The Man Who Wasn't There
- X gives this film a 5 [out of 5] Scalpel Rating™ -
As i was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away
[Hugo Mearns 1939]
Personally, i am glad that he stuck around. This invisible man has an opaque and salient tale to tell.
'The Man Who Wasn't There' is a story of alienation, irony, dreams deferred, and schemes gone awry. It is also the despondent tale of one man, who was lost, and abandoned in a place which was called "home", but, which was, in reality, anything but.
The film, which was shot in Noir style, black and white slow speed media, takes place circa 1949, in Santa Rosa, California. The gray tones, and slow pace directing style fit in perfectly with the theme of the film, and the personality of one who drones on through life, without direction or purpose. This film begins with a simple, yet powerful voiceover, which sets the mood for the entire story that follows.
"I work in a barber shop, but i have never considered myself a barber"
These words are spoken by the main character of the film, Ed Crane, a disconsolate and pithy man, who always seems to have a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. A mouth that hardly moves, even when he is speaking. A man who is not at home with himself, his position, or life. He seems to exhibit all the symptoms of one who has Major Depression, and even his speech and movement follow the telltale lines of this disorder.
But, then again, who in his position would not be depressed? He grinds out his days as a barber, and clearly does not enjoy his work. He "married into" the job, when he was wed to a distant and frigid woman named Doris, whom he has barely spoken to in 6 years, and has not had sex with, in 7. He spends most of his time observing that which is around him, yet, never feeling like he is a part of these events that seem to happen beyond his control and liking.
Although his marriage is not even close to perfect, there is that bland familiarity which is common in couples who have lived together for some time. One example is exhibited in a scene where Doris is bathing in the tub, and asks Ed to shave her legs. He does so, while she ignores him and reads the paper. When he is finished, she looks up at him and says "luv ya honey", but this sounds neither convincing, nor amorous to Ed, and he has no reply.
While Ed appears to be passionless, almost a dullard who has little hope, ambition, or drive, he is not overtly crass or spiteful. Nor is he comfortable in positions of authority, and seems to let everyone walk all over him. He just..... "is" [and yet, simultaneously] "isn't" there.
In the beginning of the film, Ed confesses that he and Doris go to church every week, "mostly on Tuesdays", where Doris is usually fortunate at winning the Bingo Lot, while Ed sits by her side, motionless and emotionless. It seems that he is invisible even to God, Fate and the higher powers, which never allow him the opportunity for an opportunity.
One day, while he is cutting the hair of a child, he begins to muse to his loquacious brother in law [and owner of the shop], Frank, about hair. "This hair", he says "Do you ever wonder about it? It is part of us, but we cut it off, and throw it away". He then continues, "I am going to take it outside, and mix it with common house dirt." "Shut up Eddie!" scolds Frank "You're gonna scare the kid". It is clear that these things of depth and consideration that Ed ponders over, are not looked upon with welcome, by the obtuse folks who surround him. This quote becomes more and more poignant as we get deeper into the film.
Ed begins to suspect that Doris is having an affair with her boss, a blithesome and jovial man named David "Big Dave" Brewster [played by James Gandolfini, of"The Soprano's"], and, it turns out that Ed is correct in his assumptions. At the same time, he meets a new customer in the barbershop. This man, a smarmy fellow who calls himself Creighton Tolliver, has big plans for a revolutionary new business venture which involves Dry Cleaning, and Ed, who is just looking for the opportunity to get out of his humdrum existence, jumps at the chance of being in on this investment, which is surely the wave of the future. Creighton tells Ed that he is looking for a silent partner in the business, who will be expected to do nothing, but invest capital in the business, to the tune of an initial $10,000.00.
Ed begins to speculate on ways in which he can come up with this large sum of money, and, quickly decides to procure the funds by blackmailing Big Dave. He composes an anonymous note to him, telling him that he knows about the affair that he is having, and that this affair will be publicly exposed if he does not pay $10,000.00 to the author of the note.
At about the same time that all this is transpiring, Rachael "Birdy" Abundas, enters Ed's life. She is a young girl, in her early teens, who is somewhat of a musical prodigy to Ed, and he sees hope, life, energy, youth, dreams, and a new start in her, much like Humbert did, in his Lolita. Even her nick and surname conjure up images of abundant joy, peace and freedom. Ed is "dying" and he desperately needs to live his life through someone else, and Birdy seems to be the perfect vehicle for this transformation.
