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Untitled Barber Movie: The Coen Brothers in Black and White

Visionary master Roger Deakins finally won his very first Oscar recently for Best Cinematography. No, you are not reading an article first published twenty years ago. Yes, I am telling the truth. As you all likely know. But it’s still a head-scratcher, right? Seeing his entry on IMDB reading in bold – ‘Won 1 Oscar‘. No win, then, for The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – to name just a handful. In my opinion, Deakins’ ought to have been shortlisted for Revolutionary Road (instead of The Reader), and some ignored, exceptional work with Joel and Ethan Coen on The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, and especially Barton Fink.

The Academy Awards my well represent a huge chunk of the mainstream cinema back-patting, but it is not the be all and end all. Patterns of honorees or sporadic omissions stand out like a sore thumb at times. In 2003, the late cinematographer Andrew Lesnie would not be part of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King‘s 11-win streak on the big night. Why? Because incredibly the film did not receive a nomination in that category. A bizarre statistic given the film’s win in all ts categories, and that the five nominees that year did not represent a, what you call, “best”.

Two years prior, Lesnie did win Best Cinematography for the first Rings chapter, one of four tech only gold statuettes for the film. And a stronger field you might say, with the likes of Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), Sławomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down), and Donald M. McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!). The most deserving victor that year perhaps should have been Roger Deakins for his classic noir shadows and light of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Deakins won the BAFTA, the American Society of Cinematographers, and many hearts and minds of movie-lovers everywhere. Then, and today.

The Man Who Wasn’t There was initially derived from a haircut poster which was used in their 1994 film, The Hudsucker Proxy. An idea that Joel and Ethan carried with them for years, under the guise “Untitled Barber Movie”. The film’s plot developed when the brothers attached the ‘dry cleaning’ sub-plot, and picked 1949, small town, California, as the films setting- inspired somewhat by their admiration of similar-themed movies, Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example.

Their decision to produce a black and white film meant they were dipping into new waters. Though their already apparent influence of period films would come in very handy here. The Coens would take black and Polaroid photographs to get a stronger idea of what the film would look like. Due to circumstances unforeseen, they and Roger Deakins had to shoot the picture in color, to be transferred to black and white in post-production. You’d never know.

With The Man Who Wasn’t There, Joel and Ethan Coen are treading familiar waters, what with the best laid plans of mice and men often going awry. I mean, nobody does bodged blackmail / kidnapping with such a fluent, yet haphazard style. Part of their original mantra is the ability to shift the narrative, as well as the audience’s expectations and reactions. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coens collaboration with Roger Deakins may well have hit prime form. One of their least eminent films stands on its own as a unique, slow-burner, and though it has the Joel and Ethan stamp all over it, many of us filmanics still wonder how the Oscar didn’t go Deakins’ way.

As we are introduced to the almost motionless, pensive Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) in crisp, immaculate black and white, his droll voice-over is an insightful, magnetic opening to the film. A lowly barber working alongside his wife’s brother, Ed still appears in dry awe of the varied haircuts and styles. His main concern, however, is his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Ganolfini). Ed appears to be witnessing life from afar, not until an investment opportunity arrives does he act upon his wife’s infidelity. As this is the Coen brothers, embezzlement, murder, false imprisonment, et al, slip through the narrative net. And what was meant to be a simple blackmail, starts to unravel around Ed as seriously worrying times.

Roger Deakins shoots The Man Who Wasn’t There with an exquisite, polished excellence. Depicting a style reminiscent of 40s and 50s horror, or crime pictures, the cinematographer casts light and shadow so mesmerizingly, you’ll be digging out your old classics, like The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity, in no time. The Coens and Deakins, both, paid homage to film noir with an added enthusiasm, not only is the look of the film reflective of that era, it pretty much places you there.

There are some inch-perfect performances here, with Thornton statuesque in both poise and performance, Tony Shalhoub on the flip-side, sassy and over-bearing. Yet Deakins manages to give the actors an extra definition, so much finesse in his photography its as though he crafted them out of clay himself. Even the Coen brothers must have been pinching themselves with the results.

This was not just a mere round of applause for a black and white picture, this was Deakins digging deep into his talented pockets. A window into the eye of a magician, he allowed us to immerse ourselves in his glory. The balanced, restrained story is given fantastic depth by Deakins, utilizing small lamps, the smoke of Ed’s Chesterfields, reflections through glass, the shadows of trees or window bars. I mean, this is a masterwork of cinematography from Deakins, by far one of his greatest projects in a portfolio of unrivaled brilliance.

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