© 2020, by M. Keith Booker
There is a story by the famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, written in the form of a piece of literary criticism, in which fictional modern French writer Pierre Menard is described as having independently authored a text that turns out to be identical, word-for-word, with the pioneering 1602 Spanish novel Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes.In this story/critical discussion—entitled “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939)—it is concluded that, due to differences in historical context, Menard’s Quixote is, in fact, an entirely different work than the one authored by Cervantes. Moreover, the piece concludes that Menard’s novel is actually the superior of the two, having gained richness and resonance from the intervening four hundred years of history. Put differently, because of the change in historical context, Menard’s narrative takes place in a different universe than does Cervantes’. The Coen Brothers recreate earlier cultural artifacts less exactly than Menard replicates Cervantes, but in a sense the effect is a similar one that involves breathing new life into old motifs by re-introducing them in new contexts. One of the clearest ways in which this revision occurs in the work of the Coens is in their frequent use of images and ideas from earlier genres, such as film noir, a genre whose motifs were already being widely replicated and revitalized through the phenomenon of neo-noir, even before the Coens came along to give neo-noir their own distinctive twist.
Blood Simple: Texas Noir
When the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, was released in 1984, neo-noir films had already gained considerable momentum. After a few scattered false starts in the 1960s, this resurrection of film noir had begun in earnest when Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) so convincingly demonstrated that film noir, very much a creature of the 1940s and 1950s, still had considerable unexplored potential for the post-Code, New Hollywood generation of filmmakers. Several other important neo-noir films appeared in the 1970s (such as Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, in 1975), but it wasn’t until the early 1980s when neo-noir really began to gather steam. In 1981, Bob Rafelson’s remake of 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice didn’t really go that far beyond the original, but it did give a boost to the neo-noir movement by featuring A-list Hollywood stars in Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. That same year,Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat demonstrated the potential for graphic eroticism of a noir form now freed of the shackles of Production Code censorship; then, in 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner demonstrated the ability of the basic noir formula to spill over into other genres—in this case sophisticated science fiction. After that it was off to the races, as any number of filmmakers tried their hands at taking noir into new territory, whether it be generic, thematic, or geographic.
Enter the Coen Brothers. While many neo-noir films were moving into the realm of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas, Blood Simple was a decidedly low-budget affair, financed with contributions from individual private investors (mostly rich Jews from Minnesota) solicited via Joel’s one-on-one pitch campaign that involved a simple homemade trailer that prominently featured a shot of light shining through bullet holes in a wall. An unknown who had previously worked mostly in porn, Barry Sonnenfeld, came on as the cinematographer, and an unknown actress, Frances McDormand, was cast as the female lead after the Coens’ first choice, Holly Hunter (at the time, not that well known herself), turned them down. In short, the film had many of the gritty, outside-the-mainstream ingredients that had made so many noir films special in the first place. It also seemed like anything but a guaranteed success.
Sonnenfeld, of course, would go on to become a successful director in his own right, if not a particularly inventive one. For her own part, McDormand would go on to become one of the greatest actors of her generation, a true treasure of American cinema. And the Coens would go on to become the Coens. They were, in fact, already the Coens back in 1984, and their first film, despite the low budget and the inexperience of almost everyone involved, shows a surprising number of the elements that would distinguish their entire career. One of these was their unique way of engaging with genre. Blood Simple was certainly an important contribution to the rising tide of neo-noir, and it is rightly considered by many to be among the greatest of all neo-noir films. But even in this film the Coens already showed a daring willingness to step outside of the conventions of genre altogether. As Cathleen Falsani aptly puts it, the film“is in many ways an homage to Hammett and film noir but with decidedly modern twists. Blood Simple uses the film noir themes of alienation, uncertainty, subterfuge, and double-cross—but it cleverly subverts and inverts them.”
One unusual aspect of Blood Simple as a film noir is its Texas setting, so different from the urban settings of most noir films, which tend to be set in places like Los Angeles or New York. The filmbegins with a sequence of shots of a desolate Texas landscape, oil rigs and refineries off in the distance to emphasize the setting. Indeed, the film was shot on location in Austin, Texas, where Joel had briefly attended graduate film school, setting a precedent for the location shooting that would become a consistent feature of the Coens’ work—though the film never specifies that the action is taking place in Austin, only that it is taking place in Texas. Meanwhile, the film begins (as would many subsequent films by the Coens) with a voice-over narration. In this case, the narrator issues ominous warnings about all the things that can go wrong in life, followed by the somewhat surprising declaration that “in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else: that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.”
The film thus foregrounds its Texas setting from the very beginning, making it clear that this setting will be important. Meanwhile, this opening narration identifies Texas as a land of stark individualism—a characterization that has long been central to the cinematic depiction of the state. It is perhaps also typical of the state’s representation in popular culture to see it as the opposite of the Soviet Union. What is not typical, however, is that this comparison appears here to work to the advantage of the Soviets, emphasizing not the strength and independence of the state’s individuals but the utter inability of anyone in the state to rely on anyone else for support.
Of course, the narrator who delivers this message is a shabby, folksy Texas private eye by the name of Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), a less than admirable character in the film. Visser is also an extreme cynic, so perhaps his negative assessment of Texas should be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, the neo-noir story of deception and betrayal that follows appears to back up Visser’s every-man-for-himself vision of Texas culture. In any case, the Texas of Blood Simple is a lonely place, its wide-open spaces serving as a visual emblem of the emotional distances that separate the characters, its stretches of empty highway echoing the empty hearts (and minds) of almost everyone in the film.
In this sense, though the film might appear, at first glance, to be oriented toward pure entertainment, it can actually be read as a rather effective critique of Texas individualism that reveals the dark heart of the self-reliance that has conventionally been presented so positively in American culture. In this sense, the Coens, who cannot be described as political filmmakers in any conventional sense, nevertheless produce a film that can be read as highly political, especially given that the ideology of individualism is one of the key underpinnings of American capitalism—and of the American “way.” Such criticisms of the fundamentals of American ideology are highly unusual for Hollywood film today, though they are not necessarily unusual in film noir. Indeed, this aspect of Blood Simple also reveals that Texas is, in fact, an ideal setting for film noir, precisely because its individualist culture lends itself to the loneliness and treachery that are central to the genre.