Meanwhile, Dave admits to Ed that he is being blackmailed, and then surprisingly accuses Ed as the blackmailer. Apparently Dave had been approached by Creighton to invest in his company, and Dave, seeing immediately that this guy was a scammer, tells him off. Soon after that he receives the initial blackmail letter, and confronts Creighton about this and "beats the truth out of him" that Ed has just invested $10,000.00 into his venture. Dave makes the connection, and a fatal, physical fight breaks out between the two, and culminates in Ed stabbing Dave in the Jugular Vein with a cigar trimmer.
In a strange twist of plot and fate, Doris is arrested for the murder of Dave, as it is discovered that she was "juggling" the books at his store where she worked as a bookkeeper. Ed turns to Birdy's father, who is a lawyer, and he suggests Freddy Riedenschneider from San Francisco, who is, in his opinion, "The Best". Doris' brother Frank then signs the barbershop over to the bank in exchange for money for her legal representation. At the bank meeting, Ed is not allowed to participate, as he is "only the second chair" and not the principal barber in the business. Once again, poor Ed is made smaller by being called under subservience.
Soon after this, there is a scene in the film that depicts a slow motion street shot of various people walking, as Ed rides by in a car. He states, "There they were, going about their business. It seemed i knew a secret. That i had made it to the outside, while they were all struggling below". It is as if he is simultaneously admitting his invisibility and alienation to us, while allowing himself a way to feel better about [and more control over] this strange situation that is happening around him.
Things get even stranger when Dave's wife Ann shows up one night at the house of Ed, wearing a black hat and veil, and tells Ed that she knows who is responsible for Dave's death. She then tells him a story of how she and Dave were camping OUTSIDE Eugene, Oregon' when they saw lights, and Dave went to investigate and was apparently abducted by aliens and experimented on. Dave "never touched" Ann after this experience, and when they reported the incident to the police, they were told to "be quiet about it". Ann believes that the government has killed Dave, so that he will not talk about what happened. Ed seems a bit confused by all this, but once again does not say much about it.
Ed and Doris then meet with Freddy Riedenschneider to discuss her case. In the midst of this, Ed blurts out that he is the one who killed Dave, because he was having an affair with Doris, and while Doris sits with eyes opened in a mixture of horror and disbelief, Freddy debunks Ed's confession, telling him that it will never hold up in court, and that "it stinks". He instead decides to go with the story that Dave had been blackmailed by someone who discovered embarrassing things regarding Dave's 'dismissal' from the Navy in 1945. In these past three paragraphs, we have three examples of how Ed is not taken seriously, and he is in many ways like Francesco Dellamorte of 'Cemetery Man', a man who is viewed by those around him as incompetent, incapable, overlooked and..... invisible.
An interesting contrast to this, is the fact that Riedenschneider wishes to use "The Uncertainty Principal", a theory first presented by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, in the defense of Doris. This principal, [which was used as a method of scientific testing], basically states that the more one looks at something, the more this thing changes. We go from Science Perception to Reality, from Doubt to Reasonable Doubt, and finally, to Fact, and, as Riedenschneider states: "in a way, the only fact there is".
Soon after this, Doris hangs herself in prison just before her trial. Frank becomes despondent and can no longer work. He turns "1st chair" over to Ed, and Ed becomes the principal barber. In the scenes that follow, we will observe an interesting transformation beginning to occur to our protagonist.
We next see Ed walking down the street, amidst a crowd, which is filmed entirely in slow motion. He states that he "feels like a ghost" because no one even looks at him anymore. It is as if Doris' suicide has become a shame to the entire community. Each night, Ed goes home alone. "I am a ghost" he repeats, "I see no one... no one sees me.... I was [as in "am"] the barber".
A day or so later, Ed is sitting in the shop between customers, reading a Life Magazine article regarding the Roswell incident, and he is approached by the county Medical
Examiner, who tells him that during the autopsy, it was revealed that Doris was pregnant. Ed speaks bluntly to the M.E. "I have not touched her in years".
I found it interesting that for someone who has not touched his wife in years, and who did not seem to have much rapport with her, he, at the same time misses her terribly, and visits a psychic, in hopes of having some sort of communication with Doris. The medium tells him that "she is in a peaceful place, and loves him, despite what she has done". Ed leaves the psychic and says "I have to turn my back on veils.... ghosts... the dead, before they all suck me in". He then turns to Birdy, who represents none of these things to him, and hopes to find his peace and recognition with her. He propositions her to be manager of her "musical career", and she is at first hesitant, but understands that this is important to Ed, and eventually Birdy agrees. They meet with Jacques Carcanogues, a Frenchman who runs a music school, and, after his review of her performance, he tells Ed that "she is a nice girl... she plays like a nice girl... too polite and has no soul". He then continues that "Music starts here [the heart], and comes out here [the fingers]..... someday she will make [a] nice typist".
Ed is dashed by this revelation: Passion is something that cannot be taught.... it must come from within, and in the evaluation of Birdy by Jacques, Ed feels this rejection in ways that Birdy cannot. She seems unaffected by the news. "I want to be a veterinarian anyway" she tells him, on the ride home. Seeing that Ed is broken by this experience, she hopes to soften the blow [no pun intended], by performing oral sex on him, while he is driving. Ed is appalled at this idea, and during the struggle to fight off her advances, he looses control, and the car goes plummeting down an embankment on the side of the road. In the seconds before the crash, Ed recalls how an undertaker once told him that hair keeps growing for a while after death, and then it stops. "What keeps it growing?" he asks. "Is it like a soul? When does hair realize that it is gone?". As he ponders these things, a hubcap comes off one of the wheels on the car, and spins off, much in the fashion of an alien spacecraft.
One of the things that i found most interesting in this film, were the reoccurring themes of hair, aliens/ghosts/beings from other worlds, certain pieces of music, deformations of the body, and the theory of knowledge vs. ignorance. I started thinking about the significance of these elements, and came to the following conclusions.
Hair signified something different to Ed, than it did to everyone else. To him, hair was hope, faith, life, attachment and in some ways, relationships. In the beginning of the film, Ed seems confused over the fact that "our hair is a part of us, and yet we cut it off and throw it away". He then states that he is going to "take some clippings outside, and mix them with common house dirt". In this way, Ed was hoping to let parts of himself that had died, take root, and grow once more. Maybe this time, he could get things right. In another sense, one might conclude that the mixing of the sacred with the ordinary might have some significance of 'balance' for Ed.
Yet in the context of the film, hair signified other things: In major world religions, the cutting, shaving and covering of hair is akin to subservience. Buddhists shave their heads. Male Jews wear a Yamaka to show that they are under the control of a higher power. In some Christian circles, a married woman is told to have long hair, as it is a sign that she is under the command of her husband. Until a few decades ago, Catholic women were made to wear a Mantilla, a lace covering which resembled a partial veil, when they attended church service.
Even in secular situations, the cutting/shaving of hair is, at times, related to the social-psychological process of asserting dominance through depersonalization. In the military, men are forced to shave their heads, as are convicts who are being admitted to prisons. If one remembers the story of Samson and Delilah, we remember that Samson's strength [will] was in his hair. Once his hair was cut off, he lost that will, and others were allowed to maintain control over him.
If you remember, in the scene where Doris asks Ed to shave her legs, he obliges, but does not look comfortable performing this task. It seems that Ed wished Doris to be his equal.... a partner who is neither above nor below him. On another level, you may also recall that Ed was not complacent with his position as a barber. "I work in a barber shop, but i never considered myself a barber" he said, in the opening lines of the film. And yet, as the film progresses, he later states, "I see no one... no one sees me.... I was the barber". This title becomes both an accusation, and an excuse to Ed... a self inflicted subservience.
The 'aliens, ghosts, and beings from other worlds' theme seems a bit easier to decipher. Ed clearly feels alienated from everyone.... his wife, his job, his position in life, and even his life itself. I found this to be one of the saddest statements of the entire film, and i believe that this film was aptly named. In some ways, Ed reminded me of the character of Dark Smith, in Gregg Araki's "Nowhere". If you recall, Dark too felt like an outsider, and kept having visions of an alien who was zapping people with a ray gun, but whom always seemed to spare Dark. And yet, that which Dark was spared from turned out to be much worse than any horror of assimilation.
If one paid close attention, they would have noticed the reoccurrence of two Sonatas, by Beethoven: "Pathetique", and "Moonlight". 'Pathetique' is a piece that evokes the pathos experienced by Beethoven during the onset of his irreversible deafness. 'The Moonlight Sonata' exemplifies the ardor, playfulness, delicacy, and passion of romantic love, and it is almost as if Ed is mourning the loss of this love, much in the way that Beethoven mourned the loss of his hearing.
