"A movie about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner"There is a totally emotionless barber named Ed Crane. It's 1949 and a bald man, Creighton Tolliver, has some sales pitch about "Dry Cleaning". Ed's wife, Doris, is having an affair with her boss, "Big" Dave Brewster. Ed decides to blackmail the pair to pay for a silent partnership. When Mr. Tolliver asks Mr. Brewster for the same amount of money for which he was being blackmailed, Mr. Brewster finds Mr. Tolliver and beats the whole story out of him. From there, things spiral out of control.A Film Noir from infamous oddballs The Coen Brothers, played so straight that James M. Cain could have written it without any changes.
— The pitch for the movie.
This film provides examples of:
- Amoral Attorney: The lawyer hired to defend Doris is willing to spin any tale to get her off the hook, so long as he thinks the jury might buy it. When Ed makes a confession to him, he dismisses it out of hand, saying it's too cockamamie a story for anyone to believe.
- Alien Abduction: According to his wife Big Dave was abducted; she thinks he was killed by The Government to cover it up
- Arc Words: "What kind of a man are you?"
- Big Eater: Freddy Reidenschnieder
- Contemplate Our Navels: "The hair. It keeps growing... It's part of us. And we cut it off."
- Chewbacca Defense:
- Freddy Riedenschnieder's defense of Doris Crane involves a truly baffling spiel about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
- And from the second trial where he spouts weird, vaguely existentialist drivel about Ed being a "New Man" in this morally ambiguous modern world who thus presumably is not responsible: "He told them to look, not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning."
- Downer Ending
- Deliberately Monochrome
- Driven to Suicide: Doris, because her affair with Big Dave will become public when her pregnancy is revealed.
- Dull Surprise: Ed Crane, the character, has no emotions.
- Film Noir: Played straight to the point it snaps.
- Flamboyant Gay: Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver. He made a pass at Ed by sitting back on his bed, winking at him and loosening his necktie. Most people today would consider that "relaxing," but apparently in 1940s America it was a blatant come-on. You couldn't be too flamboyant without getting arrested.
- Framing the Guilty Party: Category 2, in a way. While Ed, Doris, and Riedenschneider are brainstorming Doris's defense, Ed states that he killed Big Dave. Riedenschneider doesn't notice (or doesn't care) that he just confessed to the crime, and mulls over how well accusing Ed of murdering Big Dave in a jealous rage would hold up in court. He rules it out for being too implausible.
- The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
- I'll Never Tell You What I'm Telling You: Ridenschneider comes up with a theory about Big Dave being blackmailed to get Doris acquitted, but needs her to corroborate the story. Legally, he can't suborn perjury, so he insists that he's not telling her what to say."They called, they demanded money. Did Big Dave mention that it was something about his war service? I don't know, I wasn't there, you'll have to tell us. Maybe he specified, maybe he didn't; I'm not putting words in your mouth..."
- I Should Write a Book About This: Just before his execution Ed writes his life story for publication in a pulp men's magazine. He apologizes to the audience for the unnecessary digressions in the story we have just heard narrated, explaining he was paid by the word.
- It Will Never Catch On: "Dry" Cleaning. Subverted in that it doesn't, instead the salesman is murdered!
- Phony Veteran: "Big" Dave Brewster boast about his heroic exploits in the pacific theater of world war II while it turns out he in fact served throughout the war in a administrative capacity in the San Franciso naval yard.
- The Pollyanna: Ed is perhaps the oddest version in film history, mixed with enormous amounts of apathy and stoicism. Even with all the bad things that happen, he never holds anyone up for blame and is unresentful of even the worst that fate hands him. Even at the end, he holds no ill will against the world.
- Narrator: Ed Crane. Oddly enough, the least smart ass person in the world.
- Shout-Out: A notable one to The Night of the Hunter.
- Smoking Is Cool: Seriously, don't watch this movie if you've recently quit smoking.
- The Stoic: Ed Crane.
- Twice Told Tale: The similarities to Albert Camus' L'Étranger are undeniable.