The next post will be on or before Thursday April 5th. If you want to read my new comic novel THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
I have been a paid-up fan of the US directors Joel and Ethan Coen (born 1954 and 1957) for about 15 years now, but it has only just occurred to me how a good deal of their finest comedy is actually achieved. In many of their best films we have the entertaining spectacle of torrential babble, of breathless eloquence, much of it inane and/or childishly deceitful. Thus in the 2008 Burn After Reading the fitness centre employee played by Frances McDormand (born 1957, and wife of Joel Coen) talks a wonderfully feverish streak to the phlegmatic plastic surgeon about the state of her floppy backside and the lines under her eyes, and in the same movie one of the finest comic actors on the planet, George Clooney, a genial philanderer deceiving both his wife and his glacial mistress Tilda Swinton, is also dating McDormand behind Tilda’s back, and he wins her over principally with his febrile banter. Ditto when Clooney is the loquacious escaped convict insisting on one specific hair pomade in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or think also of the slippery divorce lawyer in the 2003 Intolerable Cruelty where George manages to rapidly reassure acquisitive Catherine Zeta-Jones (born 1969) of his ability to exact divorce settlements, whilst rubbing his toothpaste-covered finger all over his state of the art cosmetic dental work.
In the 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There which won Joel Coen the Best Director Award that year at Cannes, the central character, the gaunt and puzzled barber Ed Crane, is the opposite of all that, for he is monosyllabic and borderline mute, whereas he is surrounded on all sides by folk who never shut up. Speechless Ed is played with amazing virtuosity by Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who by contrast in Intolerable Cruelty acted the brash and gauche Texan fiancé of Zeta-Jones and is notable for other hectic extrovert parts as in the movie he wrote and directed himself, Daddy and Them (also 2001) where he co-stars with Laura Dern and Brenda Blethyn. But this present moody film noir account of a vulnerable man perpetually lost for words, is set in 1949 in a small Californian town called Santa Rosa, and is shot in mesmerising black and white by the cinematographic genius, the Englishman Roger Deakins. Much of the action is focused in the barber shop where silent Ed’s permanently burning cigarette is virtually a leading character in itself. Ed has crinkled, waved and gelled hair convincingly of the period, and his employer and fellow barber is his brother in law Frank (Michael Badalucco, born 1954, star of the TV legal series The Practice) who blethers his manic anecdotes to his generally stunned customers. One day a wily individual called Creighton Tolliver who is proud of his expensive toupe, sits in Ed’s chair and before long is telling him of his money-making scheme involving that mindboggling new process called Dry Cleaning. Tolliver is played with predictable expertise by Coen Bros regular the late Jon Polito (1950-2016) a glib and fast-talking conman, so convincing that Ed visits him in his hotel room and says he can find the $10,000 to invest in dry cleaning if Tolliver will allow him. Tolliver blusters his delighted assent, but then sat on his hotel bed makes a dangerous move, by showing a sexual interest in Ed, whereupon the barber delivers one of his rare speeches, which throughout the film are often repeated for emphasis.
“You are way out of line there, mister. Yep, you are way out of line.”
Ed Crane, true to the noir genre, is in addition voice-over narrator of this crime story, where he is rather more discursive about life and its pitfalls, the business of love and its inconsistencies and unpredictabilities. Yet it is only right at the end of the film, we see the grim context in which Ed is telling his tale, and the Coen Bros were surely tactically wise to keep that as the secret and ultimate revelation.
Ed is keen to make his fortune by investing in dry cleaning, but of course he doesn’t have $10,000. However his wife Doris (McDormand) is bookkeeper for a profitable clothes store managed by one Big Dave Brewster, and the business comes courtesy of Dave’s wife, Ann, a strange and very plain woman with wildly staring eyes. Doris who has a drink problem, is having an affair with Dave who is instantly recognisable as Tony Soprano, meaning the celebrated actor James Gandolfini (1961-2013) who died sadly young at only 51 of a heart attack. Big Dave talks an entertaining streak as evidenced by a dinner party the Cranes throw, where Doris hoots hilariously at his patter, while her husband sits painfully speechless. Later Ed craftily types an anonymous note to Dave, saying he knows about the affair and demands $10,000 dollars to be dropped at an agreed pick-up place. Panic- stricken Dave gets Doris to embezzle the money, and duly hands it over, but then unbeknownst to Ed, he bumps into Tolliver who not only tries to con another 10K but also makes a pass at him. Dave duly throttles and disposes of the shyster in a river, but we do not learn this until later in the film. Shortly after the handover, Dave summons Ed a second time to the clothes store at dead of night, where eventually he reveals he found on Tolliver’s person a laughable business ‘contract’ and a receipt with Ed’s signature upon it. He then proceeds to strangle Ed who only saves himself at the last minute by stabbing him fatally in the neck with a cigar trimmer and then immediately flees the scene.
An anxious and disorienting period elapses before two comically bluff detectives with trilby hats turn up at the barber shop. Ed assumes they have come to arrest him, but no they have looked at the store accounts and have decided it must have been Big Dave’s employee Doris murdered him after he discovered the embezzlement, and she is now in jail on a capital charge…
“It’s a tough deal, pal”, the tecs croak by way of tender counselling. “Yeah a tough deal.” And they even offer him a calming cigarette but of course he has one already on the go.
