As movie-lovers whose taste runs to the Coen, we’re not sure how we missed this one over the years, but we did.
This black-and-white sonnet to film noir is lovingly crafted and executed, driven and narrated by a chain-smoking Billy Bob Thornton – second chair in a three-chair barber shop in Santa Rosa during the 40s, a man so beaten down and trapped he looks like he wants to scream but just can’t. Thornton’s Ed Crane is married to Doris (Frances McDormand), the bookkeeper down at Nirdlinger’s Department Store and a woman with her eye on the prize, which happens to be Nirdlinger’s owner “Big Dave” (James Gandolfini).
Things get a little twisty, blurred by gin and adultery and blackmail, and take the true course of most film noir with the right man convicted of the wrong crime. It’s a dark, happy little ride with a NorCal 40’s feel and perhaps it was the clarity of the hour we chose to view it in but we were all-in and happy to go along for the ride.
Other favorites pop up along the way, swollen and sweaty and speaking in the crisp dialogue of the day and a la Coen. There’s Ed’s buffoonish brother in law Frank (Michael Badalucco), Big City mouthpiece Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), bobby-soxed Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson) and others to make you go “hey, it’s that guy!”
Things bump along like a 40s jalopy (boy, have we caught shade for resurrecting that word but, hey, screw it… that’s how we roll!) as a toothpick-mauling gumshoe prowls downtown Santa Rosa, a court case builds in intensity and false evidence and Birdie frightens the bejeebers out of Ed with a direct attempt at a “thank you” for his interest in her career.
Film noir is hardly ever about larger-than-life heroes – but is instead populated by tortured little people forced out of timid lives by the promise of wealth, romance, or a better way. They are the people who aren’t there, until something very bad happens…
Why We Liked It: Pacing, Coen dialogue, cast, the 40s NorCal Feel.
Best Line: “Heavens to Betsy!”
Where Can I See It?: Amazon Prime, YouTube