing to plunge in order to get what they desire, but Ed is a different than your average Noir lead. He has no mean streak, and his actions don’t seem to be governed by greed, malice, or even love, per se. His motivations are deeper. He wants desperately and nonchalantly to be more than just “The Barber.” He craves purpose, not wealth. In past Coen films, and true to Noir’s roots, greed, revenge, and lust are made obvious motivators. These flaws inevitably lead to death or imprisonment, a common trait (and an enforced trait due to the Hays Code of 1930, which was repealed in 1968, but in full swing when the film takes place) of classic Noir films, and one that the Coens relish in. They like to punish the bad, and, sometimes, the not so bad. Ed Crane is a different kind of criminal than Ray and Visser (John Getz and M. Emmet Walsh) in Blood Simple (1985), and certainly different than Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, or Gaear Grimsrud (William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare) in Fargo (1996), but they all have one thing in common. They all get theirs in the end, and in Ed Crane’s case, he gets his for one of the film’s crimes he didn’t commit. Unlike his Coen filmography counterparts, he accepts and welcomes his fate, as if he knows that the Hays Code cannot allow him to continue.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a film about crime, punishment, lust, double crosses, and all of the fun things that come with Film Noir, yes, but it is also about philosophy, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the human condition. Doris Crane (Frances McDormand), and later Ed Crane’s lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), speaks of a “guy, in Germany. Fritz something-or-other. Or is it? Werner…” who has a theory that, in science, the more you look at something, the more you’re looking at it changes it. He calls it the Uncertainty Principle, and he’s really excited about it. He says, “You can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would have happened if you hadn’t stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So, there is no ‘what happened.’” What he is referring to is actually called the Observer Effect, and not Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, they are often confused, and “sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s onto something.” This speech is just one of many philosophical quandaries found throughout the film, quandaries meant to make us question our perceptions of truth, morality, and purpose.
Film Noir has traditionally always dealt with themes of fatalism, hopelessness, and despair, the opposite of “The American Dream.” This dark subject matter mirrored what many disadvantaged Americans were feeling after World War II. Early Noirs, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), exposed the disillusionments of many “ordinary” citizens of post-war America. The Man Who Wasn’t There takes these themes and runs full gallop with them, making them central to the story and defining them clearly. Ed Crane’s fatalism is on full display when he tells us that “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” He explains, very poetically, the disillusionment that many classic Noirs only hinted at. Freddy Riedenschneider doesn’t stop with his so called Uncertainty Principle to confound us about purpose and meaning, either. He goes on to paint Ed to the jury, and to us, as “The Modern Man,” a man who has lost his place in the universe, and one that is too ordinary to have committed the crimes he is accused of. He asks them to look closely at “this barber,” a man who was guilty only of living in a world that had no place for him. “He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.” There is a lot more at play here than a story of blackmail and murder. The Coens have managed to capture and articulate the themes of just about every Film Noir from the 40s and 50s by directly inserting these philosophies and abstract thoughts on disillusionment and one’s place in the universe into their dialogue. This also happens to have the added bonus of making the film much more emotionally moving and thought provoking than anything produced during the original run of the genre.
There are a number of Neo-Noirs, and Noir influenced films that can be cited as evidence that the genre both never truly died, and that it has had a lasting effect on the movie business, but none of these have looked like a classic Noir the way The Man Who Wasn’t There does. Films such as Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Insomnia, both its American version (2002) and the original Norwegian version (1997), L.A. Confidential (1997), Sin City (2005), and Shutter Island (2010), just to name a few, are all very good examples of modern Film Noir. Some adhere closer to the original form than others, but none of them feel they were made in the 1940s, Film Noir’s original heyday. They honor many of the storytelling elements, but don’t go the distance stylistically. Even the Coen’s other Noir and Noir-inspired offerings, Blood Simple (1985), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and No Country for Old Men (2007), all look like modern pictures. The Man Who Wasn’t There has a unique, aged feel to it, different from that of the other Coen movies, as well as the other Neo-Noirs mentioned. Its black and white presentation allows for the deep shadows and angular lighting that classic Film Noir is known for to be displayed front and center. Making a film in black and white doesn’t automatically make it a Noir. On the contrary, one has to know how to use the light, or lack thereof, to one’s advantage. In Film Noir, as pioneered by the German Expressionist filmmakers F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, among others, the lighting hides faces, figures, feelings, and motives in shadow. Sunshine streams through windows and jail cells creating off kilter angles that keep us on edge, all with never-ending cigarette smoke billowing through it. It’s hard to make a modern classic Noir without these traditional formal elements present throughout. Lighting and atmosphere, along with crime and punishment, are the building blocks of Film Noir, and The Man Who Wasn’t There has them all in spades.
The Man Who Wasn’t There employs another technique not seen often in modern films, Noir or otherwise. Deep focus is used liberally, emphasizing that the entire frame is important, all of it a big, dark, foreboding painting. Orson Welles revolutionized deep focus in Citizen Kane (1941), and international visionaries like Akira Kurosawa, perfected it with in films like Seven Samurai (1954). These directors saw each frame as a work of art, each plane, foreground, middle-ground, and background, as important as the ones in front or behind it. Mr. Crane’s expression rarely changes through the ever present cloud of smoke, but it’s important that we see that it never changes. It needs to always be in focus, letting the voiceover, another Noir technique, fill us in on where he is on an emotional, intellectual, or philosophical level.
In the last sequence of the film, we are reminded of just how Film Noir our experience has been. We are led into an execution chamber which stands in stark contrast to anything we’ve ever seen in Film Noir before. This room is bright, white, clean, and shadowless, everything that Film Noir isn’t. It is the opposite of everything in this film, and the films that stylistically came before it. That this room exists, reminds us that we’ve just watched a very dark film indeed. It is a heavenly escape from the bleak 1949 Santa Rosa setting, and the bum cards our anti-hero has been dealt. Much of the film’s formal aspects can be seen in Film Noirs from the 1940s, and this scene serves to, by mere contrast, make that point clear.
A man commits a crime, which uncovers a different crime, which causes two more crimes, and, ultimately, gets him put in the electric chair for a crime he didn’t even commit. That’s The Man Who Wasn’t There in nutshell, but throw in lots of existentialism, UFO conspiracies, and the history of dry cleaning, and it becomes a tough nut to crack. Joel and Ethan Coen are known for taking their viewers on a wild ride, and this film is no different, but from a formal standpoint, it adheres more strictly with the rules of the genre it emulates more so than many of their other films. It is a love affair with Film Noir and an homage to the highly stylistic and influential genre. While the original Noirs told bleak stories of disillusionment and fatalism through tough guy bravado and femme fatales, The Man Who Wasn’t There tells the same story through the words of an ordinary man who speculates the meaning of life and his place in the world, or if he even has such a place. He is, in the end, punished for his flaws, as is everyone in the film, which is in strict adherence to the long defunct Hays Code which states that crime and infidelity are not to be tolerated. That he has no regrets about his actions may be the single most “un-noir” tidbit in the film. The Hays code of old forced the criminals and adulterers to be repentant for their misdeeds. Crane’s narration isn’t meant as a repentance however, but as a way out, a release, just as the electric chair will be. He uses it to analyze his life and its meaning, or if it ever had one. Was he really just The Barber? Did he ever really exist, or was he just a ghost, as he said?
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