This is not to say, of course, that the Coens were intentionally constructing a brilliant Marxist critique of alienation under capitalism or a profound existentialist commentary on the loneliness of human existence in the modern world, using the Texas setting to help them make their points. The Coens have made it clear in multiple interviews that they are perfectly happy to have people see their films in such ways, but that they themselves do not. More than anything, they make films of the kind they themselves like to watch, adding their own spin. In the case of Blood Simple, a big part of that spin is the Texas setting. In addition to their effective use of the Texas landscape, for example, the Coens get a great deal of mileage out of the Texas accents of many of the characters, a technique the Coens would use in many of their subsequent films, perhaps most effectively with their use of the Minnesota accents of most of the characters in Fargo (1996). In any case, one gauge of the effectiveness of the Texas setting of Blood Simple is that the film, when remade by the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou (as A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop) in 2009, simply did not translate well to its new Chinese setting, despite Zhang’s immense talents.
What is perhaps most impressive about the use of the Texas setting in Blood Simple is that the Coens, two fancily-educated Jewish boys from way up north, treat the setting in a way that is entirely free of condescension or hostility, despite the fact that none of the members of the love triangle at the heart of the film seem to be very bright. These characters include Abby (McDormand) and her husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), the proprietor of a local dive, “Julian’s Dessau Dance Hall,” which supplies a suitably seedy setting for much of the action of the film—reminiscent of the rundown bars and diners and road houses that populate so many noir films. The third member of the triangle is Ray (John Getz), a bartender who works for Marty.
One could argue that Ray’s and Abby’s Texas accents make them seem even dumber than they otherwise would. But the evil Visser, who seems to be the smartest of the major characters (even though he bungles the killing of Abby, leading to his own death), also has a Texas accent, while Marty (who is both dumb and evil) does not have a Texas accent, but is simply played in the natural accent of Hedaya, a New York Jew. In any case, the film never suggests that its characters are dumb because they are from Texas—they’re just dumb people who happen to live in Texas.
In terms of the Texas setting, it is worth mentioning that Meurice, Ray’s fellow bartender at the “dance hall,” is black but that his race has essentially nothing to do with his role in the film. Indeed, in this alternate reality Texas, race does not seem to be an issue at all. For example, Meurice is given to dating white women, but no one in town seems to care. Meanwhile, there is a scene early in the film when Meurice follows a live country band in the bar by playing Motown music on the juke box, and one almost expects that the good old boys in the bar might react with violence. Instead, no one really reacts at all, because this isn’t that kind of film—or that kind of Texas. Instead, Meurice steps unmolested over the bar in his white high-top Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers, a brand of basketball shoe with no particular racial associations (the original Taylor was white)—as opposed to the trendy basketball shoes that were just becoming popular in America (the original Air Jordans were introduced in 1984, the year of the film) and that have a special association with black culture. Meurice’s shoes, of course, feature a lone star on the side, providing another winking reminder of the Texas setting. In this alternate reality version of the Lone Star State, race might not matter, but clever visual puns do. And Meurice definitely seems to have arrived in the film from another reality, a fact that might be signaled in his very name, which recalls the swank Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, a favorite staying place of surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
It should also be noted that the slow-thinking, slow-talking characters of the film seem rather out of place in a genre noted for its snappy dialogue, delivered at a rapid-fire pace, adding a further twist to the play with genre in the film. In addition, where films such as Body Heat had ramped up the simmering sexual energies of noir, bringing it to full boil, Blood Simple tones down these energies. Ray falls in love with Abby (or thinks he does), though in an oddly dispassionate way; for her part, she doesn’t particularly seem to be all that into him (or anything else). Both seem strangely affectless, and the sexual chemistry between them is tepid at best. Indeed, they come off as two damaged individuals already so wounded by life that they hardly have the energy left to generate any real emotions. Abby generally seems overwhelmed by events, a condition that is brilliantly enacted by McDormand—though she herself has attributed her performance not to acting skill but to the fact that she literally was overwhelmed by the experience of making the film (and more than a little bit afraid that the Coens didn’t really know what they were doing and would never finish the project). Intentional or not, her deer-staring-into-headlights performance places Abby in direct opposition to her structural function as the man-destroying femme fatale of the film, a role usually filled by scheming, manipulative, diabolically clever women. Meanwhile, the two other most important elements that the Coens brought to the film that seem foreign to film noir are generic ones. In particular, Blood Simple is far funnier than one would typically expect from a noir film, while the film also draws strongly (especially in its visual style) upon the horror genre, and especially upon the slasher film, which was in its golden age at the time Blood Simple was made.
The most interesting character in Blood Simple is probably neither of the protagonists, but Visser, the film’s private-detective narrator. Private detectives are, of course, common in film noir (as are voiceover narrators), but Visser is unusual in that he is ultimately the villain of the piece—though in point of fact virtually everyone in this film seems to be roughly on the same moral (or immoral) level. The aging, overweight Visser is also an unusual private eye in a number of other ways, including most obviously the laid-back, folksy style that always seems on the verge of becoming a parody of itself, giving the entire character a humorous tinge that belies his murderous nature and that contrasts sharply with the cultural memory of private dicks such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Add in the touch that Visser drives around town doing his private-eye business in a Volkswagen Beetle, and Visser becomes the sort of colorful, over-the-top figure that would later populate so many of the Coens’ later films.
