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Set in Santa Rosa, Northern California, in 1949. The film opens in a barbers shop where Ed Crane works as second chair, for his brother-in-law Frank. Frank owns the shop. Ed’s wife, Doris, is bookkeeper for the local department store, Nirdlinger’s. Ed is suspicious that she’s having an affair with her boss, Dave Nirdlinger, whose wife Anne actually owns the store

One day, a businessman turns up as a customer in the barber’s shop. As the man chats, he expounds on a new technique called dry cleaning. Creighton Tolliver needs $10,000 from a silent investor to get the business up and running. This dwells on Ed’s mind for a while, then he decides to blackmail Dave for the money, sending him an anonymous note. Eventually Dave pays up, terrified that his wife Anne will find out about his fling with Doris. Dave suspects Tolliver of the blackmail, and beats him up.

Dave then confronts Ed and attacks him. Ed kills Dave in self-defence. Doris is arrested for the murder, being the most likely suspect as she helped Dave cook the books to provide the $10,000 blackmail money. So far, so good. The rest of this plot section will give away plot twists, so read no further if you wish to retain the element of surprise when you go to see this film.

Frank mortgages the barbershop to pay for top attorney Freddy Riedenschneider, who prepares a wonderful defence. During their meetings, Doris realises that Ed knew of her affair with Dave. As the truth of Dave’s death dawns on Doris, she hangs herself. Trying to find company after Doris’ death, Ed becomes friendly with local attorney’s daughter Birdy Abundas. She plays classical piano, and in Ed’s opinion, shows a lot of promise. As a personal project, he takes her to visit Carcanogues – a virtuoso piano teacher. He is not impressed. Birdy, feeling she hasn’t come up to scratch for Ed, tries to repay his kindness to her by fellating him while he’s driving them back home. This causes an accident. As he regains consciousness in hospital, he’s arrested for the murder of Tolliver, whose beaten body has been recovered from a local lake. Ed is sentenced to the electric chair.

Reaction

Every once in a while a stylish, stunning film makes an appearance. This is one of those films. Aping the classic film noir style of forties and fifties Hollywood the film bowls us along its twists and turns. But being the Coen brothers, there’s the quirky humour and odd surreal touch added too. Although more James M. Cain rather than Raymond Chandler, the noir style of shadows and light, atmospheric cigarette smoke highlighted at every turn (if Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t a chainsmoker before, he surely must be by now), the sharp fashions and angular looks, rekindle that genre with great authenticity. When Anne pays Ed a visit to tell him that Doris isn’t guilty, she could almost be Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce. (Come to think of it, isn’t Mildred Pierce’s daughter named Anne?)

You feel for Ed – everyone constantly talking at him, many of them not noticing his presence. Doris married him because ‘she liked it he didn’t talk a lot’. We notice Billy Bob Thornton’s presence alright – what a performance. The craggy sculpted face, lit to reveal its silent contours. His form carries those suits rather well. And what a pleasure to hear an actor’s voice and dialogue clearly, with no background noise at all in many places. Very unlike the recent ‘Moulin Rouge’ where the actors were straining to be heard. Both Thornton, and orator/lawyer Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) possess very resonant voices, with a gravelly edged timbre. The film also reveals an interesting evocation of the hairstyles of the era – Ed could almost become a philosopher on the subject of hair!

 This is a good film, wonderful acting (for example – Frances McDormand registering that Ed knew about her affair), with both principles (Thornton and McDormand) turning in excellent performances. And rarely, in a Coen brothers film, it isn’t all cold distance, you can get close to these characters and become aware of their emotions. This is the brothers best yet.

Rating

Excellent – do go and see this wonderful film.

If you like this film…

Two main strands of comparable film viewing suggest themselves – other work by the Coen brothers, and classic film noir. The most comparable of the Coen brothers films are ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Millers Crossing’, both of which are extremely grisly in parts. ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’ are also worth a look.

For original film noir based on James M. Cain’s novels, there’s ‘Mildred Pierce’ which stars Joan Crawford on top form, and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ with Lana Turner and John Garfield (later remade with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson). For classic noir the list is endless. Particular favourites are ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ (the Dick Powell version) and ‘Double Indemnity’ (Barbara Stanwyck and Joh Garfield). Enjoy!

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