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The Man Who Wasn't There is a 2001 neo-noir film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Billy Bob Thornton stars in the title role. Also featured are James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, and Coen regulars Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, and Jon Polito.

Concept and production

The film was inspired by a poster that the Coen brothers saw while filming The Hudsucker Proxy; the poster showed various haircuts from the 1940s. The story takes place in 1949 and, Joel Coen admits, is "heavily influenced by" the work of James M. Cain, a writer best known for the novels Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce. Many critics have also noticed a striking resemblance between the film and Albert Camus' The Stranger

The cinematography practised by Roger Deakins is straightforward and traditional. Most shots are made with the camera at eye level, with normal lensing and a long depth of field. The lighting is textbook, with the usual sort of quarter-light setup. The cinematography, combined with the consistent, accurate use of 1950s props and sets, could make even a careful viewer think the film was made 50 years ago. When Ed appears onscreen, he is almost always shown smoking an unfiltered Chesterfield, another detail true to the era in which the film is set. The Man Who Wasn't There was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2001.

The film contains several mentions of UFO throughout, in dreams and in conversation, as well as in various props, including an ashtray.

Though a black and white film, The Man Who Wasn't There was shot in color and transferred to black and white. Some prints were accidentally released with the first couple of reels in color. Color DVDs of the film are available in Europe and Japan.


Set in and around Santa Rosa, Californiamarker in 1949, the film follows Ed Crane, a suburban barber, married to Doris, a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris' boss at Nirdlinger's, the local department store, is "Big Dave" Brewster, a loud, boisterous man, who constantly brags about his combat adventures in the Pacific Theatre during World War II where he claims to have served as a crack infantry trooper. Ed, by contrast, was rejected from the army due to flat feet and shows little emotion. Ed suspects that Doris and Big Dave are having an affair.

The barber shop where Ed works is owned by his brother-in-law Frank, a good-natured man of Italian ancestry who talks incessantly. A customer named Creighton Tolliver tells Ed that he's a businessman looking for investors in a new technology called dry cleaning. Ed decides he wants to invest and schemes to get the money by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave for the $10,000 he needs. Big Dave, not suspecting anything, confides in Ed that he's being blackmailed, asking for guidance. Ed advises him to pay. Dave delivers the money without seeing Ed make the pick-up.

Ed brings the money to Tolliver, who subsequently disappears, leaving Ed to believe that he has been scammed. Big Dave calls Ed, asking him to meet at Nirdlinger's. Tolliver (whom Big Dave refers to as the "pansy" due to his apparent homosexuality) had also approached Big Dave, asking him for $10,000. Thinking it too much of a coincidence that he was asked for the same sum of money he was blackmailed for, Brewster tracked the man down and beat a confession out of him. Enraged by Ed's betrayal, Brewster attacks Ed and begins to strangle him. Ed stabs him in the neck with a knife that Dave kept in his office as a cigar cutter and Brewster dies. Ed goes home, where his wife is still unconscious from her alcoholic binge at the wedding they had attended that day.

Once evidence of Doris' affair with Big Dave is uncovered, and since she can't account for her activities (she was passed out drunk) at the time of the murder, she becomes the prime suspect. With the local lawyers deemed insufficient for such an important case, Ed is persuaded to hire Freddy Riedenschneider, an expensive defense attorney from Sacramento who arrives and takes up residence in the best and most expensive hotel in town.

While Ed, Doris and Riedenschneider are brainstorming defense strategies, Ed confesses to the murder. Riedenschneider blows him off, thinking Ed is simply fabricating an uncorroborated story to cover for his wife. Instead, Riedenschneider thinks that he's found a winning legal strategy when a private detective he'd hired digs up evidence that Big Dave was lying about his war heroism. The lawyer plans to present an alternate theory that the real killer was someone who was blackmailing Dave with this information.

On the first day of the trial Doris and the judge are both late. When the judge arrives, he calls the counsel to the bench and dismisses the case. Doris has committed suicide, hanging herself in her jail cell. Riedenschneider leaves with all of Ed's life savings. An autopsy later reveals that Doris was pregnant, despite not having sex with Ed for years.

All during the trial, Ed had been visiting Birdy Abundas, a friend's teenage daughter. The girl is a pianist; Ed wants to pay for her to have lessons, and to help her have a music career. Driving her back from an unsuccessful attempt to impress a piano teacher, the girl makes a pass at Ed and attempts to perform oral sex on him. Ed tries to stop her; the car swerves across the road to avoid hitting an oncoming car and crashes.

When Ed awakens in a hospital bed, two police officers tell him he's under arrest for murder. Ed assumes that Birdy died in the crash, but it turns out that Birdy is fine and he's actually being arrested for Tolliver's murder. A young boy swimming in a lake discovered Tolliver, beaten to death by Brewster and submerged in his car. In his briefcase is the contract Ed signed; the police now believe that Ed coerced his wife into embezzling the money from Nirdlinger's to use in the investment, and that Ed is the person who killed the "pansy."

Ed is arraigned for the murder and mortgages his house to re-hire Riedenschneider. His opening statement to the jury is interrupted when Ed's brother-in-law Frank attacks Ed; a mistrial is declared. With no money and nothing left to mortgage, Ed is given the inadequate local lawyer. The new lawyer guides Ed to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. The gambit doesn't work, and the judge sentences him to death.

Ed writes his story out from his cell on death row, to sell to a pulp magazine that pays him by the word. While waiting on death row, he dreams of walking out to the prison courtyard and seeing a flying saucer, to which he reacts with a simple nod. At the end of the film he is walked to the electric chair and strapped in, where he sits thinking about meeting his wife and possibly having the words to explain his thoughts to her, but mainly thinking about how he is unhappy about some of the consequences of his actions, but not unhappy that he took action and spiced up his life.



Joel Coen won the Best Director Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, sharing it with David Lynch for his film Mulholland Dr.


The original soundtrack to The Man Who Wasn't There consists of classical music, mainly piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, interspersed with cues composed by Carter Burwell. The film is the ninth on which Burwell has collaborated with the Coen Brothers.

Compositions by Carter Burwell except where otherwise noted.
  1. "Birdy's 'Pathétique'" (Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor Op. 13 by Beethoven) – 1:17
    • Performed by Jonathan Feldman
  2. "Che soave zeffiretto" (from The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) – 3:33
  3. "Bringing Doris Home" (Piano Sonata No. 25 in G Op. 79 by Beethoven) – 1:18
    • Performed by Jonathan Feldman
  4. "I Met Doris Blind" – 1:15
  5. "Ed Visits Dave" – 1:03
  6. "Ed Returns Home" (Piano Sonata No.23 "Appassionata" 2nd Movement by Beethoven) – 1:57
  7. "I Love You Birdy Abundas!" – 0:42
  8. "Nirdlinger's Swing" – 5:12
  9. "Moonlight Sonata" (Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 by Beethoven) – 2:29
    • Performed by Jonathan Feldman
  10. "The Fight" – 3:01
  11. "The Bank" – 1:03
  12. "Adagio Cantabile" (Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor Op. 13 by Beethoven) – 5:33
    • Performed by Jonathan Feldman
  13. "The Trial of Ed Crane" – 3:52
  14. "Andante Cantabile" (Piano Trio No. 7 in B flat Op. 97 by Beethoven) – 13:28


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