The Man Who Wasn’t There (KS, May 2002)

The Coen Brothers’ movies are primarily character studies of people who are so ordinary that they’re weird. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber with a bad haircut. Ed narrates the story in a monotone, monosyllabic voice. Ed’s life is literally monochrome: the movie is shot in black and white. Ed smokes constantly, even when he’s cutting hair. He runs the second chair in a two-chair barber shop, morning till night, in 1949. To call Ed dull verges on flattery.

Next, the Coens usually have their weirdly ordinary little man try for once to do something out-of-the-ordinary, then have him stand and watch helplessly as the dominoes fall, ultimately on him. In Fargo (1996), a man tries to fake his wife’s kidnapping for ransom money. In The Man, Ed suspects his wife (Coen mascot Frances McDormand) of having an affair and decides to kind of do something about it.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Ed somehow ends up on Death Row for something he didn’t do. How he gets there is the key, and I won’t give that away. The irony which takes the ending beyond cliché is that Ed does do something fairly bad. But, as usual, he’ll never get any credit for that.

The movie’s title comes from the 1920s doggerel verse: “As I was walking up the stair/ I met a man who wasn’t there/ He wasn’t there again today/ I wish to God he’d go away.” It’s appropriately ironic that while many of us have read that verse at least once, nobody ever seems to know who wrote it.

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Wasn’t There (KS, May 2002)

  1. The version I learned in the forties as a schoolboy went as this

    As I was standing by the stair
    I met a man who wasn’t there,
    he wasn’t there again today,
    I do wish he would go away

    This was published in a book of nonsense verse which included Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll and others

    such as:
    A crocus grows in any spot
    and multiplies an awful lot.
    No books are written on the crocus
    it grows without such hocus pocus


    A turtle lives twixt plated decks
    which practically conceal its sex.
    I think it clever of the turtle
    in such a fix
    to be so fertile.

    My favourite was/is

    Miss Twy was soaping her breasts in the bath
    when she heard behind her a meaning laugh
    and to her amazement she discovered
    a wicked man in the bathroom cupboard.

    (and so on and so forth!)

  2. Jeff,
    I think the version we learned in school (in the 70s) was, “I wish, I wish he’d go away.” I’ve read the “I wish to God” version a few times too. Anyway, I had to go to Wikipedia to find out that the author was a fellow called Hughes Mearns, whom I’ve never heard of. I would have guessed Ogden Nash too.

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