Visser also helps to create an overall sense that the entire film is an elaborate joke and that the dark material it presents is never to be taken too seriously. Of course, film noir itself sometimes pushes things so far that they spill over into humor—as in the scene in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) in which luckless protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) inadvertently strangles femme fatale Vera (Ann Savage) by yanking on the cord to a phone on which she is attempting to talk in the next room. But Blood Simple pushes everything too far and never lets up, from the peculiar opening narration of Visser to the numerous self-referential touches that never let us forget that this was a film self-consciously made in imitation of other films, a fact that is perhaps most cleverly brought home from the fact that Meurice keeps playing the Four Tops’ 1965 classic “It’s the Same Old Song” on the juke box in the bar. Of course, that song also reminds us that this same old song now has a different meaning, which serves as an announcement that the Coens might be recycling material from earlier films but are still putting their own spin on that material. As Adams puts it, this song “signals the filmmakers’ ironic self-awareness that they are telling an archetypal story, but also revising and updating it.”
Sonnenberg’s camerawork is also worth mentioning in this regard. Though mostly straightforward (the Coens couldn’t afford a lot of fancy equipment), the cinematography does include a number of very artfully composed shots—such as that shot of brilliant light streaming through bullet holes in a wall, which seems to be the Coens’ way of trying to up the ante on all those film noir shots of light streaming through Venetian blinds to form patterns of light and shadow. It’s a wonderful visual, but it’s also an excessive one: the bullet holes are far too large and perfectly round to be realistic and the brightness of the light beaming through the holes is out of all proportion to the actual level of light on the other side of the wall. At the same time, the brilliance of the light streaming through the perfectly round holes into a relatively dark space emphasizes the fact that, while Blood Simple plays on patterns of darkness and light as does film noir, it flips the usual meaning of the two, making light an ominous sign of danger and darkness a place of relative safety. This pattern, in fact, runs throughout the film—as when Ray attempts to get Abby to leave off the light in her apartment so that Visser can’t see in, only to have her flip the light on instead, enabling Visser to shoot Ray through the window. The film’s symbolic use of darkness and light thus both recalls film noir and goes beyond it into new territory, echoing the way in which the muted color scheme of the film is clearly designed to achieve much of the atmospheric effect of the black-and-white cinematography so intimately associated with film noir, yet can include splashes of brilliant color, especially red.
There are also other moments of particularly intrusive camerawork/editing that complicate the generic makeup of Blood Simple. In perhaps the most noticeable example of cinematic dexterity in the film (shot via an elaborate mechanical contrivance—based on a sex device advertised in Hustler magazine), Abby starts to fall backward in the back room of the dance hall, apparently fainting, then lands on her bed in her apartment. It’s a nifty bit of cinematographic ingenuity that has nothing to do with the plot of the film but serves largely as a reminder that this low-budget film by first-time filmmakers is not to be taken lightly. Recalling more than anything the elaborate moving-camera shots that are sprinkled through the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the shot seems to say that this is art, and in an intrusive way that genuine film noir, with its quest for grittiness, would be unlikely to employ.
In another (perhaps more important) sequence, Marty attacks Abby after finding her in Ray’s bed. He drags her out of Ray’s house, apparently intending to kill her. A shot from across the lawn shows them exiting the house; the camera then moves rapidly across the lawn as tense music builds toward a crescendo. We expect some sort of violent climax, and we get it, in way, but it’s really more of an anticlimax, as Abby bites Marty’s finger, breaks free, and then kicks him in the groin, sending him to the ground in agony. Such tense moments can often be found in film noir, but the particular rapid camera movement in this shot feels much more like something from a 1980s slasher film, in which such intrusive camera movements are often used to signal an impending violent event.
Soon after this encounter, Marty hires Visser to kill Abby and Ray. Visser sends Marty out of town on a fishing trip, presumably so that he will have an alibi for the killings. Then Visser goes to Ray’s house as Ray and Abby sleep in Ray’s bed. We are less than halfway through the film, but it seems very possible that the couple might be killed. Camera movement is again used to enhance the tension as the camera moves slowly through the house toward the door where Visser is picking the lock to come inside. The composition of this shot is once again more reminiscent of slasher films than of film noir, but the resolution of the sequence is more artful than violent. By the time Visser leaves, we are left uncertain whether Ray and Abby have actually been killed, and it will only be later that we learn that Visser has simply photographed the sleeping couple so that he can doctor the photo to make Marty think they have been killed.
In a classic film noir betrayal, Visser meets up with Marty in the back room of the seedy bar so that he can extract his payment from Marty for the killings, then promptly shoots Marty in cold blood so that his scam will not be uncovered. But Visser shoots Marty with Abby’s gun, which he stole from Ray’s house. At this moment, it is still unclear whether Visser has also killed Abby and Ray, but the film itself takes a sudden Coenesque turn as Visser snarls at Marty (who has consistently shown contempt for Visser through the film), “Who looks stupid now?” It’s a perfectly appropriate line for the scene, and it is likely that most of the film’s original audience would take it that way. However, the line is actually borrowed from the 1955 British comedy crime film The Ladykillers, a film that the Coens themselves would remake in 2004. Recognizing this bit of allusive verbal dexterity tends to ironize the entire preceding scene between Visser and Marty, and the scene is then immediately complicated still further by an artfully composed shot of the dead Marty, slumped back in his chair with blood oozing from his chest wound, the bloody fish he has brought back from his trip lying on the desk in front of him to complete the atmosphere of blood and death. It’s a brilliant shot, composed like a painting, made even more effective as the camera moves to an overhead position, giving us a view of Marty and the fish from above, as the slowly moving blade of a ceiling fan sweeps between the camera and the carnage below, momentarily blotting the screen to black. Ceiling fans are in fact used throughout the film to create a noir-like atmospheric effect, playing almost the same role as that played by Venetian blinds in the original film noir cycle, but this sequence is almost too artistic, too brilliant. Even more than the later scene of Abby falling in the dance hall and landing in her bed, it’s an intrusive moment of art that seems just slightly out of place in such a tawdry story, creating the out-of-kilter effect that would become a trademark of the Coens’ filmmaking.
Of course, such effects are not entirely foreign to film noir; the combination of high technique with low subject matter that marks this scene is in fact highly reminiscent of the same combination used so deftly by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), one of the great noir films of all time. Of course, Touch of Evil is also often regarded as the film that finished off the original noir cycle, having taken the form about as far as it could go and already tottering on the brink of self-parody, occupying an eccentric and unstable position that the Coens have made very much their own home territory. In their case, however, they typically reach this position not merely by pushing the conventions of genre to their extreme, but also by mixing in elements of multiple genres.
