Coen Bros: The Man Who Wasn’t There

UPDATE: You know, I almost forgot — The Man Who Wasn’t There was shot on color stock which was then desaturated to achieve some of the most lustrous black-and-white photography in cinema history.  However, because of the demands of the marketplace, in some markets the movie was released in color.  For those who wonder what The Man Who Wasn’t There looks like in color, the answer can be found here.

So I’m reading the new biography of Charles Schulz. Schulz, like Bob Dylan and the Coen Bros, was from Minnesota. Like Dylan and the Coen Bros, Schulz consistently, throughout his life, downplayed the cultural significance of his work. Bob Dylan says “I’m just a song and dance man,” the Coens say “O Brother is a simple hick comedy,” and Charles Schulz, to the end of his days, rued the smallness of his ambition, bemoaning the fact that he spent fifty years doing nothing more than drawing a simple comic strip.

Just as Dylan and the Coens have, occasionally, seen fit to acknowledge that yeah, they’re pretty proud of some of their work, Schulz, when pressed, would reveal that he thought of himself as a serious artist doing better work than any of his contemporaries in his field (which, in fact, he was).

Dylan, it is well known, is obsessed with identity and masks, and the Coens have proven to be impenetrable in their interviews. Schulz, as well, said that he wore his unassuming looks as a kind of mask — he always knew he was better than anyone around him, but craved invisibility, anonymity, lest anyone take too much notice of him.

(And then there’s Prince, another Minnesota oddball, who seems to not have gotten the memo about Minnesotans being reserved and self-effacing.)

So: Minnesota, self-effacement, inner pride. Where does this combination come from? It must be something in the water of those 10,000 lakes. But there’s a little bit more. Schulz was taught, from an early age, that the worst thing a man can do is call attention to himself — not out of propriety, but out of self-preservation. He was taught by his father the “Tallest Poppy” philosophy of political rule, wherein the tallest poppies of a community get their blooms cut off by the powers that be. To borrow a WWI image, the man who sticks his head out of the trench is the man who gets his head blown off. Knowledge of this philosophy is useful in politics, notes Schulz’s biographer, but it is equally useful in barbering.

Schulz’s father, and Charlie Brown’s, as every schoolchild knows, was a barber.

Schulz haunts The Man Who Wasn’t There. The movie is set in Santa Rosa, CA, where Schulz eventually made his permanent home, and set in the late 1940s, when Schulz was developing his comic strip, and was made in 2000, right after Schulz’s death. It takes place in a context of postwar anomie and uncertainty, a mine-ridden landscape of paranoia, depression and sublimated, frustrated desire, just as Peanuts does. Schulz, like Ed Crane (the movie’s protagonist), harbors a bleak, pessimistic grudge against the bulk of humanity, one he keeps well hidden. Like Peanuts, the movie occasionally bursts the bounds of its form and becomes weird, philosophical and unapologetically poetic. It also features, of all things, a young pianist who plays Beethoven. Maybe this is all coincidence, maybe not, maybe it’s, as I say, something in the water of Minnesota, but if there were a character in The Man Who Wasn’t There who owns a beagle I would probably jump out of my skin.

If Ed Crane, “the barber,” is Charles Schulz’s father, that would make his wife’s unborn child Schulz himself, a child never given a chance to live in a world too filled with sadness to give him love. Thing is, Schulz would probably recognize that judgment as a sober assessment of his life.

(It might also make the unborn child “the man who wasn’t there,” since he was not allowed to live.)

In any case, enough of that.

THE LITTLE MAN: In this, the least-ironic of all Coen movies (until recently, that is), Ed Crane is a barber who wants to become a dry cleaner. He’s not a three-time loser after a bag of money, or a brilliant young man with a vision, or a desperate man one step ahead of the law. He’s an ordinary man with a perfectly drab ambition. Yet even this tiny little hope for a better life ends up destroying his world, ruining the lives of everyone he knows.

Why does Ed Crane want to become a dry cleaner? As in most Coen movies, it is shown that the ordinary working man is little more than a sheep whose life is spent being prepared for slaughter by the greater forces of capital. “I’m the barber,” says Ed, in a tone of voice that implies that “the barber” is synonymous with “nobody” (Freddie Riedenschneider echoes this sentiment at another point in the movie).

In the Coen world, there simply is no such thing as an honest living. Anyone with money is a fraud, a criminal or insane. Big Dave Brewster seems to be rich, but he’s not, he’s living on his wife’s money. Freddie Riedenschneider has money, but he’s a lawyer, and a fraud on top of it. And they all bow down the The Bank, the institution that patiently stands by, a pillar of the community, waiting for misfortune to strike its citizens so it can accept the assets handed over to it in times of crisis.

