Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen began a cinema career together in the mid-eightees. Their partnership shares the writing, directing and producing credits and the result are films instantly recognizable due to their their own brand of narrative structure, character development and dialogue. The visual aesthetic may change to suit the story but it is the types of stories they choose to tell that make them so idiosyncratic. One of the team’s most renowned qualities is work ethic and organization. Much of their success can be attributed to the crystal clear vision that begins with the idea for a screenplay and encompasses every minute detail through to final edit. The duo operate with control, bordering on obsession, over the tiniest of details. Where other directors encourage actors to ad-lib and welcome new vision, the Coens expect actors to read every word exactly as it is written. The same goes for anyone performing a task on set- they can explain exactly what they desire from every member of the cast and crew and will not consider suggestions. Author Paul Coughlin describes their approach as ‘a total control they maintain over their vision from script to screen'(Coughlin 2003). When using screen techniques to progress the narrative of their films, it is an holistic and systematic approach that contributes to the believability of the worlds they create, especially when visiting a particular genre as they did with their homage to film-noir, 2001’s ‘The Man Who Wasn’t there’.
‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is the story of Ed Crane, a calm, measured barber of few words who attempts to blackmail his wife’s boss, Big Dave, in an effort to obtain the funds for investment in a dry cleaning business. When Dave discovers Ed is the blackmailer, the plan begins to unravel.
When looking at the screen techniques that progress the narrative of the film, it is important to look at the film’s placement in time and space – small town America , 1949. For authenticity, the choice was made to shoot the film in black and white, or more correctly, have the film ‘appear’ in black and white since it was actually shot on colour stock, then converted (Film 4 2001). The choice of removing colour from the style equation helps to define the period and lend it more of the film-noir look that was intended. The dark story of murder and betrayal can be compared to film-noir of the 1950’s, indeed Deakin points to 1955’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ as an influence and contributed to the decision to go for a ‘slightly B-movie’ sensibility. He describes the film as being ‘very much about darkness’ (Deakins Part 1, 2001). Other than the high contrast black and white look, there are other tools used to transport the audience to post WWII USA. Examples like the brilliant set design of the period barber shop complete with candy-cane sign, the wardrobe of smartly dressed men in hats and ladies in elegant dresses are obvious, but it is the subtle brush strokes of the Coens that are more telling. For instance, the very direct dialogue of the characters suggests a different time, where people had prejudices and were not afraid to voice them. While the camp, dry-cleaning enthusiast Tolliver is often referred to as ‘the pansy’, Ed and his wife Doris also have their racial prejudices, Doris referring to their Italian side of the family as ‘the Wops’ and Ed making mention of ‘the nips of Nagasaki’.
As with all Coen films, character development is the main objective. Knowing exactly who the characters are, what motivates them and how they change over the journey is the main narrative priority. In this film, Ed Crane is the central protagonist. As Joel Coen admits, one of the challenges of telling Ed’s story is the fact that he is so restrained, unemotional and a reactor. Eds life is about reacting to others, he would never initiate a conversation and loathes small talk. In the characters own words- ‘I just cut the hair’. The film-makers paint a picture of a man who always looks uncomfortable in his own skin, he even looks uncomfortable sitting on the sofa.
To re-enforce this solemn nature, he is surrounded by opposite characters. His boss at the barbershop, Frank, is always talking. In an early shot where Ed, also the narrator, is explaining how Frank’s incessant talking gets on his nerves, the camera pans closer and closer to Frank’s mouth for comedic effect:
The camera gets so close to Frank’s mouth we almost feel like we are going inside.
Ed’s wife Dorris also talks a lot and has a ridiculously fake laugh, especially when her boss is telling jokes. This juxtaposition with Ed’s quiet contemplative nature is used to re-enforce the feeling that Ed would like the world to be a quieter place. He ‘has a stillness about him’ as Joel Coen explains when discussing the decision to cast Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane. Of the actor, he says ‘he had the confidence not to embellish that stillness when it wasn’t necessary'(Film 4, 2001).
With the decision to blackmail Big Dave, Ed’s character begins to change, he is darker and affected by his thoughts. From the scene where Ed is typing the blackmail letter, we cross straight to the barbers shop where he is clearly having an existential crisis. He rambles to Frank about the way the hair keeps growing; ‘it’s part of us, then we cut it off and throw it away’. He is reflective and pessimistic and the hair is a metaphor for his relationship with his wife- his marriage is the hair and he is chopping it off like it has no value. Of course, the dialogue is then pushed further with black comedy; ‘I’m gonna take this hair and throw it out in the dirt, I’m gonna mingle it with common house-dirt’.