In addition to certain camera movements that evoke the feeling of slasher films, Blood Simple draws upon the horror genre more overtly as well. Immediately after the killing of Marty, Ray appears at the dance hall, almost as if risen from the dead. He then finds Marty’s body and Abby’s gun. He puts two and two together and concludes that Abby has shot Marty, so he decides to dispose of the body in order to protect Abby. First, though, he rather incompetently cleans up the blood from the floor, beginning a sequence of events that, more than any other, earns the film its title. As Falsani notes, the term “blood simple” is used in Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest to suggest “a kind of mania that takes over when people are exposed to bloody violence.” It is certainly the case that Ray is not thinking clearly in this sequence, but then clear thinking was never his forté to begin with. In an unlikely turn of events that again comes dangerously close to black comedy (but also veers into horror film territory), Marty does rise from the dead, reviving before Ray can bury him and then attempting to escape by crawling away from Ray’s car, because he is too badly wounded to walk. For his part, Ray contemplates re-killing Marty, first by running him over with his car and then by braining him with a shovel, but he doesn’t have the stomach for either. Eventually, he decides to bury Marty alive, along with Abby’s gun—and nearly gets shot by Marty in the process. He retrieves the gun after staring into it dumbly as Marty pulls the trigger three times. To make matters worse, he drives his car into a freshly plowed field to bury the body, leaving clearly visible tire tracks that virtually assure the quick discovery of the body. In the process, he also leaves an array of handprints and footprints, while soaking the backseat of his car with Marty’s blood.
There is, in fact, a great deal of blood in this film, as perhaps the title already predicts. In another horror-film sequence, after Abby falls from the dance hall to her apartment, she apparently discovers Marty in her apartment, somehow having risen once more from the dead. They have a brief conversation, then he drops to his knees and vomits a torrent of blood. Then Abby awakes and we realize that the encounter with Marty was a nightmare. Such inserted dream sequences are, of course, common in classic American films, and the Coens employ them in a number of clever ways throughout their career. In any case, Marty’s final gush of blood is clearly far more reminiscent of horror films than film noir, which is essentially bloodless, despite its emphasis on violence and murder.
In its final sequence, Blood Simple shifts into all-out slasher film mode, as a desperate Visser, suddenly turned far more sinister than he had previously seemed, shows up determined to kill both Ray and Abby. Ray is no problem, but Abby proves far more difficult. Indeed, it is Visser who is finally killed, leaving Abby as the film’s Final Girl, after an incredibly tense sequence in which Visser tries everything he can to finish her, including (at one point) resorting to a knife that she had previously plunged through his hand, pinning it to a window sill. Meanwhile, in one final bit of irony, the whole scene of Visser chasing Abby occurs while the two remain in different rooms: Abby, in fact, thinks that Marty is indeed alive and that he is her assailant almost until the very end. For his part, Visser takes so much punishment in this scene before he is finally shot and killed by Abby that the sequence hovers on the brink of comedy, almost in the mode of Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. However, the sequence never quite goes over the edge into all-out comedy—though Visser himself literally dies laughing after he discovers Abby’s misidentification of her attacker. Nevertheless, the sequence actually remains a quite effective one, filled with tension and suspense, visually built around the film’s signature shot of that light streaming through those bullet holes. A better referent for the sequence than Road Runner cartoons, in fact, is James Cameron’s The Terminator, released in the same year as Blood Simple and drawing in a similar way upon the slasher film, though belonging primarily to another genre. Like Visser, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator takes an incredible amount of punishment before he finally succumbs, greatly increasing the tension of the final scenes as he comes back from seeming destruction again and again.
All in all, the horror film and film noir elements of Blood Simple are blended quite seamlessly and work very well together. It is, in fact, a meticulously constructed film, with scenes carefully composed to echo other scenes and lines of dialogue cleverly written to echo earlier lines of dialogue. The Coens, in making the film, seemed already to be budding masters of their craft, the virtual opposites of all the characters in the film, who can’t seem to do anything right. Blood Simple was, in fact, so well made that it has been widely credited as starting a whole new era of well-crafted, low-budget, independent films, a category that had formerly been dominated by slipshod workmanship, its products often being entertaining primarily because they were so laughably bad. The film certainly took neo-noir in new directions, though the Coens themselves would perhaps be the best example of neo-noir filmmakers who followed its path.
The Man Who Wasn’t There: Raising Cain
Virtually all Coen Brothers films contain some sort of elements that are reminiscent of film noir and its literary forebear, hard-boiled detective fiction, though in differing ways and to varying extents. For example, if Blood Simple is a primarily neo-noir film that also has comic aspects, their next film, Raising Arizona (1987), is a primarily comic film that has neo-noir elements. And, if Blood Simple seems to owe a certain amount of its hardboiled flavor to Dashiell Hammett, then Miller’s Crossing (1990) owes even more to Hammett, while The Big Lebowski (1998) owes a great deal to Raymond Chandler. In 2001, meanwhile, the brothers would undertake their most concerted effort to make a seemingly genuine replica of a film noir in the form of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film that was shot (or at least developed) in black and white and whose classic film noir plot is set in 1949, about the time when the noir cycle was at an absolute peak. At that time, such classic noir films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), The Killers (1946), Body and Soul (1947), Crossfire (1947), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Nightmare Alley (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), Out of the Past (1947), The Naked City (1948), Key Largo (1948), Criss Cross (1949), and White Heat (1949) had all been released in the past three years.
