Who’s seducing whom? Doris dresses in the bedroom...
...as Crane cranes, apparently at her...
...but actually at a scantily clad Jesus Christ in church.
Birds of a feather—Crane and his platonic love, Birdy, on the road to fellatio.
“Looking at something changes it.” Flamboyant lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) explains the Uncertainty Principle in Doris’ prison cell. The noir visual style here “vies for attention with its convoluted crime story, if not trumping it altogether.”
Confronted by queerness at every turn: The effeminate teacher Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle) and ...
... the androgynous psychic (Lilyan Chauvin).
Tough guy or phony? Even Big Dave’s heterosexuality is called into question. Here as he breaks down in his office, he places a hand on Crane’s knee.
A Life magazine report on...
...Roswell, New Mexico...
... suggestions of flying saucers at Nirdlinger’s...
... and in the prison corridor...
... and Crane’s UFO vision in the prison courtyard.
No tough guy, no femme fatale
As Klawans and a preponderance of film critics and historians point out, “reticence about its subject matter” is clearly in the classical noir tradition. However, reticence about Crane’s self-closeted gayness is not concomitant with either the aesthetics or thematics of neo-noir. To the contrary, another of the prime differences between these generically related forms is neo-noir’s reveling in explicitness toward sexuality, violence, and off-color language made possible by the dissolution of the Production Code and its subsequent replacement by the Ratings system. Several post-classical noirs were remade or reworked at least partly for this reason.10 Michele Aaron makes the classical/neo-noir distinction in relation to homosexuality specifically:
Why, then, in the The Man Who Wasn’t There, have we returned— counterintuitively, it would seem—to subtextuality with a vengeance, not only in regard to homosexuality but to sexuality as a whole? One possible generic explanation for the constriction here in gay representability is that Man is more an homage to classical noir than a full blown neo-noir. The film is set in the 1940s, after all, not in the contemporary period favored by the bulk of neo-noirs. Also it is shot in black-and-white, something not even the few neo-noirs that remained true to the classical time period allowed themselves.11 It paradigmatically relates its twisted tale through flashback and dutifully creates through character, situation and ambience “an exotic milieu of crime and corruption” (Krutnik 42). Indeed, Man seems to emulate the dominant classical noir form, the “tough thriller,” in every way except two: the “tough guy” protagonist himself, and his adjunct, the femme fatale.
Ed Crane’s cynical, unsmiling demeanor and “epigrammatic, controlled” voice over may elicit comparisons with those of the hard-boiled protagonists of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and McCoy. But these attributes hardly function, as “a sign of the hero’s potency,” as Krutnik sees them doing for the “tough thriller” (42). To the contrary, Crane seems “unmanly” in his (in)actions in relation to Big Dave (his disinclination to “sock him in the nose”), to Doris (his seeming sexual disinterest in her), and to Birdy (his exclaiming “Heaven’s to Betsy!” as she goes down on him). And these plot situations stand in marked contrast to Crane’s “virility” in his voice over, which itself is “feminized” by its coded connection to the written rather than spoken word.
Of course, the “tough” hero’s putative potency, as Richard Dyer and Jonathan Buchsbaum have shown, is only a cover in any case. According to Dyer, it covers an internal conflict “over the existence and definition of masculinity and normality” (115) and to Buchsbaum, a “core generative anxiety about passive homosexuality” (41). The classical noir hero’s testing or rehearsal of “aggressive masculinity” is a means of denying these conflicts and anxieties. Thus he often relies on “masculinized language,” on the one hand, and need for the femme fatale on the other (Buchsbaum 41). Ed Crane may indulge in the former, even though reluctantly—he’s only writing his story at the behest of the men’s magazine. But the film consistently ignores if not pointedly resists the femme fatale.
Both of the “women in his life,” Crane’s wife Doris and the teenager Birdy, qualify as would-be femme fatales. From the introductory shot’s voyeuristic gaze into the bedroom, in which Crane’s wife slips on her stockings and pads her bra, to the leg-shaving and dress-zipping scenes, Doris is displayed, for the viewer’s benefit at least, as a brazen, if somewhat vulgar, seductress.12 The outwardly more refined Birdy’s Lolita-like qualities emerge more gradually but build to an even cruder climax. She makes an abrupt but abortive attempt at fellatio on the open road. Also, true to the black widow’s mythical modus operandi, both women do serve in some fashion to “lure the man to his doom.” Doris is indirectly responsible for embroiling Crane in the blackmail and killing of Big Dave. Crane’s desire to boost Birdy’s musical career and her misguided attempt to bring him oral-genital pleasure lead to a near-fatal car accident.
But there the women’s resemblance to the archetypal Evil Temptress ends. As we have shown, Crane is not aroused by Doris, and his enthusiasm for Birdy is purely inspirational. The romantic triangle he forms with Doris and Big Dave functions as an inversion of the Cainsian Clytemnestra model. Instead of the wife and male lover’s teaming to kill the husband, often through a mock accident, here the husband inadvertently “avenges” his wife’s adulteries. As for his obsession with Birdy, in contrast to film noir, it does not lead to Crane’s moral depravity but instead to his near redemption. As for sexual attraction, Crane’s desire for Birdy operates by another logic entirely: He feels a need to change his unsatisfying life. In this regard, his interest in helping Birdy realize her dreams, or what he imagines her dreams to be, suggests not desire but identification. He needs to see both their respective ambitions fly, fulfilling the promise implied in both their birdlike names.
