Man, the Coen Brothers are so-o-o-o-o cool. Cooler than Bogart and Belmondo put together. Even cooler than David Lynch thinks he is.

If you didn't recognize the actors, you'd think that this movie was made in the 1940's by Hitchcock or Billy Wilder from a James M Cain book. It is a completely loving reproduction of the best film noir efforts of that era. The acting captures the era; the drama has a black humor overlay which is heightened by sassy dialogue; the people speak with the words and accents of the time.



Ah, and the cinematography. It's not just that it is good. It's way better than good, but more important than that is the fact that it makes use of the conventions and realities of the time. Back in the 1940's, many more Americans lived in urban environments. We lived more like Europeans. The suburbs were not really an important part of residential life until after the war. People not only lived in cities, but they went outside at night and talked to each other in the streets, or listened to the cheers from the nearest ballpark while they relaxed, talked to friends, and caught the game on the radio. I grew up then, and lived my first three years of life in a city before my parents bought into the suburban dream. I still spent nearly every weekend at my grandparent's house in the city. I loved it there. I loved the parties at the Ukrainian Hall next door. I loved the cheers from the ballpark about a mile away. I loved playing stickball in the streets. I loved a chance to run away from the dreaded, lonely, sepulchral quiet of my parents' suburban home, which abutted a county park and may as well have been in the woods itself. I had forgotten all that for forty-something years until I saw this movie last night, and then I spent the entire sleep and pre-sleep stages of the evening picturing the neighborhood around my grandmother's house, remembering the floor plan and the precise contents of the interior - the pots, the vents, the porches, the precise pattern on the kitchen table. That's how good the cinematography was. It reminded me of real things that I hadn't remembered in decades. It got all the physical details right, but many movies do that. What impressed me were the intangibles. The urbanized nature of our existence meant that our nighttimes were lit by street lamps, and our faces were covered by the shadows of the tree branches between us and the nearest street lamp, shadows which would cause a flickering effect on a breezy evening. I watched the outdoor nighttime scenes here and thought, "YES - that's the way it was. How did they know that?"




Billy Bob Thornton, who is a truly eccentric man, but must nonetheless be the supreme character actor of his generation, is virtually unrecognizable as the impassive rail-thin chain-smoking non-entity who looks exactly like so many people from that era. Thornton narrates the story, telling his tale to a lurid men's pulp magazine. As befits the film noir conventions, he is a guy who did something bad and paid for it unduly and ironically.
Usually these guys fall for a dame, and end up doing something for the woman that costs them everything. Not this time. Billy Bob just wants out of his life. He's in mid-life and his current station in life is to be the second barber in a family-owned two-man shop. He's married to the sister of the main barber in a loveless, sexless, childless marriage. He knows that his wife is having an affair with her own boss, but Billy Bob doesn't care much. "It's a free country, I guess". He doesn't seem to have any more dreams.

Until one day, after hours, he cuts the hair of a traveling businessman who's looking for an investor and a partner in the up-and-coming field of dry cleaning. He came to town to meet with a specific guy, but that deal tanked. Billy Bob hits upon the "perfect crime". He knows his wife is sleeping with her boss, but the boss doesn't know he knows, so he will blackmail the boss anonymously, and give the money immediately to the stranger to invest in the dry cleaning scheme - thus "laundering" the money, so to speak.

Unfortunately, his scheme goes awry. They always do. The boss (Tony Soprano!!) figures out what is going on, and starts to beat Billy Bob mercilessly. Billy Bob accidentally kills him in the struggle.

The police soon come to him and tell him that his wife has been arrested for the murder.

After all, she was the decedent's lover, she and the deceased had the only two keys to the place where the murder occurred, and, unbeknownst to Billy Bob, the two of them were also cooking the company books together. Later, Billy Bob himself gets arrested for another murder which he didn't do, but seems to have done because of a trail left by his get-rich-quick blackmail plan!

DVD info from Amazon.

Commentary by Joel and Ethan Coen also featuring Billy Bob Thornton
Theatrical trailer(s)
Making "The Man Who Wasn't There"
Interview With Cinematographer Roger Deakins
Deleted Scenes/ Deleted Shots
Photo Gallery
Widescreen anamorphic format

The details are marvelous, and I won't spoil it further. It's filled with sexual innuendoes (everyone in the film, male and female, seems to want to blow Billy Bob except his wife), betrayed innocence, colorful minor players, larger-than-life lawyers, deadpan cops, interrogations under bright lights, and Beethoven piano sonatas. It is a marvelous piece of 1940's filmmaking.

Why they made this obscure film, I will never know.

But I'm glad they did.  

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 85/100, BBC 5/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.0/10, in the Top 250 of all time.
  • with their dollars: domestic gross $7.4 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. B&W noir is not for everyone. There are never any likeable characters, for example. Everyone is either a conniver or a sap. If you aren't into 1940's movies, you may not even get the jokes or understand why the actors re using this style of acting. But if you like this kind of material, there is great period-style performing by Gandolfini, McDormand, Thornton and Shaloub and magnificent, evocative B&W cinematography.  It is truly a niche-audience masterpiece.

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