Nevertheless, despite the mutual interest in noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There could hardly be described as a return to the mode of Blood Simple. As Nathan puts it, these two films “couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in style or mood and yet still be recognizably part of the Coen canon.” Thus, while The Man Who Wasn’t There can certainly be categorized as a neo-noir film, numerous elements of it continue to suggest the Coens’ habitual refusal to be tied to generic purity or historical accuracy. As Peter Bradshaw (calling the film the Coens’ “masterpiece”) puts it, The Man Who Wasn’t There is “a thriller in the style of James M. Cain, set in suburban California in 1949 and obviously influenced by the movies of the period, yet somehow transmitting the atmospheric crackle of a strange tale from The Twilight Zone. Cain’s 1943 novel Double Indemnity (first published in serial form in 1936) does seem to be the main literary referent of The Man Who Wasn’t There, with a dash of Cain’s earlier The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) thrown in for good measure, but there are numerous other potential sources as well.
Both of these Cain novels, of course, were adapted into classic noir films and both of the latter provide important glosses on The Man Who Wasn’t There, whose most obvious cinematic referent is Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Double Indemnity (1944), regarded by many as the quintessential film noir. Still, as is so often the case with the Coens, their dialogue with Double Indemnity is more directly with the source material in Cain than with Wilder’s film. Like both versions of Double Indemnity (and like Blood Simple, for that matter), The Man Who Wasn’t There features a deadly love triangle, this time including barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) and his hard-drinking accountant wife Doris (McDormand again), who is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), who will eventually be killed by Ed. Brewster is the manager of the Santa Rosa, California, department store where Doris keeps the books. That store happens to be called “Nirdlinger’s Department Store” and is owned by Brewster’s wife, the former Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz). Most of this situation does not appear to be particularly closely related to Wilder’s Double Indemnity, though that film does feature a love-triangle plot of sorts, as femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson(Barbara Stanwyck) seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into helping her kill her husband so that she can collect the payoff from the life insurance policy that Neff himself sold her. Cain’s novel is built around this same basic plot structure, except that there Phyllis’s last name is Nirdlinger.
This hint at a connection between Cain’s novel and The Man Who Wasn’t There is only one of numerous hints that Cain’s fiction is the primary source for the film, though it is certainly the case that the Coens’ film is also meticulously constructed to resemble an authentic film noir in many ways. Again, however, even if the Coens’ film was exactly like an authentic film noir, it still wouldn’t be an authentic film noir: it simply doesn’t mean the same thing to make a film noir in 2001 as it did to make a film noir in 1949, much in the same way that Menard’s Quixote could not possibly mean the same thing as Cervantes’ original. If nothing else, it is impossible to see The Man Who Wasn’t There as anything other than an imitation, or pastiche, of a film noir, rather than as a film noir proper. However, as with the case of Menard, this seeming lack of originality actually enriches the film because it introduces a whole new form of intertextual dialogue that would not be available to a film made amid the original noir cycle.
In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Crane has absolutely no dedication to his work as a barber, which he regards as a form of Sisyphean tedium—he keeps cutting the hair, and it keeps growing back, in an endless cycle, just as the barber pole that serves as a central visual image in the film keeps turning, sending its stripes spiraling upward, yet never moving beyond the pole. Then again, the morose and laconic Crane seemingly has little enthusiasm for anything. He even goes so far as to say (in his remarkably unenthusiastic voiceover that opens the film) that he does not even really consider himself a barber. He’s just someone who stumbled into working in the barbershop because it is owned by Doris’s loquacious brother, Frank Raffo (Michael Badalucco). Crane seems to have stumbled into his marriage as well. In fact, he seems to be stumbling aimlessly through life, passively waiting for things to happen to him. His (non)reaction to his realization that Doris is having an affair with Brewster is typical: “It’s a free country.”
The late 1940s were a key time in American history, as well as in film noir history, and the Coens, in their typical fashion, lace their film with allusions to both mainstream and marginal historical references. For example, there are multiple references in The Man Who Wasn’t There to UFOs, even though UFOs really have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the film. Still, it was in June of 1947 that pilot Kenneth Arnold made the first high-profile claim to have seen UFOs, which he reportedly observed while flying near Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Two weeks later, a downed UFO was supposedly discovered in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, in what remains the most prominent UFO rumor in American history. Probably the second most prominent UFO rumor involves photos that were supposedly taken of a UFO by farmer Paul Trent near McMinnville, Oregon, in 1950. Oregon, in fact, has long been a central locus for UFO sightings, which becomes relevant in the film when a paranoid-seeming Ann Brewster visits Crane in the middle of the night, while his wife awaits trial for her husband’s murder. Ann assures Ed that she knows Doris is innocent and reveals her theory that Big Dave had been killed as part of a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he had been abducted by aliens and taken aboard their spacecraft the year before, when the Brewsters were on a camping trip near Eugene, Oregon.
Such sightings and rumors might well have been spurred by the atmosphere of tension and paranoia that reigned in American society in the late 1940s, the time when the Cold War kicked into high gear. Indeed, the tensions involving World War II and then subsequently the Cold War nuclear arms race (figured most directly and spectacularly in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir film Kiss Me Deadly) formed an important part of the atmospheric backdrop of film noir in general. The Cold War figures directly in The Man Who Wasn’t There, as well.For example, in one early scene Frank reads a newspaper in the barbershop and notes with exasperation that “the Russians exploded an A-bomb, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.” Given that the Soviets did, in fact, test their first A-bomb in 1949, this evocation of Cold War fears is highly appropriate. It was, after all, only a couple of years earlier, in 1947, that Bernard Baruch coined the very term “Cold War,” and it was also in that year that the Truman administration took its first major steps toward the active conduct of this war, initiating the program of prevention of Soviet expansion known as the Truman Doctrine, beginning with massive military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. The summer of 1947 also saw Truman sign the National Security Act, which established much of the administrative apparatus for conducting the Cold War, including the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Ultimately, however, the paranoid and pessimistic outlook of the original film noir cycle (especially in the postwar years) owes less to fear that communists might destroy America’s capitalist way of life than to fear that there was something rotten at the heart of American capitalism to begin with. This same suspicion centrally informs The Man Who Wasn’t There as well. In fact, the entire plot of the film is driven by business considerations and is kicked into gear when entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) shows up in the barbershop and informs Crane that he is in town from Sacramento looking for investors in his plan to found a business empire based on the revolutionary new technology of dry cleaning. Not surprisingly, dry cleaning was not an entirely new technology in 1949 but had in fact been in use in its modern form since the 1930s, with precursors dating well back into the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of the key moments that marks The Man Who Wasn’t There as set in 1949 comes as Crane sits in the barbershop late in the film reading the September 19, 1949 issue of Life magazine, which can clearly be identified from the authentic cover, featuring actress Arlene Dahl on the front and a young Lucille Ball (in an advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes) on the back. However, Crane reads an article entitle “Dry Cleaning: The Wave of the Future,” by one Ezra Moorestone. He then flips to the next article, entitled “Mysteries of Roswell, New Mexico.” Both articles resonate surprisingly well with the thematic content of the film. Then again, the articles are plants: neither actually appeared in that issue of Life. We even get an extended view of some of the text of the second article. It is, of course, nonsense that sounds like it might have been generated by some sort of algorithm designed to produce bureaucratic gobbledygook: “The outlined situation is currently under debate. Issues were selected and are being prioritized on the basis of common agreement. The widest possible latitude is being allowed, to more carefully assess all salient points.” As a general rule, the more authentic elements in a Coen Brothers film appear to be, the more likely they are to be fake; the more outlandish elements in a Coen Brothers film appear to be, the more likely they are to be authentic.