In the end, Crane seems at least partially like the British detective hero to which the hard-boiled American version was concocted as an alternative. That kind of hero is a man, in Gilbert Seldes words, of “effeminate manners, artistic leanings, and elaborate deductions” who compares to a “real man” like “a shop-window full of dummies” (quoted in Krutnik 42-43). The flamboyant lawyer, Riedenschneider, seems a perfect role model for Crane in this regard, with his epicurean tastes, foppish manners, and connection to the arts (the Da Vinci’s Restaurant he frequents, the Turandot Room he books13). Crane begins emulating the ace lawyer’s “elaborate deductions” and even starts speaking Riedenschneiderese when he says to Birdy that the French piano teacher Carcanogues is “the best…I made some inquiries.”
One could counter that not all classical noirs have “tough” protagonists. Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street (both 1945), for instance, are rare but prominent examples of noirs with decidedly non-“tough guy” leads (both played by Edward G. Robinson, cast against type). In Woman in the Window, Robinson plays a sedentary, middle-aged professor; in Scarlet Street, quite similar to Crane, a hen-pecked bank clerk and Sunday painter. Tellingly, however, neither of these non-“tough” noirs feature first-person, voice-over narration. More significantly, both have sinister femme fatales to whom the male protagonists are strongly attracted sexually. An irresistible yet forbidden sexual urge drives both films’ main characters—indeed most noirs’— and establishes the films’ narrative and thematics.
Yet just the opposite is the case with Man: Crane’s lack of libido is paradoxically what moves the story forward (at a snail’s pace) and it is what the film is ultimately about. The Desire That Wasn’t There becomes an apt post-facto working title for this anti-“tough” thriller in which canonical noirs’ prime character motivations—financial greed and sexual lust (Martin 105)—have been replaced by a devastating repression.
Historicizing a period noir
While the period setting of The Man Who Wasn’t There is anomalous for neo-noirs in general, it is less the exception than the rule for the Coen brothers’ films. Only three of their nine films overall and two of their six noirs (Blood Simple and Fargo) have been set contemporaneously. What sets Man apart from the filmmakers’ other period work is its comparative historical groundedness. In contrast, Barton Fink (released in 1991, set in 1941), The Big Lebowski(1998/1991), or the non-noir The Hudsucker Proxy (1994/1958-59) all seem “out of sync with the times in which they were placed” (Bergan 135). The historical coordinates of Man’s diegetic setting give its (homo)sexual subtext a resonance that goes beyond fidelity to its genre.
Whether overseas or on the home front, large numbers of men and women in the 1940s found the war’s homosocial environments quite hospitable for expressing same-sex eroticism, a collective self-assertion that carried over into peacetime for many gays and lesbians. Writes historian John D’Emilio,
In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the effeminate music teacher Carcanogues resides in San Francisco, which is also where Tolliver’s hairpiece came from. Crane, meanwhile, who has lived in the small town of Santa Rosa without ever going overseas, nevertheless readily recognizes the interloper Tolliver’s gayness.
The 1948 Kinsey report had mixed effects on homosexuals. It legitimated the idea that homosexually inclined men were indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts and that homosexual acts were not uncommon among the general populace. While reassuring psychologically to many gays and lesbians, Kinsey’s findings, according to D’Emilio,
Indeed, after Congressional testimony in 1950 acknowledged that many State Department employees had been dismissed on grounds related to homosexuality, Republicans began attacking the Truman Administration with the charge that undetected “sexual perverts” as much as Communists threatened national security (D’Emilio 41).14
Gender roles, on the whole, were being renegotiated during this period in the United States in the workplace and the home alike, as war veterans returned to civilian employment to find more women in the workforce. Man illustrates this situation not only in Doris Crane’s job as chief accountant at Nirdlinger’s department store but in the dissatisfaction expressed by Ed and Big Dave over their “less than manly” occupations (described further below). Additionally, in response to both a burgeoning consumerist ethos and an expanding corporate business structure, shifting notions of masculinity increasingly stressed domesticity and cooperation in contradistinction to entrepreneurship, initiative and independence (Corber 5-6). Crane’s voice-over chronicling of creature comforts ironically articulates the postwar discourse of prosperity that increasingly defined men as consumers within the private sphere (6):
Along with the western and the war film, classical film noir broke with the emergent socio-cultural discourse of masculine passivity but also, singularly and paradoxically, with the Cold War etiquette of gay invisibility. The hard-boiled hero, in his macho posturing and contempt for material comforts associated with the domestic sphere, expressed a desire to reclaim a form of male identity now displaced by commodity culture (Corber 9, 28). His taciturn toughness and seeming self-sufficiency acted to allay male panic by providing identification with a hyper-masculine subjectivity. That subjectivity, nostalgically drawn from the pre-corporate capitalist period, was also discursively akin to post-World War II heroes John Wayne and G.I. Joe.
