Yesterday He Was Nobody, Today He’s a Wanted Man

Joel Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There , from a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen and produced by Ethan Coen, professes to return us to the black-and-white world of 40’s and 50’s film noir, California style, specifically evoked by the grubby middle-class protagonists of James M. Cain’s sardonically well-plotted thrillers, such as are to be found in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Still, the Coen Brothers themselves have never been strangers to violence, from their first film, Blood Simple (1984), through Miller’s Crossing (1990) and the much-honored Fargo (1996). Nor are they unfamiliar with such Hollywood classics of the 40’s as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1942), from which they lifted the satiric bleeding-heart title, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), from which they admiringly appropriated the locale of Santa Rosa, Calif., for The Man Who Wasn’t There .

Roger Deakins, the cinematographer for this and five previous Coen Brothers films, was more influenced by such 40’s Alan Ladd noir vehicles as Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), with cinematography by John Seitz, and George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), with Lionel Lindon’s cinematography. Yet when one looks at The Man Who Wasn’t There , one is not reminded visually of these 40’s noirs–perhaps because the film has been shot in finely grained color and then printed in black and white. The result is a pervasive grayness that suggests a color film with all the color sucked out of it.

Yet having described the sources of the film’s “look,” I realize that the Coen Brothers are artists and not mimics. Their story of a small-town barber named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), his adventures and misadventures, is completely original in its fix on the world of 1949. As Ed sees his place in this world, he must accept the dead-end drudgery of working as second barber in his brother-in-law Frank’s (Michael Badalucco) barber shop. He has also resigned himself to his wife Doris’ (Frances McDormand) infidelity with her overbearing boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini).

Ed doesn’t say much to anybody, and most of what we know about his feelings about other people comes from his deadpan, ironically stoic inner monologues. And here is where the Coen Brothers strike pay dirt. Indeed, Mr. Thornton is so quietly funny in his unflappably uninsistent way that he creates, for my money at least, the most strikingly engaging character in a movie I have seen all year–though I think his performance is too marvelously controlled and spectacularly self-effacing for a vulgar prize like the Oscar.

Around his memorable incarnation of a self-fashioned nobody revolves a wild assortment of extroverts. Doris has long since given up on getting a rise from Ed. His ever-ebullient Italian-American in-laws have given up on understanding his strange silences and non-reactions. Meanwhile, Big Dave patronizes Ed without worrying about the worm ever turning.

Then, one evening after closing time, a nervy customer with a toupee barges into the shop and demands a haircut. Frank is about to throw the interloper out when Ed volunteers to cut the man’s hair. Frank leaves, and the customer introduces himself with a business card as Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), the inventor and promoter of a new process called dry cleaning. He is in town seeking capital for this business chance of a lifetime.

Ed visits Tolliver in his hotel room the next morning and, after fending off a homosexual pass, is told that he can become a partner in Tolliver’s enterprise if he comes up with $10,000. Ed says he can get the money by the next day. He proceeds to send a blackmail note to Big Dave, threatening to reveal the affair with Doris to Dave’s wife. Big Dave pays up, Ed gives the money to Tolliver, and–two murders, one suicide, two trials and an automobile accident later–Ed finds himself at the bottom of an abyss from which he cannot escape.

Although Ed’s predicament resembles that of John Garfield’s character in The Postman Always Rings Twice , there are important differences as well. For all his meditations, Ed has never premeditated anything, and his downfall is not caused by a femme fatale . Indeed, in his marriage Ed is sexless almost to the point of celibacy, and in the one sexual opportunity presented to him, he is repressed. He is simply the victim of some of life’s most grotesque ironies, which he never stops trying to understand in his dry, droll manner. The Man Who Wasn’t There is all there, artistically speaking, but it never pretends to be a feel-good entertainment.

Major Alterations

Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam’s Kill by Inches , from their own screenplay, starts out as a wickedly stylized, derisively grotesque contemplation of the obsessive world of the tailor, and gradually descends into the gruesome horror of a deadly sibling rivalry springing from hatred over the ridiculous ability to take a client’s measurements without the help of a measuring tape.

Thomas (Emmanuel Salinger) is a mediocre tailor justifiably insecure about his abilities. When his twin sister Vera (Myriam Cyr) arrives for the Tailors’ Ball Competition Gala, he soon realizes that she possesses most of the intuitive talent in the family and will easily eclipse him at the gala. This will never do, and as he has already grimly demonstrated with a recalcitrant client, he is willing to kill to preserve his illusion of professional mastery.

Gradually, gruesomely, he sinks into complete madness, and the tools of his trade–shears, needles, pins and even measuring tape–become the implements of murder. Even when he wins the absurd non-tape-measuring contest at the gala, the plaque he receives cannot cure Thomas of his guilt-drenched mania. Instead, he finally marches inch by inch into the ultimate darkness.

This is another of those films, ostensibly in the English language to avoid the commercial handicap of subtitles in the American market, that nonetheless plays like a foreign film with no discernible locale. Ms. Valcroze is the daughter of critic-director Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, one of the founders of Cahiers du Cinema , and has made several short films in France. Mr. Flam is a New Yorker who has written, directed and produced several successful short films in English. Their collaboration has resulted in a film with minimal dialogue, particularly from Mr. Salinger, who has established his reputation in France with several French-speaking performances. Ironically, Ms. Cyr has already appeared in English-speaking roles in her native Canada and elsewhere, but is given almost no lines to speak in Kill by Inches . Instead, she exchanges cryptic expressions with Mr. Salinger that convey their mutual mistrust and resentment.

Consequently, the thought occurred to me during the film that it could have been done as a French film with or without subtitles like a malignant Hulot, or as an animated cartoon, or even as a silent film. This is to say that the graphics speak volumes, while the dialogue is excessively laconic and unfocused. One suspects that Mr. Salinger does not speak enough English to carry on a conversation, and this makes him appear terribly strange and unbalanced from the very beginning.

Where the film functions most felicitously is in its parade of clients before the tailor. Few are especially photogenic, and many are downright ugly in face, age and physical endowments. More than a few seem hostile to the whole procedure, and it is this unspoken tension between the tailor and his customers that gives the film the comically corrosive quality that carries it past the mandatory Grand Guignol.

Cannes Is Fuming: Amélie Is a Hit

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie , from a screenplay by Guillaume Laurant and Mr. Jeunet, became a cause célèbre some months ago when it was pointedly rejected by the Cannes Film Festival and then went on to break box-office records in Paris. It has since been rejected by the New York Film Festival. The question was asked why the allegedly elitist festival pickers for Cannes and New York did not appreciate the merits of a happy film the Parisian public adored. Since I was once an elitist festival picker myself, I kept an open mind on the subject until I could see the film for myself.

At the local screening I attended, much of the audience found the film moderately amusing, but I doubt that it will appeal overall to New Yorkers as much as it did to Parisians. It is a Paris film par excellence, and not without its charms and pleasant eccentricities, but it is much more elaborate and complicated and extended to the point of distension than I had anticipated. If anything, it is overwritten and overdirected for the quaint, simple feelings it attempts to project. In fact, I am a little surprised that the Parisian public loved it so much.

For one thing, Amélie at 8 years old (Flora Guiet) has more funny things happen during her unhappy childhood than the grown-up Amélie (Audrey Tautou) has happen in her interminable career as a meddlesome Miss Fix-It in the lives of a variety of loners, losers and misfits. Ms. Tautou has her moments, but her excruciatingly delayed union with Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) becomes too tedious to be heartwarming.