But Tolliver’s plan is very much in tune with the spirit of American capitalism in 1949, as American business kicked into an expansionist mode that seemed to put quick riches within the reach of everyone. Even the normally passive Crane catches money fever after he hears Tolliver’s pitch, triggering a tragic chain of events that leads to the deaths of almost all of the major characters in the film. Crane anonymously blackmails Brewster with the threat of revealing his affair with Doris in order to get the $10,000 he needs to invest in Tolliver’s dry-cleaning scheme. Brewster pays up, but the loss of the cash puts such a dent into his own business plans (he hopes to open an “annex” to Nirdlinger’s Department Store) that he flies into a rage and ends up beating Tolliver to death, initially thinking Tolliver to be the blackmailer. In the process, however, he learns from Tolliver that Crane is the actual blackmailer. When he violently confronts Crane, Crane kills Brewster in self-defense. Doris is charged with Brewster’s murder and commits suicide while in jail. Things then go full circle, as Crane is convicted of Tolliver’s murder and sentenced to death.
In addition to the fact that all the main action is triggered by a business deal, The Man Who Wasn’t There is chock full of allusions to the burgeoning consumerist culture of postwar America. “These are boom times in retailing,” as Big Dave describes it. Crane’s opening voiceover also informs us that he and Doris live “in a little bungalow,” complete with “an electric ice box, a gas hearth, and a garbage grinder built into the sink. You might say I had it made.” Of course, whatever you might say, it is clear that Crane doesn’t think he has it made, despite this catalog of consumerist dream devices with which his household is equipped, suggesting that the suburban dream might not be all it is cracked up to be. In terms of consumerist imagery, it is of course significant that so much of the action of The Man Who Wasn’t There revolves around a department store, perhaps the ultimate consumerist institution. Immediately after describing the amenities available in his home, Crane introduces us to Doris by noting that she keeps the books at Nirdlinger’s Department Store. He also notes, as if this is one of the most important things to know about her, that Doris gets a 10% discount on whatever she wants at Nirdlinger’s. Her wants, we are told, include “nylon stockings, make-up, and perfume,” a list that suggests her concern with her sexual attractiveness—though not, we will soon realize, to Crane, their relationship having been asexual for “many years.”
Other aspects of the American Way are also called into question in the film. For example, like the good Americans they are, the Cranes go to church weekly. However, they usually only go on Tuesday nights, when there are no religious services but merely a bingo game. “Doris,” Crane tells us in his ongoing voiceover, “wasn’t big on divine worship.” In this way, the film undercuts the myth of American piety. It also undercuts the myth of the wholesome American town—and the film’s Santa Rosa certainly seems, on the surface, to meet this description—as a perfect place to raise virtuous, hard-working children. But Santa Rosa, we should remember, also serves as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s noirish 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, which employs the seemingly idyllic setting of the town precisely in order to deliver a reminder that violence and evil can easily intrude into such settings—and even into the domestic family sphere within such settings.
The final half hour of The Man Who Wasn’t There becomes increasingly strange and surreal as the basic film noir matrix begins to break down, though it might perhaps be more to the point to say that the noir matrix (which already contains a certain amount of strangeness and surrealism) is pushed to its logical conclusion. There is, for example, lots of courtroom drama in film noir, though there is nothing quite like the scene in which flamboyant, high-priced Sacramento defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), recruited by Ed to defend Doris in her murder trial, discourses to Ed and Doris on his defense strategy, which involves creating a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors concerning Doris’s guilt. This strategy, of course, is very conventional one. What is not conventional is the way Riedenschneider frames the creation of this doubt as a version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even though he cannot remember Werner Heisenberg’s name, recalling only that the principle was formulated by some German guy named “Fritz, or Werner, or whatever.” Indeed, Riedenschneider’s explanation of the Uncertainty Principle makes it clear that he doesn’t really understand it at all, making it more a question of phenomenology than of physics. What is also unusual about this scene is the extreme Expressionist lighting, in which Riedenschneider paces about a large jail visitation cell, as if performing in a spotlight. For example, the scene begins as he stands with brilliant light on his mouth, while the rest of his face is obscured in shadow, emphasizing the lawyer’s role as the mouthpiece for his clients. Granted, expressionist lighting is common to film noir as well, but this scene is clearly more Franz Kafka than Billy Wilder. Indeed, the lighting here serves almost as a parody of noir lighting, with the prison bars creating an exaggerated version of the Venetian blind effect so common to film noir.
