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The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There is a 2001 neo-noir film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It is set in the 1950s, and filmed in black and white. In the film Ed, a suburban barber played by Billy Bob Thornton, is married to Doris, an alcoholic accountant played by Frances McDormand. Ed is taciturn and mellow; he says little to the people around him and typically reacts with no more than a nod, even when witnessing outlandish events. Ed provides the film's narration, starting off by explaining that he married into the barber business. His coworker Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is his brother-in-law, owns the barbershop, and talks incessantly.

Ed's wife works at Nirdlinger's, a local department store hoping to franchise. While at work one day, Ed is approached by Creighton Tolliver, a businessman looking for investors in a new technology called dry cleaning. Ed wants to make some money and move up in station, so he goes to the man's hotel room to talk about it. After rebuffing a pass, Ed decides he wants to invest; Tolliver is referred to throughout the rest of the film as "the pansy." Ed blackmails Nirdlinger, his wife's boss (played by James Gandolfini, of The Sopranos fame) for the $10,000 needed to invest. In the noir tradition, nothing goes right.

The film was inspired by a poster that the Coen brothers saw while filming The Hudsucker Proxy; the poster showed various haircuts from the 1940s. The story takes place in the 1940s and, Joel Coen admits, is "heavily influenced by" the work of James M. Cain, a pulp fiction writer most known for the stories for Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.

The cinematography is straightforward and traditional. Most shots are made with the camera at eye level, with normal lensing and a long depth of focus. The lighting is textbook, with the usual sort of quarter-light setup. The cimematography, combined with the consistent, accurate use of 1950s props and sets, could make even a careful viewer think the film was made 50 years ago. Ed and most other major characters in the film smoke cigarettes almost constantly, another characteristic true to the era in which the film is set.

The film has several mentions of UFOs throughout it, in dreams and in conversation, as well as in various props, including an ashtray.

warning: beyond this point are several spoilers

Nirdlinger is having an affair with Ed's wife. Ed successfully blackmails him for the money to invest in dry cleaning, and delivers it to Tolliver. Some time after delivering him the money, Tolliver disappears and Ed believes he has run off with the money; meanwhile Ed's wife's alcoholism and his alienation from her are both apparent. After returning from a relative's wedding, Ed gets a call from his wife's boss, who wants Ed to meet him at Nirdlinger's. Tolliver had also approached Nirdlinger, asking him for $10,000. Thinking it too much of a coincidence that he was asked for the same sum of money he was blackmailed for, Nirdlinger tracked the man down and beat a confession out of him. Enraged that he approached Ed for consolation about being blackmailed, and that Ed told him to pay the money, Nirdlinger attacks Ed and begins to strangle him. Ed stabs him in the neck with a cigar cutter and Nirdlinger dies. Ed goes home, where his wife is passed out still from her drinks at the wedding. He sits beside her, thinking about how they met.

Shortly thereafter, Ed's wife is arrested for the murder. The police have examined Nirdlinger's books, discovered several irregularities, and suspect Doris, since she kept the books. Ed's brother-in-law mortgages the barbershop to pay for the best lawyer available, Freddy Riedenschneider (played by Tony Shalhoub). In a conference with Riedenschneider and Ed's wife, Ed tells Riedenschnedier that he killed Nirdlinger, but the lawyer thinks Ed is simply covering for his wife and that the story would never stand up in court since their only alibi is each other. He works out an elaborate plan for Doris's defense, involving the uncertainty principle and various other tangents, all bizarre if not ingenious. On the day the trial is to start, Doris is late, and so is the judge. When the judge arrives, he calls the counsel to the bench and dismisses the case. Doris has committed suicide.

Ed visits Birdy Abundas, a local young girl (played by Scarlett Johansson). The girl is a pianist; Ed wants to pay for her to have lessons. Driving her back from an unsuccessful attempt to impress a piano teacher, the girl makes a pass at Ed and is rather insistent about it, unzipping his pants. Ed tries to stop her; the car swerves across the road and hits an oncoming car. When Ed comes to, he is being told he's under arrest. In response to his questions, the police and doctor tell him the girl has a broken clavicle but is otherwise well.

A young boy swimming in a lake discovered a car with a man inside: the "pansy." Nirdlinger didn't simply beat a confession out of him; he killed him. In his briefcase is the contract Ed signed; the police now believe that Ed coerced his wife into embezzling the money from Nirdlinger's to use in the investment, and that Ed is the person who killed the "pansy."

Ed is sent to trial; since Riedenschneider didn't get to defend his wife, he now defends Ed. Ed's brother-in-law punches Ed in court, the lawyer moves for a mistrial. With no money and nothing left to mortgage, Ed is given the lawyer Riedenschneider showed such scorn for, whom he said was good at holding his hand on clients' shoulders as they were thrown on the mercy of the court. The man does hold his hand on Ed's shoulder, and Ed is thrown on the mercy of the court--he's painted as a sociopath, remorseless, dangerous. He's sentenced to death. Ed writes his story out from his cell on death row, to sell to a tabloid magazine that pays him by the word. At the end of the film he is walked to the electric chair and strapped in, where he sits thinking about meeting his wife and possibly having the words to explain his thoughts to her.