Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Go To
"A movie about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner."
— The pitch for the movie.

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 film stars Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Shalhoub, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins and Jon Polito. Jennifer Jason Leigh has an uncredited cameo as a female prison inmate.

Not to be confused with the 1983 comedy film starring Steve Guttenberg.

This film provides examples of:

  • The '40s: The film is set in the latter part of the decade.
  • 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. She doesn't know that he was killed by Ed in self-defense.
  • Arc Words: "What kind of a man are you?"
  • Big Eater: Freddy Riedenschneider.
  • Blackmail: After Creighton Tolliver pitches to Ed the idea of dry cleaning, Ed decides to collect money by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave, whom he (correctly) suspects is having an affair with Doris.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Big Dave soon put together the scheme, and beats Tolliver until he implicates Ed. As it turns out, Tolliver ended up dying, and the police found his body with Ed's investment contract, and Ed is arrested. The police then speculate that Ed coerced Doris into embezzling the investment money, and when Tolliver found out, he was killed, so Ed ends up being sentenced to death.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: "The hair. It keeps growing... It's part of us. And we cut it off."
  • Chewbacca Defense:
    • Freddy Riedenschneider'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."
  • Deliberately Monochrome: A movie in black-and-white made in 2001. Deliberately as it is set in The '40s and it's a pitch-black Film Noir.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Ed casually calls Mr. Tolliver, who is gay, "the pansy", not really as a slur so much as an appellation.
    • In addition, there are plenty of references to "Japs" and "Wops".
  • Dodgy Toupee: Tolliver wears one when he first comes into the barbershop.
  • Downer Ending: Doris hangs herself while in jail, and Ed ends up being executed for the murder of Tolliver, when it was actually Big Dave. (Though Ed did kill Big Dave in self-defense.)
  • 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.
  • Fille Fatale: Birdy. When driving back from visiting the teacher, Birdy makes a pass at Ed and attempts to perform oral sex on him, causing Ed to lose control of the car and crash.
  • 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.
  • French Jerk: Jacques Carcanogues, the piano teacher that Ed takes Birdy to in San Francisco, has a reputation as being the very best of his profession, as many of his students have moved on to highly illustrious musical careers. He knows it too. He considers Birdy's musical abilities to be mediocre and totally lacking in creativity, and makes no bones about informing Ed of this fact in the rudest way possible, even suggesting her best career option would be to join a typing pool.
  • Hope Spot: Freddy Riedenschneider's defense of Ed (see Chewbacca Defense above) seems to be working with the jury, as Ed admits...and that's when Frank comes up behind Ed, knocks him to the floor, and starts yelling at him, which forces a mistrial, which means Ridenschneider is off the case, which means Ed is found guilty.
  • 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!
  • Literary Allusion Title: Taken from the 1899 poem "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns.
  • Narrator: Ed Crane. Oddly enough, the least smart ass person in the world.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Phony Veteran: "Big" Dave Brewster boasts 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 Francisco 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.
  • Sexless Marriage: After Diedrickson tells Ed of his wife Doris being pregnant, Ed's nonchalant reply is that they haven't had sex for years, causing the man's awkward reply of "Well, it's none of my business."
  • Shout-Out: Nirdlinger is the name of the female lead and her husband in the novel version of Double Indemnity; in The Film of the Book this becomes Dietrichson, similar to the pathologist's name of Diedrickson. Also from the same film, the layout of Nirdlinger's department store resembles the Pacific All Risk offices.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Seriously, don't watch this movie if you've recently quit smoking.
  • The Stoic: Ed Crane.
  • Third-Person Person: Freddy Riedenschneider often does this, saying, "Freddy Riedenschnieder can't do the impossible."
  • Twice-Told Tale: The similarities to Albert Camus' L'Étranger are undeniable.