“What kind of man are you?!” Frank slugs Crane in the courtroom while he asks the film’s big question.
Billy Bob’s “first gay scene”: Crane reacts with relative calm...
...to Tolliver’s “come-on” in the cheap hotel.
The Desire that Wasn't There: Crane plays eunuch...
...to his wife Doris (Frances McDorman) at the bathtub....
...A male prison guard returns the favor...
...before Crane is electrocuted.
The text compensates for its reticence about homosexuality through excess in characterization. Creighton Tolliver’s ridiculous wig, not coincidentally, covers his “lack.”
desire that wasn’t there:
Despite the film’s glorious black-and-white, intertextual pastiche, sardonic wit and cinematic razzmatazz, an initial viewing of The Man Who Wasn’t There might leave one with a nagging suspicion that less is there than meets the eye, until one proceeds from the assumption that Ed Crane is a repressed homosexual. This inference adds considerable resonance to the film both textually and generically. Textually, a gay strand enhances the complexity of a character whose extreme passivity remains otherwise unexplored and whose hyper-alienation from society and himself is explained solely (by his defense attorney) in terms of his paradigmatic status as “modern man.”
Generically, such a character evokes not only classical film noir’s “obsession,” in Frank Krutnik’s words, “with male figures who are both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement”; it also relates to the genre’s tendency to address this obsession “through an intricate play of evasion, dissimulation, and transmutation, rather than in any direct manner” (xii, xiii).2
The neo-noir twist in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however, is also twofold. First, the gay element in the film, befitting the post-Production Code conditions of its release, is more overtly expressed than in noirs past. Unlike Parker Tyler’s (1947) Freudian, and Claire Johnston’s (1978) Lacanian, queer readings of Double Indemnity (1944), for example, the uncovering of a gay subtext in The Man Who Wasn’t There relates, in David Bordwell’s terms, to its implicit rather than symptomatic meaning. Second, unbefitting a post-Stonewall, post-Ellen era in which gay visibility is “all the rage” (Walters), why should it still require an epiphany to disclose queerness at the heart of a recent neo-noir—or any contemporary film for that matter? Much less, why would such an epiphany be so rare that among all the individuals consulted and (150-odd) reviews scanned for this essay—gay and straight, professional and lay—none but The Nation’s Stuart Klawans has arrived, without prompting, at a similar conclusion?
And even Klawans isn’t sure that what he sensed is substantiated by the text. Subheaded “Department of Rorschach Testing,” Klawans’ article leaves open the possibility that his retrospective interpretation of Crane as “a deeply closeted gay man” might in the end be idiosyncratic:
What, then, is the textual evidence supporting Klawans’ guarded, and this essay’s less equivocal, imputation of “deeply closeted” gayness to Ed Crane? In retrospect, it is quite considerable. Starting with the film’s ending and moving backwards, an accretion of story elements, details of character, and aspects of the mise en scene point to Crane’s divergence from normative constructions of masculinity:
• The magazine for which Crane has written his account of the tragic events that have landed him on death row, he tells us three times, is a men’s magazine.
• A copy of one such magazine, Muscle Power, with a flexing hunk on the cover, lies displayed on his prison cell desk (remindful of a wall poster of a body builder glimpsed earlier in the barber shop).4
• Crane’s boss and brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), shouts three times at Crane in court—echoing the earlier, twice-uttered complaint of Crane’s wife’s boss and lover, Big Dave— “What kind of man are you!”
• Crane refuses sex from the precocious teenager, Birdy, to whom he is strongly attracted but apparently only platonically (“sentimentally,” in Klawans’ words).
• Crane not only admits to not having “performed the sex act” with his voluptuous wife Doris “for several years,” but he earlier seems as curiously unaffected by his own celibacy as by Doris’s affair with Big Dave. (“I wasn’t going to prance about it,” Crane tells us. “It’s a free country.”)
• The stiletto-like letter opener with which Crane kills Big Dave in self-defense is referred to by Crane’s lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), as a “dame’s weapon.”
• Crane tells us that a couple of weeks after they met on a blind date (in what would have been the late 1930s or early 1940s!), Doris proposed to him.
• One of Crane’s in-laws asks Doris at a wedding reception of Doris’ cousin: “How come you got no kids?”
• Doris, for her part, is unperturbed at finding Crane alone with Birdy at a party at Big Dave’s department store.
• A man approaches Crane at the party and asks out of the blue: “Haven’t I seen you up in Ladies Wear?”
• Instead of gaining more traditional “tough guy” revenge on Big Dave—who himself later says, “I’d understand if you came in here and socked me in the nose!”—Crane secretly scams him out of $10,000.
• When the salesman and future murder victim, Creighton Tolliver, subtly tries to seduce him, Crane not only discerns the “pass” instantly, but turns it down with surprising nonchalance—especially for a small-town “straight” male in the United States of the late 1940s. Moreover, he proceeds to consummate their business deal rather than reject “the goddamn pansy” (as Big Dave calls him) out of hand.
• Crane visits Tolliver in a cheap hotel because Crane, even when earlier shaving his naked wife’s legs, can’t stop thinking about…dry cleaning. (“It’s clean…and no shrinkage.”)
• In the context of their asexual relationship, Doris treats her husband like the house eunuch, having him zip up her dress as she puts on her make-up and shave her legs while she reads in the bathtub (a ritual that is homoerotically—and sado-masochistically—reversed in the end when a male prison guard shaves Crane’s legs as he sits strapped to the electric chair).
• Crane was rejected for military service in World War II, Doris snickers, “on account of fallen arches.”
• Crane’s barber occupation: the one thing in his life, he will tell readers of the men’s magazine, about which he “felt remorse.”
• Crane’s name: an intertextual reference to Psycho’s Marion Crane that also alludes, as in Hitchcock’s film, in a “femininely” symbolic sense to birds. The feminine aspect is reinforced in Man through the rhyme of Crane’s platonic love, Birdy.
• The film’s title.
• The film’s early working title.
Identifying the “there” in The Man Who Wasn’t There only takes us part way, however. Just as critical to an understanding of Crane’s character as his gayness is its repressed nature, which problematizes the terms of its representation in the film. In describing the affectless barber as “deeply closeted,” Klawans is extending “closeted” beyond its common usage of someone who, despite conscious awareness of his or her taboo desires, is unwilling to disclose them publicly. Ed Crane, Klawans and we are saying, is unwilling to admit his desires even to himself. Klawans explains,
Strictly speaking, of course, The Man Who Wasn’t There is not a film noir, but a neo-noir. This is an especially apposite distinction for a film that turns on the notion of conscious awareness. The term neo-noir emerged in the 1980s to describe a body of dark, sexually tinged crime films that exhibited much of the defining visual, narrative, and thematic traits associated with classical noir, yet which diverged crucially in one respect: the filmmakers’ noir consciousness (Silver and Ward; Erickson; Naremore5).
Another of Man’s noir twists, then, is that a prime focus of its generic hyper-awareness is the hyper-unawareness of its main character. Crane’s motives may go unstated in classical noir fashion; but atypically for either classical or neo-noir, the motives’ “unstatedness” is both loudly proclaimed and much of the point. This “contradiction in terms” is literalized in narrator Crane’s opening comment, “I don’t talk much,” as he proceeds to talk us through the entire lengthy and convoluted story. The subsequent tale abounds in allusions to veiled truths and patent deceit:
• to “dirty little secrets” and “secrets bigger even than the one about what really happened”;
• to the Uncertainty Principle and “the meaning behind facts that have no meaning”;
• to things “making less sense the closer you look” and there being “no ‘what happened’” because “looking at something changes it”;
• to “things going deep” and of “some greater scheme than the State has yet to uncover”;
• to Beethoven’s “never having heard” the piano sonata Birdy plays for Crane “except in his head”;
• to Crane’s telling the story “step by step” yet not being able to “see any pattern in it”;
• and to finally being able “to tell [in the afterlife, or in some sublime alien realm] all those things they don’t have words for here.”
One explanation for the overdetermined sub-textuality of Crane’s repressed homosexuality is the postmodern penchant for ironic self-consciousness the Coen brothers so self-consciously purvey. Another is to be found in Foster Hirsch’s Detours and Lost Highways: A Map to Neo-Noir. Hirsch suggests that the treatment of homosexuality is problematic in both classical noir and neo-noir. In classical noir, given the Hays Code’s prohibitions against sexuality generally but even more severely against homosexuality,
In neo-noir, gayness, though no longer a proscribed subject, still leads
If classical noir’s disguised sexuality was marked as dirty and sinful, how much more “disruptive and dangerous” is the noir homosexuality that is blatantly exposed? Homosexuality and noir are invariably a “bad match,” Hirsch concludes, because in almost every instance in which homosexual behavior appears,
The idea that transgression need not be regarded regressively, indeed quite the opposite, is a mainstay of structuralist and poststructuralist theory. However, Hirsch’s point is that, given their status as an oppressed minority with a dearth of representation in general, homosexuals are better off with no images at all than with ones that deride them.