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The Man Who Wasn't There

     Joel Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There (Ethan Coen is co-writer and producer) is a California nightmare noir. It's a lavishly expensive period film shot in luxuriant black-and-white by Coens' regular Roger Deakins and situated in a vague early 1950s and in the town of Santa Rosa, setting of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. The stark lighting is based on that of several Alan Ladd 1940s thrillers. The story of a good barber, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), gone greedy and murderous, caught in a chain of duplicity and blackmail which will inevitably nail him, is a direct homage by the Coens to the hardboiled novels of James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

     Ethan Coen: "Cain's stories always had as their heroes schlubs-losers, guys who were involved in dreary and banal existences-as our protagonist." Old Ed toils in that barber shop, dimly aware that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him, and that the years are passing by without love or money. One day, a Man With a Scheme enters Ed's life: invest with me in the wonderful world of dry cleaning. You'll have riches galore! From this temptation, into the maelstrom!

     Most who saw The Man Who Wasn't There at Cannes admired the Coen effort more than they genuinely liked the movie, which is slow-moving and heavily claustrophobic and occasionally lugubrious, with a frustratingly passive protagonist. Ed, do something! The last twenty minutes are especially cumbersome, weighted down by Fate. And there's a badly miscalculated anachronism at one key moment: a sweet young girl suddenly attempts an unsolicited blow job. Sorry bros, not in 1952!

(May, 2001)

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