I re-watched this movie again recently, and it amazed me how much I’d forgotten about it. Not only was it a great story but it was like a love letter to the film noir classic Double Indemnity. Or a tongue-in-cheek homage to it.
It’s about Ed Crane, a barber (played by Billy Bob Thornton, as if he’s in a trance) who sort of drifts through life, doing what he must to get by. His wife, Doris (played by Coen Brothers’ favorite Frances McDormand), is a bookkeeper having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini, a.k.a. Tony Soprano). What sets the plot in motion is the appearance of an entrepreneur seeking investors for a new technology called dry-cleaning (the story’s set in the late 1940s, in keeping with the film noir theme). The businessman (played in quirky fashion by Jon Polito) runs the idea by Crane after another investor backs out on him.
Now here’s where the homage part really becomes obvious. Not only does the would-be dry-cleaner propose that he and Crane form a partnership with a 50-50 split “straight down the line” (sound familiar? — think Phyllis Dietrichson parroting Walter Neff’s words in Double Indemnity), but he comes on to Crane. So instead of being tempted by a blonde femme fatale to ditch her husband and take the insurance money, Crane is tempted to make money (possibly) by partnering with a man (who tries to seduce him, but is rebuffed) and (possibly) ditch his cheating wife. How about that for a twist?
So to get the $10,000 Crane needs to invest in this golden opportunity (and since this is a Cohen Brothers movie), he turns to blackmail. Three guesses who he blackmails and the first two don’t count. Well, of course it’s the boss who’s sleeping with his wife. Who also happens to be … wait for it … the investor who reneged on the dry-cleaning deal! The man that “Tony Soprano” refers to as “a fruit” and also beat to a pulp.
Now that’s just to start with — and here’s the thing. The film not only sends up Double Indemnity in ways that only a stone fan of the movie would notice (the coroner’s name is Dietrichson, for Pete’s sake), but it’s filmed in black-and-white with the most awesome shadowy cinematography. Not to mention that the themes are so bleak, the script could have been written by Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus.
As for the ending, without revealing spoilers, all I’ll say is that it owes more to The Postman Always Rings Twice than it does to the film to which it continually refers.
This film is a cracker that fully deserves two thumbs up!