Another piece of music which was used in the film was Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro", and i found this significant, as, this opera deals with the 'deceitful, predatory nature' of humankind, mistaken identities, missed opportunities and lover's trysts. Of course these same themes were played out in the film, although, in the opera, there is a much happier ending.
Though not exactly a reoccurring theme in the film, i believe that the following example is still worth mentioning. Ed was rejected from The Military on grounds that he had Fallen Arches, or, Flat feet. At a dinner party in the beginning of the film, Doris and Big Dave make mockery of Ed over this fact, which is when Ed first gets the idea that there was more to Doris and Dave's relationship, than just employer and employee. Dave was always bragging about his "war hero adventures", and Doris seemed to enjoy them. "I guess that Doris goes for that "He Man" stuff" Ed says, as he stands, looking out the window. I feel that there was even more to this, on a symbolic level. When i think of an Arch, i think of the structural support that holds a building up. It seemed that Ed had lost the reinforcements which held him together, and there was nothing left for him to do, but fall.
The final theme that reoccurred throughout the film was that of knowledge. It is interesting that the style of this film was essentially of the Noir persuasion, and this seems to be a popular theme in many of the films of this genre. Knowledge, and the danger of too much of it. Several times throughout the film, we are reminded that knowledge is a curse. Riedenschneider heard the truth from Ed, but didn't want to accept it. Ed himself had difficulty facing up to the fact that he "was the barber". Doris commits suicide, after learning that she was pregnant with Dave's child. Since she knows that there is no chance that it is Ed's child, she also knows that sooner or later, this will get out, and thus point the finger at Ed as being the perpetrator behind the blackmail scheme. Dave and Ann knew something about aliens, which they were not supposed to know, and this caused much paranoia on Ann's part, after Dave's death. Birdy knows that she is no musical virtuoso, and yet allows Ed to believe this for a time, because she thought that the truth would hurt him, and a horrible accident results.... which brings us back to about where i left off in the flow of the film.
Directly after the car crash scene, we see Ed sitting on his front porch, talking to a salesman who is trying to talk him into purchasing asphalt for the driveway. Doris comes home, and gets rid of the salesman abruptly, and then goes inside, upset with Ed, who is obviously not the "man" of the house. He follows her in, and tries to talk to her, but she begins to drink, and ignores him.
Ed then wakes up in the hospital, and is told that he is under the arrest for the murder of Creighton Tolliver. His body had been discovered underwater, in his car, and the police found the Dry Cleaning contract, and other "evidence" which implicated Ed as his killer. Which is rather ironic, since Dave was obviously the one who killed the salesman, during their second altercation.
Ed signs his house over to Riedenschneider for representation in his case. At the trial, Riedenschneider tells the jury that Ed is a "man who has lost his place in the universe, and that there is a greater scheme against him". He then tells the jury to "look closer, and the evidence will make less and less sense." He concludes with the thought that "Ed is a modern man, and if he is convicted, you are basically hanging yourselves". The jury does not buy into this plea however, and Ed is sentenced to death by electrocution. Upon hearing his sentence, Ed states, "all disconnected things hook up, when you know that you are going to die". Ed seems almost relieved that his mess of a life will soon be over.
On the night before his execution, he is putting the finishing touches on his biography, which he is writing for a local pulp magazine. The lights dim, the doors to his cell and the prison open, and Ed walks outside in the courtyard, only to see a spaceship hovering over it. He clearly has the chance to escape, but instead goes back inside... to his cell. He is no longer saddened by his inadequacies, his shortcomings, his lack of contribution to the good of the world, and all the other things that so easily beset him. He has accepted his fate and come to terms with it, and perhaps, in death, he would find that peace which so eluded him in life.
In the morning, he is brought to the chair. His leg is shaved [the final act of dominance over him?], and the electrodes are put into place. He then speaks five last sentences, which hold the weight of a thousand.
"I guess that i'm sorry about the pain that i caused, but i don't regret a thing. I used to regret being the barber.
I don't know where i'm being taken, or what i'll find.
Maybe it will be different... like when a fog blows away.
Maybe Doris will be there, and i can finally tell her all the things that they don't have words for here".
And, in some small and hopeful way, i found myself wishing that he found this place. A place where there would be clarity, affection, recognition, reunion, and all those other elements that would make him feel much less transparent.
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