Doris commits suicide before we learn whether Riedenschneider’s Heisenbergian defense would have been successful, something that disappoints Riedenschneider immensely. Doris’s death also sends Raffo into a depression that forces Crane to assume responsibility for keeping the barbershop going—which he does, with his customary stoicism. His wife’s death seems to have affected him very little: he was emotionally dead already. And yet, now that she is dead, he suddenly feels the urge to talk to her, especially after he learns from the local medical examiner that Doris had been pregnant (with Brewster’s child). This discovery sends Crane to seek the services of a weird medium to try to contact Doris, even though he clearly expects the woman to be a charlatan. This expectation is accurate, and Crane quickly abandons the séance. He decides, reasonably enough, that, if he is to move forward, he needs to leave the dead and the past behind.
However, Crane’s turn to the future and to the living is no more sensible than his visit to the medium. Earlier, during a Christmas Party for employees of Nirdlinger’s (and their families), Crane had overheard local teenager Rachel “Birdy” Abundas (played by a then-unknown Scarlett Johansson) playing the slow second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 8 (“Pathétique”). Birdy is the daughter of alcoholic local lawyer Walter Abundas (Coen regular Richard Jenkins), with whom Crane is vaguely acquainted, primarily as a customer in the barbershop. Perhaps because the feel of the music matches his own pathetic predicament, Crane is mesmerized by the sonata, though he is so ignorant of such things that he asks Birdy if it is her own composition. “Oh no,” she says with absolute seriousness. “No, that was written by Ludwig van Beethoven.” She then goes on the explain that Beethoven “wrote some beautiful piano sonatas.”
Those sonatas—including passages from Sonatas 14 (“Moonlight”), 15 (“Pastorale”), 23 (“Appassionata”), 25, and 30—form the core of the soundtrack of The Man Who Wasn’t There, creating considerable postmodern irony from the mismatch between the intense passion of the music, a key expression of Romantic emotionalism, and the dispassion of Crane. The prominence of this music in the film should come as no surprise, both because music is so important in the Coens’ films in general and because classical music in particular was crucial to the soundtracks of the 1940s films that the Coens’ draw upon so extensively in so many of their films, including this one. Caryl Flinn has documented the use of classical music in classic Hollywood cinema, noting that this music often carries with it strong utopian and emotional resonances that reinforce the thematic content of the films. However, in the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There,Beethoven’s sonatas are important precisely because their sweep and grandeur and emotional power do not match the overall thrust of the film or condition of its protagonist.
From this point forward, Crane becomes more and more enamored of Birdy’s talents as a pianist, visiting the Abundas home almost nightly to hear Birdy play, while Doris awaits trial and Mr. Abundas sits numbly by, apparently unconcerned that a middle-aged man seems so fascinated by his attractive teenage daughter. Crane, of course, denies (even to himself) that there is anything sexual in his attraction, instead finding in his perception of the beauty of her playing an escape from the emptiness and tedium of his life as a barber. Still, he pathetically imagines himself spending his life with her, becoming her manager and mentor and helping her to turn her musical ability into a major career. The problem, though, is that Birdy is not nearly as gifted as Crane believes—a fact of which Crane is informed after he takes her to audition for a fancy music teacher in San Francisco. For her part, Birdy is not especially interested in a musical career—and possibly not in any career—though she thinks she might want to be a veterinarian. Birdy, in short, is just an ordinary 1940s girl, however much Crane might have aestheticized her, confusing her personal qualities with the qualities of the music she plays. Then again, as Flinn notes, musical utopias in film noir are quite commonly associated with women, such films tending “to associate femininity with lost, musical moments.”
In one of the strange moments that punctuate the second half of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Crane is driving Birdy back to Santa Rosa from her failed audition for the teacher in San Francisco. She thanks him for his help but informs him of her lack of ambition to be a concert pianist. Then she reveals, in one of the film’s most ironic moments, that she has misperceived his true nature as much as he has misjudged hers. “You know what you are?” she asks him. “You’re an enthusiast.” Crane, of course, couldn’t be further from an enthusiast in general, however much he might have idealized Birdy. Their mutual lack of understanding then reaches its peak when Birdy attempts to fellate Crane as he drives, leading to a surreal scene in which Crane drives the car off the side of a mountain and we see it flying through the air in slow motion, while Crane’s voiceover informs us that an undertaker once told him that human hair continues to grow even after death. Crane clearly expects to die as the car sails through the treetops. When the car hits the ground, a hubcap shakes loose and rolls improbably far along the ground in a classic Coen motif, while Crane continues to mediate on the status of one’s hair after death. We then see a shot of Crane’s crumpled body in the wreck of the car, leading us to believe that he might be dead, or at least dying. To top off the scene, the rolling hubcap then morphs into a flying saucer and zips off into the distance, disappearing into darkness.
The film then suddenly cuts to Crane, sitting on the porch of his bungalow, smoking a cigarette (as usual). His life seems to have returned to normal, and the approach of a salesman who attempts to interest him in having his driveway paved with “tar macadam” emphasizes the ordinariness of the scene even more. Then Doris pulls into the driveway, hops out of the car, and sends the unfortunate salesman packing. She heads into the house and grabs a drink, then joins Ed on the couch, where they sit at opposite ends, as alienated from each other as ever. Then there is another cut back to the darkness, out of which the flying saucer re-emerges, this time morphing into a round examination mirror strapped to the forehead of a doctor who has been treating Crane’s injuries from the car wreck.
It thus becomes clear that Crane’s encounter with the resurrected Doris had simply been a dream while he was lying unconscious, sending us for the time being back into a relatively realistic world. Then, in a moment of delicious irony, the two police detectives who had earlier arrived at the barbershop to inform Crane of Doris’s arrest (and who seem to have emerged from Dragnet via Kafka’s The Trial) arrive at the hospital. In a comic scene in which the two policemen and the doctor form a sort of comedy team, they inform Crane that he himself is now under arrest—for the murder of Tolliver, whom we now realize had been beaten to death by Brewster.
The film then quickly skims through Crane’s murder trial, in which Crane has to sign over his house in order to pay Riedenschneider to defend him. In this new trial, the lawyer shifts from physics to philosophy, attempting to portray Crane as an embodiment of the existential predicament of “modern man,” something the Coens themselves in fact do throughout the film. Crane is, Riedenschneider argues, very much in the same boat as the jury members themselves, hoping that they will feel sympathy for him. The jury seems sympathetic, but then Raffo interrupts the proceeding to attack Crane, whom he now blames for Doris’s death. A mistrial is declared. Unable to afford Riedenschneider in his retrial, Crane is sentenced to death, which he accepts with his customary stoicism.
As Crane awaits execution by writing his story in his prison cell (for publication in a men’s magazine) we experience one last moment of cinematic strangeness as Crane walks numbly out of his prison cell and into the yard outside, there to encounter a flying saucer. He is then shaken awake to be taken to the electric chair (even though executions in California at the time would have been carried out via the gas chamber), once again revealing a strange scene in the film to be a dream. The screen cuts to black as Crane is electrocuted—though the execution sequence itself is so surreal that one almost expects it also to be revealed to be a dream.
Crane’s ultimate end evokes a number of noir films in which innocent men are wrongly accused, perhaps most notably Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). However, the most direct predecessor is The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which both the 1934 novel and the 1946 film version end with protagonist Frank Chambers (played in the film by John Garfield) awaiting execution after a conviction for the murder of his lover Cora (Lana Turner in the film), even though she was actually killed in an accidental car crash that Chambers survived. The parallel with Crane’s crash with Birdy is obvious—though Birdy suffers only a broken collar bone and is otherwise fine. More importantly, Chambers accepts his wrongful conviction as poetic justice, given that he had earlier conspired with Cora to kill her husband, while Crane seems calmly to accept his conviction in the death of Tolliver as rightful retribution for “all the pain I caused other people,” perhaps including the killing of Brewster. Finally, as Postman reaches its end, Chambers is writing his story for potential publication, just as Crane writes his at the end of The Man Who Wasn’t There.
All in all, The Man Who Wasn’t There shows the Coens at the peak of their powers, demonstrating a mastery of the genre of film noir so complete that they can make what seems to be an authentic noir film even while including so many elements that would be out of place in the films of the original noir cycle. Indeed, even the elements of the film that might seem out of place in a noir film—the flying saucers, the Heisenberg-quoting defense attorney, Crane’s scheme to become Birdy’s manager—seem to have been carefully chosen to be twenty-first-century versions of the excessive elements that sometimes appeared in the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as the drug-induced hallucinations of Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) or the battle-to-the-death in a mannequin factory at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955). It is clear that, in the seventeen years between Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There, the brothers honed their craft considerably (while also gaining the ability to attract better financing and distribution). As a result, the later film is altogether more accomplished than the first, while nevertheless maintaining much of the gritty look and feel of film noir and never appearing too polished. The Man Who Wasn’t There, despite its over-the-top moments, is an altogether more serious film than Blood Simple had been. Then again, by this time, the Coens had already established that they were able to work in a variety of registers, including an ability to explore serous aspects of the modern existential predicament They had also, beginning with their second film, Raising Arizona (1987), established the complementary ability to do all-out comedy without seeming entirely silly.
 Falsani, p. 31.
 There are, however, precedents to the Southwestern setting of Blood Simple, as when the classic noir Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is set in New Mexico.
 In an interview, Joel stated that the film is not set in the real state of Texas, but in a Texas that is like “something preserved in legend, a collection of histories and myths” (Allen, p. 26).
 Adams, p. 15.
 In an interview with Hal Hinson in 1985, Joel Coen stated that “we didn’t want to make a Venetian-blind movie” but instead wanted to “emulate the source” that film noir came from (Allen, pp. 13-14).
 Nathan, p. 28.
 Falsani, p. 31.
 We know from earlier in the film that the gun is a six-shooter that originally contained only three bullets. One had just been fired, wounding Marty. The three clicks in this scene thus represent the three remaining empty chambers. The other two chambers are still loaded. One more click, and the gun would have fired, as it eventually does in the final scene, killing Visser.
 By the time this film was shot, it was simply not possible to acquire film literally to shoot in black and white, So the film was shot on color film, but developed in black and white.
 Nathan, p. 104.
 Bradshaw, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,”p. 196.
 The film is, in fact, laced with subtle allusions, as are all of the Coens’ films. For example, a hotel called the Hobart Arms figures prominently in the film, in an apparent reference to the apartment building of the same name that appears in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) as the place of residence of detective Philip Marlowe.
 The Man Who Wasn’t There also includes a medical examiner named Diedricksen, extending the allusions to Double Indemnity via naming.
 We might recall that John Wayne’s J. B. Books, the protagonist of Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976), has his suit dry-cleaned as a sign of the incipient modernization of 1901 Carson City, Nevada.
 It is also worth noting that Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye identifies Santa Rosa as the home town of Philip Marlowe.
 Riedenschneider’s name seems to have been derived from that of Doc Reidenschneider, the criminal mastermind (played by Sam Jaffe) who plans the caper at the center of John Huston’s noir heist film The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
 Adams suggests that this scene resembles one in Robert Siodmak’s 1944 film noir Phantom Lady, which he describes as an “important, if unacknowledged influence” on The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coens version of the scene, however, is far more striking and exaggerated, especially with the argument concerning the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle thrown into the mix (p. 155).
 Up to this point, the entire piano lesson/failed audition for master teacher motif is taken almost directly from Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (1941), in which Veda, the daughter of the title character, seems a promising pianist until she tries out for an important teacher and is summarily dismissed. Later, Veda admits that even her previous teacher thought she “stunk” (p. 216) This novel was itself the basis of an important film noir of the same title in 1945, as well as an excellent television mini-series (on HBO) in 2011.
 Flinn, p. 117.
 Adams has suggested existentialist novelists such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre as possible glosses on The Man Who Wasn’t There, though he ultimately agrees with the critical consensus that Cain is the most important literary influence on the film(pp. 160-161). Meanwhile, Bergan adds to the suggested list of literary referents for the film by noting that Crane is “the embodiment of Ivan Turgenev’s Superfluous Man” as well as “an illustration of Thoreau’s phrase that most people lead lives of ‘quiet desperation’” (p. 213).