Coen Brothers’ ‘Man’ is darkly moody, handsomely shot

The Man Who Wasn’t There/2001/Good Machine, et al/116 min.

Scarlett Johansson plays a high-school student in this 2001 film.

What would life be without a dark and handsome companion at night? One I highly recommend is “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This homage to vintage film noir, gorgeously shot in black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins, conjures a guy you’ll always remember.

Set in 1949, the film introduces us to a choice cast of characters. Top of the list is introspective and blasé Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who has fallen into a comfortable, if dull, life in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s fond of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), both cynical and oddly sweet, but there’s never been any passion between them.

To earn a living, Ed cuts hair with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) at the family barbershop. (“I don’t talk much,” Ed tells us. “I just cut the hair.”) Doris is a bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s, the town’s big department store, and together they have it “made” – after all, Ed points out dryly, they have a garbage grinder built into the sink.

When he’s not working or tossing scraps down their fancy drain, Ed kills time mainly by smoking and taking care of Doris after she’s had too much to drink, which is quite often. Doris passes the hours of their lives by playing bingo and having an affair with her boss at Nirdlinger’s, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), a blustery WW2 vet. Dave’s married to Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz), whose family owns the store. Ed knows about the affair but, as he does with everything, takes it in stride.

Ed’s life changes forever the day that unctuous big-mouth businessman Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into the barbershop as it’s about to close, gets a very quick trim and happens to mention that he’s in town trying to raise money to invest in drycleaning, which he’s convinced is “the biggest business opportunity since Henry Ford.”

Ed decides later that night that he wants in on the putative drycleaning empire and figures he can raise the requisite $10,000 by anonymously blackmailing Dave. No sooner does Ed get the cash than Tolliver takes off with it. And because Tolliver is so quick to bend ears and beg for money, Dave gets to the bottom of the blackmail scheme and intends to get his money back.

What Dave doesn’t count on is that Ed’s mild facade hides nerves of cold steel; when cornered, Ed’s response to him is quick, instinctive and deadly. But, after news breaks of Doris and Dave’s affair, Doris is arrested for Dave’s murder.

For help, they turn to high-priced hot-shot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) who creatively strategizes her defense as he dines at expensive restaurants (filmed at Hollywood’s Musso and Frank’s) and refers to himself in the third person. He also dismisses Ed’s admission that he is actually the guilty party. Riedenschneider, however, is no match against Fate and despite his fat fee, he doesn’t get his chance to wow the courtroom.

As all this proceeds, Ed comes under the spell of a sophisticated high-school student named Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). He’s drawn to her renditions of Beethoven sonatas and imagines that he could help build her musical career. That’s not meant to be, though and Ed ends up taking the blame for another murder, one he didn’t commit. How very James M. Cain of him.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” with its ambling pace, terrific script and stunningly beautiful look, is a neo noir to relish from start to finish. The rich, intense, highly dramatic images from cinematographer Deakins brought him a best cinematography Oscar nom.

Black and white, says Deakins on a DVD special feature, is much more direct than color as a form of communication. He names “In a Lonely Place,” “Touch of Evil,” and “This Gun for Hire” as some of his cinematic influences. “Man” also reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s “Killer’s Kiss.”

Complementing the film’s visual beauty are riveting, often darkly funny, performances from the entire cast. Thornton completely captivates us as the placid but brooding anti-hero.

McDormand is perhaps not the most glamorous femme fatale, but in her wonderfully expressive face we see her character’s pain, frustration, boredom and yearning. The scene in which she asks Ed to shave her legs as she lounges in the tub is especially memorable as is the scene that has Ed confessing to killing Big Dave. McDormand’s Doris is probably closer to what noir authors like Cain and Raymond Chandler imagined as they wrote their hard-boiled prose.

Gandolfini easily renders the gregarious, glad-handing vet harboring secrets galore. Shalhoub as the slick lawyer reels off his slippery chatter as effortlessly as a Vegas dealer slapping down cards. Johansson shines in a part that calls for both pure innocence and subtle coyness. Additionally, Borowitz is excellent as Ann Nirdlinger Brewster, who solemnly attributes her marital woes to UFOs and alien interference. She visits Ed late one night to clue him in on her plight and I love the delicately netted veil she wears for this moonlit errand.

Carter Burwell’s original music, interwoven with Beethoven, is also a treat. The Coen brothers consistently deliver outstanding films, but “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a particularly smart, original and stylish achievement. It’s no surprise that director Joel Coen tied with David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”) for best director at the 2001 Cannes film fest.

This is a Man I’ve kept around for a while now and I have no intention of letting him go.

Scarlett Johansson image by Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage via People.com

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