In its “visual economy,” however, film noir also posed a threat to emergent Cold War discourse. In its emphasis on style at the expense of narrative coherence, film noir can be seen as “subversive, for in reversing the hierarchical relation between spectacle and narrative that normally prevailed in classical Hollywood cinema,” it encouraged at least a partial “homosexualizing” (in Robert Corber’s terms) or “de-masculinizing” (in Laura Mulvey’s) of the spectator’s gaze.
The hyper-stylization once associated more exclusively with male gay camp has become in the intervening decades a hallmark of the postmodern condition in general and the Coens’ oeuvre more specifically. Such a “homosexualization of society,” while creating an interesting conjuncture between camp and postmodernism, would also seem to remove from the latter some of the former’s subversive sting. Already in the “modern” era, however, noir’s oppositional mode of spectatorship at the level of form lent itself to co-option on the level of content, now with gay, or at least gay-coded, characters.15 Functioning, as with the femme fatale, to contrast with and therefore to highlight the hard-boiled hero’s masculinity, gay-coded male characters appeared more frequently in film noir than in most other classical Hollywood films and developed a distinctive iconography in opposition to that of the “tough” protagonist: upper-crust (or foreign) accent, prissy mannerisms, impeccable taste, and a soft or corpulent body (Corber 10; Buchsbaum 38).
The tropes of gay representability as seen in classical noir interface with those in The Man Who Wasn’t There in ambiguous and contradictory ways. First, in Man, not only is gayness made visible in the explicitly gay Creighton Tolliver, but when combined with other “coded” and “possible” homosexuals, queerness in some form confronts Crane at every turn. Tolliver passes the queer baton to the epicurean Riedenschneider, who hands it off to the fleshy, French-accented Carcanogues. Then there’s Crane’s brother-in-law, Frank, the “principal barber,” who besides being another “soft body,” lives alone.
Even Big Dave’s heterosexuality, despite his affair with Doris, is called into question through his corpulence, his blubbering in front of Crane, his delicate snipping of cigar ends (with the “dame’s weapon”), his handing of his lighted “Romeo and Juliet” brand cigar to Crane during his crying bout,16 and his turning out to be another “phony.” Crane levels this same epithet at Carcanogues and at the androgynous medium he visits after Doris’s suicide, a suicide prompted by her discovery that Big Dave, for all his macho talk, wasn’t the man she thought he was. Far from being a war hero, it turns out, Big Dave actually served in the Navy as a lowly clerk and spent most of his enlisted time in the brig, for fighting.
Crane’s gay connection to Big Dave is enhanced through two major parallels: one having to do with business, the other with flying saucers. As for the first, both men have married into businesses owned by their wives’ families, and both rebel against their financial dependence on women by resorting to “passive” crime and pursuing “unmanly” careers as venture capitalists. Crane takes up blackmail and acts as the “silent partner” of the acknowledged homosexual Tolliver; Big Dave takes up embezzling and attempts to establish a department store annex featuring women’s clothing with Doris as comptroller.
The extraterrestrial motif is introduced explicitly by Big Dave’s wife, who confides in Crane, after Big Dave’s death, that her husband showed no sexual interest in her after their alien encounter on a camping trip. The extent to which UFOs were generally penetrating the late-1940s U.S. imaginary is evinced in a later scene in the barber shop. There, a Life magazine article Crane is reading on dry cleaning (“Dry Cleaning: The Wave of the Future”) is followed by one on flying saucers (“Mysteries of Roswell, New Mexico”)—two displacements of illicit sexuality in one mass-cultural volume. Skeptical of the alien angle at first, Crane, bolstered by the increasing sense of his own alienation, ultimately becomes a “believer,” but in the hopeful sense, not in the paranoid sense of Big Dave’s wife.
Henceforth flying saucers, previously evident only in the set design’s suggestive light fixtures and the aforementioned Life article, begin to crop up “for real.” They become a possible figment of Crane’s fevered imagination: first, as visual prologue and coda to his apparent coma/near-death experience following the car accident; later and most notably, in his prison-yard vision shortly before his execution, when an alien craft hovers overhead, for his benefit alone.
Perhaps the strongest link between Crane and Big Dave is the killing of Creighton Tolliver. Big Dave is the one who kills “the pansy.” Yet Crane is the one who is ultimately tried and convicted of the crime. Ironically, this is the lone crime in the film that he didn’t commit. Or didn’t he? His execution is excessive even by the punitive logic of the Production Code since his only “wrongdoings” were blackmail and a failure to notify the police of his self-defense killing of Big Dave.
But Crane’s execution is also a form of poetic justice. If Crane’s hyper-alienation and deep depression are indeed manifestations of his latent homosexuality, then his conviction for murdering the gay salesman is an irrefutable sign that the reluctant barber is guilty, symptomatically rather than implicitly, of violently suppressing his own gay impulses. And Crane’s earlier, seemingly deranged rant against barbering becomes an illuminating self-indictment: