The Man Who Wasn’t There

September 24, 2009 at 7:00 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , )

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a new film noir from the Coen Brothers. It was released in late 2001 and chronicles the happenings in the life of 1940’s barber Ed Crane played by Billy Bob Thornton. Even though it is 60 years removed from the beginning of noir, it certainly falls into the genre, purposefully and includes a great deal of the elements central to a great film noir.

Ed Crane is a barber who is married to Doris Crane (Frances McDormand) and seems to just flow through his life without saying much or caring about much. Doris, who may be considered the femme fatale, is cheating on Ed with her boss, which is department store manager Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini).

Ed wants to be a dry cleaner and gets involved with huckster Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) in what he thinks is the beginning of a dry cleaning franchise. Ed and Doris don’t have much of a life together, she likes bingo and booze, Ed doesn’t like much of anything except the possibility of no longer being a barber.  

Even though Ed says very little except in his voice over, the film has its twists and turns. Big Dave turns up dead, Doris is put on trial for the murder and without giving away the ending, basically everyone involved is worse for wear by the end.

Film Noir Elements 

Ed is certainly disenchanted with the world he lives in and even with himself. He is an anti-hero of a sort who seems to be whisked along without much control over anything. In fact, maybe more so that any other film noir protagonist, he is completely left to the whims of fate (other than his blackmail of Big Dave). 

There is plenty of chiaroscuro lighting, the work of Roger Deakins as cinematography takes you back to the heyday of noir in the 40’s and 50’s. This is no more evident than in the fight scene in Big Dave’s office. 

The biggest difference between The Man Who Wasn’t There and traditional film noir is the language and the pace. Though it does have its twists and turns, the pace is rather slow because Ed is slow. Also, nowadays you can get away with sailor-like language that most people use in their daily lives.  

There are numerous examples of homage to famous film noirs such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Shadow of a Doubt and The Asphalt Jungle, which adds to the film for noir buffs. 


If you haven’t seen this film, you should. It is a great film for noir fans as well as anyone who really wants to see a film that is complex, profound, darkly funny and sad at the same time. Billy Bob is great, the Coen brothers fail to disappoint once again and the cast is wonderful. Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Badalucco and Richard Jenkins are all great in their roles. 

This film does require you to get involved, it may seem slow, but, as with most Coen brothers films, there is a lot going on if you just take the time to pay attention. The film does a great job at setting the stage early. Bringing you quickly into the life of Ed and it takes only a few lines of his voice over for you to get a feel for Ed’s personality. You will quickly find that Ed is one film noir character you will never forget.


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