"This isn't some fly-by-night operation. It's dry cleaning!"
A wicked, plot-twisting film noir in black-and-white. What's not to like?
Facts of the Case
In this 1983 film directed by Bruce Malmuth, Steve Guttenberg finds a potion that makes him invisible…just kidding. I didn't mean to scare you like that. This is about an entirely different The Man Who Wasn't There. Entirely different.
The Coen Brothers (Fargo, O, Brother Where Art Thou?) wrote, directed, and produced this stylish black-and-white film noir set in 1949 Santa Rosa, California, and following the twisted adventures of a deadpan barber named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) whose troubles begin when he fosters dreams of becoming a dry-cleaner.
Ed works as second barber in the shop owned by his brother-in-law. Enter Creighton Tolliver, a man seeking a venture capitalist to become his silent partner in the brand-spanking-new business of dry cleaning. Ed decides to go in with Tolliver but first must come up with $10,000 by blackmailing his wife's boss and lover, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). This is film noir not in the style of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but Double Indemnity, and like that film, Ed's initial immoral action soon spirals out of control, landing him neck-deep in events from which he can't extricate himself or his wife, Doris.
And, since this is a Coen Brothers' film, we've got UFOs, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and Ed Crane's fascination with a local teenager's (Scarlett Johansson) piano talents thrown in just to add a little zing.
Let's start, logically enough, with the script. Excellent. It delivers the twists and turns one expects from good film noir. As soon as you think you have a grasp of what will happen next, you're thrown a curve. The dialogue is as snappy and smart as any penned by the Coens. Example: lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) to Ed: "You don't say anything. I do all the talking. I'm a lawyer; you're a barber. You don't know anything." Most prominently, the script delivers Ed Crane, as unique a film character as you're likely to find: a protagonist who almost never speaks outside his voice-over narration, almost never emotes.
Which brings us to the acting. Billy Bob Thornton says in the commentary (yes, a commentary! we'll get to that later) that Ed Crane is the most difficult character he's ever played. And he pulls it off masterfully. It's not the sort of blustery, overwrought performance that's awarded Oscars, but it's astounding how expressive he manages to be through iron restraint, the slightest, briefest facial expressions, the posture of his body, the way he holds and smokes cigarettes. Ed Crane makes the Mr. Stevens character in Remains of the Day look like Norma Desmond. The supporting cast is also stellar, drawn largely from Joel and Ethan Coen's stable of regular players: Frances McDormand (Fargo, Almost Famous) as Doris, Michael Badalucco (The Practice, O, Brother Where Art Thou?)as Ed's brother-in-law, Jon Polito as Tolliver, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as Big Dave, and Tony Shalhoub (Men In Black) in probably the stand-out performance of the film as Doris Crane's pushy, egocentric, win-at-all-costs lawyer.
The true gem of the picture, though, is Roger Deakins's black-and-white cinematography. It's simply gorgeous. Sumptuous. Ethan Coen describes it in the commentary as "velvety"—I can't think of a better word. The greatest among the travesties at this year's Oscars was Roger Deakins not winning for best cinematography. It just ain't right. I'm not a black-and-white purist, but this film reminds me what a shame it is there's such an economic stigma attached to black-and-white, that so many simply won't shell out seven bucks to see a movie that isn't in glorious color. The great news is that the transfer on this DVD completely honors Deakins's work: rock solid blacks, sparkling whites, a rich spectrum of grays, all accentuating Joel Coen's shot compositions and Roger Deakins's atmospheric use of light and shadow. The film is presented, of course, in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in an anamorphic transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is nothing to write home about, but it's crisp and clean and everything it ought to be. This isn't ID4, after all. The front soundstage gets the most action as this is a dialogue-heavy film. The various dynamics in the actors' voices are nicely reproduced, soft and loud, so each line delivered is clearly discernable. The surround speakers do get some play during the lusher parts of Carter Burwell's score as well as the Beethoven piano sonata that plays such a prominent role in the film.