So Ed wants to become a dry cleaner because, in his mind, it’s a way to get his head above the rat race. The man he’s investing with, Creighton Tolliver, even assures him that he won’t have to do any work to make money off the business — the perfect American dream, having just enough capital to start a business that someone else will run, while you sit idly by, collecting money from the suckers. He wants to get his head up above the rat race, but, as we see, those who stick their heads up, the tallest poppies, get their heads blown off. That’s how harsh the worldview of The Man Who Wasn’t There is: even a barber who wishes only to become a dry-cleaner is guilty of hubris, and must be destroyed by the powers-that-be.

Where is there hope in The Man Who Wasn’t There? Ed seeks value in Art, the intangible something that seems to suggest that beauty and balance and the sublime are possible — and he is told, forcefully, to seek value elsewhere. Walter Abundas, Ed’s lawyer friend, seeks solace in the study of genealogy — he finds comfort in roots, in people long dead. And that’s about all Man offers in terms of hope. Big Dave eats and smokes and brags and embezzles, Doris drinks and smokes and reads magazines, her brother Frank doesn’t seem to have brain in his head, Freddie Riedenschneider lies and eats, and Creighton Tolliver wants only to start a business. (It turns out, against all odds, that Tolliver is not a fraud — he’s just one more guy who stuck his head up and got it shot off.)

(It’s also worth noting that classical music, which symbolizes “Art” for this movie, is also used as a force of crass capitalism, as Freddie Riedenschneider is seen preparing for his court appearance in the “Turandot Suite” of his hotel and stuffing his face at a restaurant called Da Vinci’s — so much for art supplying life with beauty and meaning.)

There is also a tender, convincing love story at the center of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Ed is married to Doris, although he can’t really think of a good reason why, and decides to exploit his marriage for capital gain. The results of his attempt are disastrous, but as the movie goes on, we see Ed, in his own quiet way, finally fall in love with his wife. There is no love scene more sweet and honestly felt in the Coen cannon than the one where Ed confesses the murder of Big Dave to Freddie Riedenschneider and the two of them trade sad, loving glances across the table, as though Doris is finally seeing Ed for the first time and liking what she sees. If Doris could speak in that scene, I think she would say something like “Ed, I never knew — if you had told me you were capable of blackmail and murder, I think I could have loved you.”

Because the one thing that Ed and Doris share is their contempt for humanity. Doris is capable of expressing hers, Ed is not. Doris can get drunk and curse out her family, or tell a pesky salesman to fuck off, or laugh in the face of a murder accusation. Ed is capable of little besides a tiny nod of his head, but his dread and hatred of people is palpable.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: The police in The Man Who Wasn’t There are interesting. They are not thugs, brutes or clowns, as they are in other Coen movies. What they are are, to a man, self-loathing. They gripe about pulling shit detail, they get depressed about having to break bad news, they mope and drink and sigh and curse.

If the noirs of Chandler and Cain took place against the backdrop of World War II, with the detectives representing stand-ins for American soldiers, the noir of Man has a specifically postwar bent, with those same soldiers feeling guilty and ashamed of the actions they were required to take against the enemy. The Japanese theater of the war is explicitly invoked several times in Man, as well as Nagasaki. To a large extent, the euphoria of America’s victory in WWII gave way quickly to a sense of guilt and dishonor, since we knew that, on some level, we had cheated to win and, in the process, had ushered into the world a horror a thousand times worse than a sneak attack on a military base in Hawaii.

(Strangely, Barton Fink takes place at the time of Pearl Harbor, in Los Angeles no less, but alludes only to the Germans and Italians — conversely, Man talks only about the war against Japan and does not mention Germany or Italy at all [unless you count the Italians Doris is related to].)

(And, for the record, Charles Schulz fought in WWII, but in Europe, not the Pacific.)

The anxiety the US felt about the atom age became expressed in tales of UFO sightings, a fact Man expresses with great comic skill and no small amount of poetry. In a way, you could say that Man is about 1949 — it’s almost as though the Coens decided on a date, then looked at an almanac of “things prevalent in 1949,” then wrote a plot based on that list. Postwar anxiety — check, dry-cleaning — check, UFO fever — check, the rise of men’s magazines — check, the postwar boom in classical music — check.

HAIR: Ed worries a lot about hair. What is it, where does it come from, why does it grow, how does it relate to the possibility of a soul? In a brilliant move of philosophical jiu-jitsu, Ed reasons that, if hair keeps growing after the body dies, “the soul” is the thing that keeps it growing, and when the soul dies, then the hair stops. Otherwise, why would it keep growing? Of course, he answers his own question, in another scene, while thinking about dry-cleaning: “chemicals,” he intones, and the single word wraps up the totality of mid-20th-century discomfort — where are we going, what have we done, what does anything mean any more?

(As a side note, let me mention that Ed shaves Doris’s leg as he plans the scheme that will end in her death — likewise, his leg is shaved by a prison employee as he goes to the electric chair.)