Doris hasn’t told the detectives about her shameful affair with Dave, nor about the compromising blackmail letter, and when he visits her in jail, to spare her, Ed says nothing either. He takes with him the best attorney money can buy, the incredibly garrulous and bombastic Freddy Riedenschneider from Sacramento played to perfection by Tony Shalhoub (born 1953) best known as lead of the cult detective show Monk. Freddy insists on staying at the best hotel in town, and is a gourmand with a massive appetite who shovels down food whilst rattling like an express train through the details of the case. In the jail Freddy orders both husband and wife to keep their mouths shut, and let him do the talking (‘I’m an attorney and you’re a barber! You know nothing!’) At first, even this star attorney can’t see any fruitful line of defence, until he discovers, thanks to his hired private eye, that Big Dave was lying about his war record, for far from being a one-man hero against the Japs, he spent his time in an army office and had also been fined for assault a couple of times after the war. Meanwhile Ed suddenly makes the momentous statement that he, not Doris, had killed Big Dave, because Dave was his wife’s lover, a revelation which babbling Freddy blindly interprets as a strategy to save his wife, not the truth. It is all matterless however, for all of these tactical possibilities come to nothing, as Doris hangs herself on the morning of her trial, whereupon her brother Frank, Ed’s boss, takes to drink, having already mortgaged his barbershop to the hilt to pay for Freddy Riedenscheider.
As moving counterpoint to all of this, when visiting an old family friend Walter Abundas (Coen Bros veteran Richard Jenkins, born 1947) Ed encounters his shy teenage daughter Rachel aka Birdy playing classical music at the piano. Birdy is portrayed by Scarlett Johannsen who was only 17 when this film was made, and she plays the gauche and motherless girl with an impressively disingenuous face. Ed knows nothing about Beethoven and Mozart, of course, but says to her clearly smitten:
“Well that really was something, Yep, that surely was quite something.”
In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, one evening he chances across Birdy in the street, where she is doing the normal thing of flirting with a good-looking young boy next to his 40s jalopy. Thornton expertly conveys Ed’s surprise and middle aged disappointment, as he is painfully polite to both Birdy and the boy, and rapidly turns heel with an embarrassed excuse. At this point Ed the narrator recalls that his childless marriage to Doris who was an alcoholic as well as unfaithful, followed on from her terse suggestion that after only 2 weeks dating, Ed really ought not to delay but to marry her right away. She had then thoughtfully appended the sensitive compliment that she really liked Ed Crane because he rarely talked…
Bizarrely enough, there is an unexpected science fiction motif appears twice in this film and though it doesn’t spoil anything, I still haven’t worked out its intended significance. Prior to Doris’s suicide, Big Dave’s strange looking widow Ann turns up in the middle of the night to tell Ed that once on a camping holiday in Oregon they had encountered a flying saucer and that Dave had gone on the space ship to talk to the aliens. Hence his murder had obviously been done by the paranoid US government, not by his poor wife Doris! Thoroughly ruffled by that, Ed turns to Birdy for comfort and is so smitten that he volunteers to pay for her to have piano lessons with a French expert in Sacramento. He drives her up there for a preliminary interview, where the great man laughs at Ed, and says Birdy is a nice little girl sure enough, but with those plinky plonk fingers of hers she will make a good typist and no more. Miserably driving them home, Ed angrily damns the foreign expert but young Birdy has rather more common sense and says she never planned to be a serious musician anyway, but instead she hopes to become a veterinarian.
“A veterinarian?” echoes Ed, clearly out of his depth by now.
Then a classic Coen Bros mad touch. Birdy tells him of her gratitude for his generous concern, and despite his protests, by way of reward, tries to perform oral sex upon her kindly chaperone. Ed inevitably crashes the car against a tree, so that Birdy escapes with a broken clavicle, while he is hospitalised unconscious and severely bruised. When he awakes, he is confronted by the same pair of trilbied detectives who arrest him for the murder not of Big Dave but of Creighton Tolliver, whose body they have just unearthed in a river, together with his dry cleaning contract with Ed.
Ed is arraigned in court again with Freddy as attorney, where he is physically attacked by Frank who has vainly ransomed his business for his cowardly brother in law. Riedenscheider immediately decides to give up on the case now there is no one to fund him, and the hopeless county attorney gets Ed to plead guilty and to throw himself upon the court’s mercy. The jury dissents, needless to add, the ancient judge shows no mercy, and sentences Ed Crane to the electric chair, when in reality the infinitely confused barber is guilty only of blackmail and self-defence, neither a capital crime. It is at this point we realise why Ed is the film’s narrator, as he is recounting his experiences from Death Row, and has been paid to do so by a lurid magazine who want to know exactly what it is like to be facing the end. Just before the execution, just like chirpy Big Dave and his crazy wife Ann, Ed looks and sees a dazzling spaceship up in the sky, and reflects that he has no regrets and hopes to see Doris again on the other side of Death…
As coda, Billy Bob Thornton has been in at least 2 films involving that grisly item, the electric chair. In this one he is the unjust victim, but in the watchable and no more Monster Ball (2001) he is a prison officer alongside his son, another warder played by the late Heath Ledger (1979-2008) the two of them jointly in charge of the execution of a black man. Without warning Ledger vomits and cops out of performing the electrocution, so that Thornton beats him up and berates him, and Ledger responds by shooting himself fatally in front of his horrified Dad. It sounds strong stuff, but is sadly not a patch on The Man Who Wasn’t There which is surely an enduring and highly original masterpiece.