PRINT October 2001


The Man Who Wasn’t There

IN MICHAEL POWELL’S 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, the celestial messenger who shuttles between a monochrome afterlife and a color-saturated mortal sphere remarks: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” Now that all movies are in color (even if it’s color mostly lacking the deep dyes Powell worked with), a different lament emerges: One is starved for black-and-white down here. For that reason alone Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There provides sustained pleasure. This ostensible homage to film noir doubles as homage to noir et blanc, the only appropriate medium for evoking that late-’40s small-town California that has become our Grimm Brothers forest: the place where anything can—and in the Coen Brothers’ world, does—happen.

Anything: You can even reenter the bars, kitchens, and bedrooms of 1949, savoring fabrics and textures with quiet fetishistic delight.

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