THE MELTING POT: Race is always important in a Coen movie, yet in Man the issue becomes cloudy. Ed seems pretty WASPy, that seems clear enough, but he’s married to Doris, who is played by Frances McDormand, who is not Italian, yet she is the sister of Frank, who is played by Michael Badalucco, who very much is Italian, and Doris even goes out of her way to insult her family as “wops.” Is she supposed to be Italian, or adopted, or what? Likewise, Big Dave is played by the manifestly Italian James Gandofini, yet his name is Dave Brewster, which indicates that perhaps he has changed it, as many Italians did in the US, the better to improve their circumstances, to get their heads out of the rat race. In contrast, “Guzzi,” the long-dead originator of the barber shop where Ed and Frank work, is an example of the Italian immigrant who didn’t change his name, and thus was “the barber,” relegated to a lifetime of anonymous irrelevance. Likewise, Creighton Tolliver is played by the unabashedly Italian Jon Polito, another example of an immigrant seeking a higher station in life through a change of names. Likewise, the “Frenchman” who teaches piano in San Francisco is played by Adam Alexi-Malle, who is Spanish, Italian and Sienese — but not French. Freddie Riedenschneider, for his part, is a typical Coenesque Jew, and is played by Lebanese actor (and fellow Midwesterner) Tony Shaloub.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Freddie Riedenschneider cannot be sure of the name of the man who devised the Uncertainty Principle. He also totally misrepresents it — which is fine, since his interpretation matches most laypersons understanding of the concept.


The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the Coens’ most straightforward, honest and heartfelt movies — no wonder it bombed. They stuck their heads up and got them blown off.

What they’ve done, in a way, is expose the subtext of noir — if noir was about wartime stress and postwar anxiety dressed up in the language of lies and betrayals, then Man states those themes explicitly. Freddie Riedenschneider points to Ed and calls him “Modern Man,” and I honestly think the Coens, with that speech, indulge in a rare moment of hand-tipping. I think they really mean for Ed to be a symbol of Modern Man, and they are very serious about his quiet search for beauty and meaning in a hollow world of talkers.

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10 Responses to “Coen Bros: The Man Who Wasn’t There”
  1. As far as Minnesota goes, don’t forget Hüsker Dü!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just another gabber

    You didn’t bring in your Coen Bros.’ talker-vs.-nontalker theme, possbily because it’s so strong in this movie that it wasn’t worth your effort to lay out. But one thing that intrigues me is how Ed Crane practically defines the role of Nontalker, yet narrates the entire story — and, it turns out, is being paid 5 cents a word to do so.

    On your point about “art” (particularly classical music) being both rememptive and crass commercialism: The perfect example is how Ed sees Bertie’s music as both a cleansing force for him and his gateway to a new life as her manager (a dream literally crushed, of course).


    • Todd says:

      Re: Just another gabber

      it turns out, is being paid 5 cents a word to do so.

      Talk, when Ed finally does it, is not cheap.

      Indeed, this is the Coens’ most forceful and singular statement on talkers vs. non-talkers, a point that Ed makes several times over.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Interestingly enough (to me, at least), Bruce Campbell was up for the role of the tarmacadam salesman which went to Christopher McDonald. I was also curious about your take on that scene. Based on its placement in the film, do you think it’s an actual memory of Ed Crane’s or is it only in his imagination, expressing how much he misses her directness in dealing with the world?

    • Todd says:

      It seems clear enough to me that it’s a memory, but there’s no reason it can’t work as a fantasy.

      • craigjclark says:

        Another aspect of the film that I find fascinating is, like Lebowski, is has a false ending where it seems like the story has been wrapped up (it’s after Doris has been executed and Crane has hired a replacement for his brother-in-law at the barber shop). There is a great sense of finality to the way he says, “I was the barber.” Of course, the Coens aren’t finished with him just yet.

        • Todd says:

          That plot structure is a nod to the novels of James M. Cain, who was a master of the third act improbable twist (which is, in my opinion, what has sunk every adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice).

  4. urbaniak says:

    I love James Gandolfini but Big Dave Brewster seems like a quintessential John Goodman part; I can only assume he wasn’t available.

    • Todd says:

      According to Eddie Robson’s Coen Brothers, they not only pursued Gandolfini but had to “twist his arm” to get him to commit, as he was between seasons on The Sopranos and wanted some time off.

      • Anonymous says:

        Was the Man Charlie Brown?

        I have been hinking about the connection between Coen’s screenplay and The Peanuts ever since I saw the movie. St. Paul, end of the 1940’s, barbershop, red-haired girl playing Beethoven, etc. – so it all COULD be a coincidence… exept for there never are coincidences in the Coen movies… and today, when I was reading EMPIRE (#223, Jan 2008, “The Complete Coens” p. 181) …the article about TMWWT reminded that the electric chair is nicknamed “Ol’ Sparky” !!!
        Ok, now check out Gilbert Shelton’s beautiful and funny The Fabulous Freak Brothers -adventure “The Grass Roots” and compare its ending with the ending of “O Brother, where art thou!” …

        Good grief and happy holidays!
        Vesa Kataisto, Finland