The Man Who Wasn’t There: A Film Noir

Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Life is not what it seems for a small-town California barber in the Coen brothers’ 2001 film noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Even this is a film noir, the Coens bring their own ideas into the genre. It’s not your typical film noir. The lead character does not intentionally set out to commit any crime. It just kind of happens. But if you read any of James M. Cain’s work, you’ll find characters behaving in a similar manner. None of them are professional criminals but end up committing acts of crime. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity remains the gold standard for the genre. But anyway, look at many names in the film to see just how much this film is an homage to the genre.

The Coens played around with their color palette just a year earlier in O Brother, Where Art Thou? This time, they opt for filming in black and white. It doesn’t matter whether it is a period film or contemporary film because Roger Deakins will find a way to work his magic with the camera. That’s just how he is. It isn’t just a cinematographer’s job though because production designer Dennis Gassner and costume designer Mary Zophres had to work with the color scheme. One wrong move in their work and it doesn’t matter what Deakins does with the lighting. In any event, they film in color while converting to black and white during post-production.

It’s 1949 and Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a small town barber in a Santa Rosa, California. The film is seen through his perspective and he provides the narration. Ed’s wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), feels that her life is going nowhere. She just happens to be cheating on her husband with her Nirdlinger department store boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini). The funny thing is that Ed suspects her of cheating on him. Anyway, a customer walks into Ed’s barbershop and invites Ed to be a partner in his new business. Ed decides to take him up on it but blackmails Big Dave into giving him the funds.

A whole bunch of crimes also end up happening–not much of a surprise in a Coen brothers movie. But even at that, just about anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Outside of maybe Inside Llewyn Davis, it is hard to name a Coen film where a crime is not taking place at any point in the film? It’s something of a running theme of theirs even with the films starring George Clooney.

The film features some solid performances. Of course, Roger Deakins earned an Oscar nomination for his work. His work here is truly stunning and it’s just frustrating that it would take well into the 2010s before finally winning the Oscar for cinematography. And again, this is a film being released in 2001. The technology to convert from color to black and white was nothing like today. This just speaks to the work that went into the film.

One of the bonus features is a 46-minute conversation with Roger Deakins. It offers extraordinary insight into the Oscar-nominated cinematographer’s process on The Man Who Wasn’t There. One of the subjects that comes up is Deakins’ favorite black and white films, let alone other black and white films in general. James M. Cain novels may have influenced the Coens’ script but a number of 1940s and 1950s film noir would influence the look. Deakins mentions that the dailies were in black and white. This makes sense to get an idea of pickup shots or other reshoots during production.

Like many films in the film noir genre, The Man Who Wasn’t There would not work if it were released in color.

SCREENWRITERS: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Adam Alexi-Malle, Michael Badalucco, Katherine Borowitz, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini

USA Films released The Man Who Wasn’t There in theaters on November 2, 2001. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.