The Man Who Wasn't There isn't just a DVD, it's a Special Edition DVD. Fans of the Coen Brothers know how big a deal this is. The Coens' films have traditionally been released on DVD with wonderful transfers (which is the important thing), but largely devoid of extras. This one exceeds all previous releases. The doozy is a commentary track with Billy Bob Thornton and Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coens have resisted for years doing a commentary. Their resistance to the concept remains somewhat present on the commentary here—Joel's, anyway. The amount of input breaks down to roughly 60% Billy Bob, 30% Ethan, 10% Joel. If you're a fan of scholarly, scene-by-scene analysis (say, Marian Keane's commentary on Notorious: Criterion Collection), you're not going to find it here. Rather, it's an easy-going and funny chat about the experience of making the film, offering up anecdotes about behind-the-scenes happenings on specific days of the shoot, centering mostly on Thornton's experiences bringing Ed Crane to life. What does come across is the fondness the three men have for both the film and for the character of Ed.
Next up is the 15-minute "Making The Man Who Wasn't There" featurette, which is basically talking-head segments for a standard electronic press kit slapped haphazardly together. I'll say this for it: it doesn't feel like your standard, lame EPK because it's not all glossy and carefully constructed. Content-wise, however, it's pretty lean. Better, is a 46-minute interview with Roger Deakins. Again with the rough editing, but he goes into a lot of detail about his approach to the black-and-white aesthetic, black-and-white films of the past that influenced him, why he chose to shoot the film on color stock and process it black-and-white, how it all worked, and why it created a cleaner, less grainy film than standard black-and-white stock would have. If you're a fan of Roger Deakins, or have even a passing interest in cinematography, you'll find it interesting.
The "Deleted Materials" section is lean to say the least. There's only one true "scene" included—Tony Shalhoub's convoluted and brilliantly delivered opening statement during the film's trial, which, in the final version of the film, is replaced with an Ed Crane voice-over summary. The other selections, "The Timberline," "The Duck Butt," "The Alpine Ropetoss," and "Doris's Salad" are two- to three-second shots, mainly of late-'40s haircut styles, relevant because Ed Crane is barber and, as the Coens explain in the making-of featurette, the genesis of the film was a poster of retro haircuts that acted as set dressing in the barber shop set of The Hudsucker Proxy, a prop the Coens kept, hung in their offices, and studied with fascination.
Also included in this special edition is a photo gallery with about fifteen behind-the-scenes photos; extremely abridged filmographies for the major players; the theatrical trailer; and two TV spots. As special editions go, this isn't exactly Moulin Rouge or Fight Club, but it's downright overflowing with goodies compared to past Coen releases. I guess we have to take what we can get.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let me be up-front about this: not all Coen fans are in agreement with me about this film. Some absolutely hate it, find its narrative pace to be off, its idiosyncrasies to be forced, and Ed Crane to be the dullest protagonist in film's long history. I have a theory about this: The Man Who Wasn't There is not a film that necessarily comes across in a single viewing. Its pace is dictated by Ed Crane, who is indeed an unusual protagonist. More than that, though, its tone is both funny and somber—sometimes simultaneously—and this can be unsettling at first. Add to that the richness of the cinematography and it's easy to experience sensory overload (which is bizarre when watching a film that isn't exactly paced like an MTV video). I've found with each subsequent viewing I get more in tune with the movie's narrative pace, find it funnier and funnier, and Ed Crane becomes a livelier character. In addition, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is used as a thematic device in the film, so the fact all the loose ends don't quite tie up as nicely as one would expect is intentional; they do tie up, however—I swear. One has to ponder the uncertainty principle just a bit to understand how.
Look, this is a fun movie, beautifully shot, expertly acted, that rewards repeat viewing. And it's in luscious black-and-white. What more can you ask from a DVD?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: USA Films
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