The Man Who Wasn't There (2001 film)

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The Man Who Wasn't There
The Man Who Wasnt There.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Written by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Editing by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
  • (as Roderick Jaynes)
Distributed by
Release dates
  • May 13, 2001 (2001-05-13) (Cannes)
  • October 26, 2001 (2001-10-26) (United Kingdom)
  • November 2, 2001 (2001-11-02) (United States)
Running time 116 minutes [1]
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
Budget $20 million
Box office $18,916,623[2]

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


In 1949, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in the town of Santa Rosa, California, is married to Doris (Frances McDormand), a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris' boss at Nirdlinger's, the local department store, is "Big Dave" Brewster (James Gandolfini), 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 his foot condition (flat feet). 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 (Jon Polito) tells Ed that he's a businessman looking for investors to put up $10,000 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 money. Big Dave, unaware of Ed's scheme, confides to Ed that he's being blackmailed, asking for guidance. Ed advises him to pay. Dave delivers the money to a pre-arranged drop-off location.

Ed retrieves the money, delivers it to Tolliver, and signs partnership paperwork. During the transaction, Tolliver makes an awkward sexual advance, which is rebuffed. Big Dave calls Ed, asking him to meet at Nirdlinger's. Unbeknownst to Ed, Tolliver (whom Big Dave refers to as the "pansy") 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 as the blackmail demand, Big Dave had tracked down Tolliver and beat a confession out of him. With Tolliver no longer the suspect, Big Dave realizes Ed is the blackmailer. During their late-night meeting at Nirdlinger's, Big Dave accuses Ed of blackmail, then attacks and attempts to strangle him. Ed fatally stabs him in the neck with a knife Dave kept in his office as a cigar cutter. Ed goes home, where his wife is still unconscious from her alcoholic binge at a wedding they had attended that day. Once evidence of Doris' affair with Big Dave is uncovered, and since she cannot account for her behavior due to her inebriated state at the time of the murder, she becomes the prime suspect. The local lawyers are deemed insufficient for such an important case, so Ed is persuaded to hire Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), an expensive defense attorney from Sacramento, who arrives and takes up residence in the best and most expensive hotel in town. He proceeds to live lavishly on Ed's defense fund (obtained from a bank which accepted his brother-in-law's barber shop as collateral).

Meanwhile, Big Dave's widow, Ann (Katherine Borowitz), stops by Ed's house to convince him that she knows Doris did not murder Big Dave. She then tells him of a camping trip she had taken with Big Dave outside of Eugene, Oregon, the previous summer. She claims that an alien space ship landed near their campsite, and Big Dave was taken aboard the ship. She insists that Big Dave's murder is part of a government conspiracy to cover up the alien abduction. While Ed, Doris, and Riedenschneider are brainstorming defense strategies, Ed confesses to the murder. Riedenschneider dismisses the confession, thinking Ed is simply fabricating an uncorroborated story to cover for his wife. Instead, Riedenschneider thinks 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 by hanging herself in her jail cell. Riedenschneider leaves town disgusted. An autopsy later reveals Doris was pregnant, despite not having had sex with Ed for years. All during the trial, Ed had been visiting Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), a friend's teenage daughter. Ed is enthralled by her piano-playing and wants to pay for further lessons to help her have a career as a pianist. Driving her back from an unsuccessful attempt to impress a piano teacher, Jacques Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle), Birdy 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 it crashes.

When Ed awakens in a hospital bed, two police officers (Christopher Kriesa and Brian Haley) tell him he's under arrest for murder. Ed assumes Birdy died in the crash, but it turns out Birdy survived with only a broken clavicle and he is 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 dry cleaning agreement signed by Ed; the police believe Ed coerced Doris into embezzling the money from Nirdlinger's to use in the investment, and Ed killed Tolliver. 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 (Michael Badalucco) 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 pencils his story sitting in 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. 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. He says he feels bad for the pain he caused others, but regrets none of his actions; he used to regret being a barber.


Concept and production[edit]

The film, which takes place in 1949, was inspired by a poster that the Coen brothers saw while filming The Hudsucker Proxy; the poster showed various haircuts from the 1940s. Many critics have also noticed a striking resemblance between the film and Albert Camus' The Stranger. [3]

The cinematography of 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 quarter-light setups. 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 UFOs 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.[4]


The film was well received by audiences and praised for its technique and performances. Billy Bob Thornton was highly praised in the role of Ed Crane. Richard Schickel for Time said that, "Affectlessness is not a quality much prized in movie protagonists, but Billy Bob Thornton, that splendid actor, does it perfectly as Ed Crane, a taciturn small-town barber, circa 1949."

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader praised that "Joel and Ethan Coen stay true to their bent for dense heroes and neonoir, and to their unshakable conviction that life usually turns out to be splendidly horrific."

Tim Robey for the Daily Telegraph said that it's "A perfectly executed illustration of what is not, quite, great about the Coen brothers, which is a kind of grandstanding, and another kind of weirdly alienating insincerity." The film holds an 81% "fresh" rating on the movie-review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes[5]


Joel Coen won the Best Director Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, sharing it with David Lynch for his film Mulholland Drive.[6]


The Man Who Wasn't There
Soundtrack album by Carter Burwell and various artists
Released October 30, 2001
Recorded 2001
Genre Film score
Length 45:43
Label Decca
Coen Brothers film soundtracks chronology
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Man Who Wasn't There
Intolerable Cruelty

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.

In the film, the actor Adam Alexi-Malle, portraying the character of Jacques Carcanogues, plays the opening piano solo of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (Liszt) in E♭Major.

Compositions by Carter Burwell except where otherwise noted.

  1. "Birdy's 'Pathétique'" (Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor Op. 13 by Beethoven) - Jonathan Feldman – 1:17
  2. "Che soave zeffiretto" (from The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) - Edith Mathis and Gundula Janowitz (with the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, conducted by Karl Böhm) – 3:33
  3. "Bringing Doris Home" (Piano Sonata Op. 79 by Beethoven) - Jonathan Feldman – 1:18
  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) - Jonathan Feldman – 2:29
  10. "The Fight" – 3:01
  11. "The Bank" – 1:03
  12. "Adagio Cantabile" (Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor Op. 13 by Beethoven) - Jonathan Feldman – 5:33
  13. "The Trial of Ed Crane" – 3:52
  14. "Andante Cantabile" (Piano Trio No. 7 in B flat Op. 97 ("Archduke") by Beethoven) - the Beaux Arts Trio – 13:28


  1. ^ "The Man Who Wasn't There (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 2001-09-14. Retrieved 2011-10-01. 
  2. ^ The Man Who Wasn't There at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ "The Man Who Wasn’t There". Metaphilm. 2003-06-02. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Man Who Wasn't There Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Man Who Wasn't There". Retrieved 2009-10-18. 

External links[edit]