So it is the decisions made along Ed’s journey that shape him. The next character to have a lasting effect is Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). When he discovers her playing a piano in the attic of Nirdlingers department store, he instantly feels an affection for her which grows throughout the film. She seems to be everything that his wife is not; innocent, playful, quiet, polite, deep thinking and despite the fact that she is a child, it could be argued that he falls in love with her. Ed begins to dream of a more honest and pure life as Birdy’s manager and mentor.
After killing Big Dave, for which his wife is arrested, Ed hires Freddy Riedenschneider, a fast talking attorney from the city. Riedenschneider also has a great impact on Ed, and when he tells him ‘I’m an attorney, you’re a barber, you don’t know anything’ Ed seems to believe it. He puts all his faith and life savings into this man who he admires and in a later scene in the film, even borrows one of his often used lines ‘I’ve made enquiries’.
Another signature of classic film-noir is the use of ironic plot twists. The Coens have used many examples in this screenplay. Ed spends his entire married life with Dorris trying to avoid talking to her but once she is dead, he seeks out a medium to speak to her from the grave. Another is that the crime he ends up being punished for is the killing of Tolliver – the only one he did not actually commit. Irony is also used in subtle visual ways throughout the film in a comic, fatalistic way. There is a scene where Ed is skimming a magazine and the camera pans in on an ad for dry cleaning, the thing that started his whole mess. Maybe the most poignant ironic moment is in the final scene where Ed is being prepped for execution. Having spent his whole career shaving others, it is he who is being shaved down for the electric chair.
Cinematic tools are also used to progress the narrative, and there are several memorable visual techniques throughout the film. Low key moonlight, indoor rim light, classic film-noir long shadows and figure silhouettes are favoured to create an atmosphere of dark desperation.
When Dave’s wife arrives on Ed’s doorstep late at night, the camera angle is over her shoulder and the back-lighting casts long shadows on the door frame, creating a threatening feel.
This is re-enforced when the angle changes to over Ed’s shoulder and we see her face. The rim light, coupled with the veil and the facial expression combine to create a menacing look.
In the shot that leads into the fight scene in which he is killed, Dave is lamp-lit but his face is in darkness.
The fight begins and we see Ed from Dave’s POV.
The camera crosses the line of action to show Dave from Ed’s POV.
In an homage to film-noir, the next angle is a long shot with the fighting figures in silhouette.
A very ‘coen-esque’ shot from Ed’s POV lying in a hospital bed.
The most talked about cinematic moment of the film, when star lawyer ‘Freddy Riedenschneider’ explains his defense strategy to the accused.
Riedenschneider’s face moves in and out of shadow as he reaches various points in his epic speech about ‘the uncertainty principle’. Cinematographer Roger Deakins reveals the logistics of this shot were as simple as cutting a window shape into a piece of cardboard and back-lighting it with one lamp, however there were complexities like the decision of how close to place the lamp and the size of the cutout (Deakins Part 2, 2001).
Deakins, who has collaborated with the Coen brothers on numerous projects, uses adjectives like ‘profound’, ‘absurd’, ‘surreal’ and ‘like a mixture of a circus and an opera’, when reflecting on their work. Perhaps Deakins sums it up best with his description of the brothers as ‘true poets of the cinema’. The duo’s consistent artistic success inspires cast and crew to return for future projects. When recounting the experience of playing the lead role of Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton emphasizes the confidence the brothers inspire on-set. Their talent, clarity of vision, and professionalism allowed him to ‘just be an actor’. On playing Ed Crane, Thornton maintains ‘All I had to do was go to work and do my job, they’ve done the rest’ (The Inside Reel TV, 2001). It is this obsessive nature of the Coen brothers’ film-making that always contributes to engaging and unforgettable narrative.
Coughlin, Paul 2003, The great directors, Senses of Cinema, viewed 12 June 2012, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/coens/>.
Deakins Interview Part 1 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 1, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfCx29fkXfc>.
Deakins Interview Part 2 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 2, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-8HQ0NFGoU>.
Deakins Interview Part 3 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 3, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5YlH8_S-gk>.
Film 4 2001, The Coen Brothers interview about The Man Who Wasn’t There, 17 July, viewed 10 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg27F1iWTt0>.
Jaynes, Roderick 2001, The title that wasn’t there, The Guardian, viewed 15 June 2012, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2001/sep/28/artsfeatures>.
The Inside Reel TV 2001, Billy Bob Thornton Interview, Apr 2007, viewed 08 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6tWv-HaHAc>.