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The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

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I JUST CUT THE HAIR.

by Letitia Trent

His name is Ed, though it doesn’t much matter and you’ll forget it as the film goes on, thinking that maybe it’s Ned or even Fred, but then remembering that, oh yes, it’s Ed; that essential element of a whole, almost-memorable name without the hard consonant up front to seal it in.

Ed is a barber, the kind of man who is so steady that you don’t mind letting him near your child with a razor in his hand. He married into the job (his wife’s family owns the shop) and his entire stylistic repertoire consists of exactly two haircuts—the buzz and the flat-top—which he shapes efficiently and without joy upon the heads of the boys in a small town in California.

He smokes elegantly and when he sits, he sits completely, his body seeming to collapse, legs open, into the shape of the chair. Every line and ditch of his face is absolutely clear in every frame of the film, which would perhaps be revealing and vulnerable if his face ever revealed anything more than the passage of time. You only see his responses, really, in his eyes, or in the angle of smoke from his cigarette, or in the way his hands subtly move.

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He lives in black and white, the colors of film noir. But while most noir films use shadows to obscure, the black-and-white of Ed’s world is absolutely crisp and clean, with every wrinkle and fold of his barber’s smock and swirl of hair precisely delineated. It is a world in which Ed doesn’t have to try and hide—he simply goes unnoticed, his face revealing nothing.

We are to understand that he is unhappy, or in a state somewhere beyond unhappy, a kind of catatonic waking where he moves in all the proper and expected lines and directions, going through the motions that will provide him the food and cigarettes he requires. But that is all.

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He has a mild curiosity at the passions of others, though it’s an almost intellectual curiosity, strange for a man who is not at all an intellectual. His wife is vibrant and laughs loudly at Big Dave, her boss, when he and his own silent, stiff wife visit for dinner. Ed thinks she’s sleeping with Big Dave and doesn’t begrudge her the happiness—it’s a free country, after all, he tells us.

Ed is a cipher, a main character who narrates the film while giving very little away. And because he does not react—with fear or shame or approval—people want to tell him things. Big Dave confides that he is being blackmailed. That’s terrible, Ed says, his smoke trail trembling as his face remains still. We’ve seen flying saucers, Dave’s widow says later, and explains how Big Dave was taken up into a saucer, and he never touched me again. Ed takes it in as he does with each new confidence, with the same open eyes and quiet, still gaze.

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One day, he meets Creighton Tolliver while cutting the tufts of hair that circle his bald spot. Creighton is talkative, the kind of man that Ed usually doesn’t like much, but he’s persuasive and insists that the dry-cleaning business is the wave of the future. Ed decides, this time, to take a chance.

He sees some kind of out in Tolliver’s words - but what kind of out, and to where? Ed doesn’t seem interested in money, but it’s the money that appears to make him move forward with the plan. Or maybe it’s a sudden need to be part of something successful, something not dropped into his lap by marriage or circumstance. Creighton promises Ed that he need only put up enough money to get the business started, and will then find himself set for life—a silent partner with nothing to do but watch all the cash collect in his bank account.

Ed makes for a rather strange protagonist: he wants something, but what he wants exactly is never made entirely clear, to him or to us. In most film noir—like Double Indemnity, for example—the hero is an anti-hero, equal parts selfish and good, driven by lust, money, or power (and sometimes all three) but quite aware of his own weakness and often sickened by it. The only time Ed shows any real emotion, though, is when he hears that Tolliver has skipped town without leaving Ed any way to find him. It was all a scam—there was no plan for a dry-cleaning business. How stupid could I be? Ed says, bitterness seeming to enter his voice for the first time.

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It’s not the money that he seems to miss, but rather the opportunity to be part of something that actually works. And his simple desire for some measure of success eventually leads to the whole complicated chain of events that follow, the blackmails and the murders and the deaths and the rooms full of cleanly cut light and shadow and silence.

But still, what does Ed want?

After the smoke clears and Ed escapes, seemingly unscathed, he stumbles directly into even more dangerous territory. He befriends the neighbor’s daughter, Birdy, who plays the piano. She hits all the notes when she plays and so he believes her to be a prodigy, not quite knowing what a prodigy is or how to identify one.

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He wants her to be famous, to succeed; he wants something to go right, for somebody to have their happiness and distinction. But the viewer worries about Ed when he enters Birdy’s room, telling her that she’s talented, that she should get a chance, and that he’ll be her manager. She purrs her thank-you’s. It can’t end well.

By the end of the film, Ed moves toward the story’s conclusion as he approaches most everything else: steadily and without affect. When everything has fallen apart, when Ed is desperate and his lawyer argues that he’s a man of little success, a man not made for the modern world who wanted only a small piece of security and happiness in a wash of mediocrity, it’s too late. Ed listens to his lawyer’s speech. It got me going, he admits, at least for a little while. But eventually, he goes where he is told to, and without resisting.

Because what would be the point of resisting, of speaking the whole truth fully and trying to avoid the fate set down before him?

Nobody would listen anyway.

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Letitia Trent is a writer and poet living in Colorado. She tumbls here.

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