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Most noir fans have already discovered the great French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Although few of Melville's films were released here when new, most have become repertory favorites. The American premiere of his masterwork Army of Shadows was held up for decades. Yet another French director who chose genre work in the New Wave years, Melville was obsessed with American crime films to the extent that he dressed like a Texan and drove large American cars in the narrow Parisian streets. Five years separated the director's Bob le flambeur and his 1959 Two Men in Manhattan (Deux hommes dans Manhattan), in which he takes his love for America directly to the streets of New York City.
Two Men in Manhattan strives to apply a hardboiled pulp fiction feel to a story about two Frenchmen on a nightlong quest. It's two days before Christmas but trouble is brewing at the French Press Agency, whose director Rouvier (Jean Darcante) is dealing with a touchy situation. French delegate to the United Nations Fèvre-Berthier has gone missing. Diplomacy requires that he be located fast and without a scandal -- it's suspected that he may be shacked up with a mistress. Rouvier hands the job to his reporter Moreau (director Jean-Pierre Melville), who immediately enlists a French tabloid photographer friend, Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset). Delmas knows what every prominent Frenchman in New York is up to, and accompanies Moreau on visits to suspected girlfriends of the missing delegate. They cruise Broadway, a jazz session at a recording studio, a Brooklyn burlesque house and an exotic brothel. Moreau has two problems. Delmas is scheming to promote a big paycheck with photos of the scandal, which will ruin everything. Second, a late-model Ford follows them wherever they go. Who wants to interfere with their mission to find Fèvre-Berthier?
At first Melville's film seems decidedly odd. The fact that the director was hip to the American noir style ten years before most American filmmakers were is a big plus. But the first part of the show alternates between dialogue scenes and Manhattan night street exteriors backed by mellow jazz music, almost as if it were a parody of TV's Peter Gunn. It's only when the "French-ness" of the characters and the situation sink in, that the film acquires gravity. Director Melville makes a great trench-coated hero with big, sad eyes; we soon realize that reporter Moreau, like his editor, is strongly committed to putting the best face on French diplomacy. The delegate must be rescued or retrieved, whichever is needed, but the defense of French pride comes first. Nobody is shocked by the revelation that the delegate is a womanizer, although the man's poor wife sits at home alone unaware of anything.
The conflict comes with Delmas, the slick sleaze photographer with a venal attitude toward everything. Delmas carries an amused smile at all times, and steals photos of the women they interview like a click 'n' run proto-paparazzo. Only Delmas can find the missing delegate, but he's uninterested in patriotic arguments. Rouvier relates Fèvre-Berthier's fairly amazing background as a resistance operative in the war. Delmas only pretends to care.
Two Men in Manhattan generates a noir-friendly ambience. Delmas and Moreau cruise through the city in shots clearly suggestive of late- '40's noir films, with angles over their shoulders as the neon lights pass by. 1 Melville and Grasset are definitely on location, walking those dark night streets. The lighting for these scenes has an appealing docu feel, and that all-pervasive jazz music is a big plus.
Almost all of the interiors, however, were filmed back in Paris, with dialogue apparently post-dubbed in both French and English. Melville rounded up various Americans in Paris, some of whom were actors and others not. Most of these transplanted characterizations are a little "off", and a couple of them are as fake as English dubbing can be. Their artificiality matches Melville's sets, which are too brightly lit and 'optimized' to match the naturalistic exteriors. Delmas' cluttered apartment is a notable exception. Melville also pulls off some fine illusions, such as a rooftop scene with a giant Manhattan skyline, that may be a stage effect.
The movie delivers on its promise of (1) laconic night-owl prowlers, (2) a moody jazz accompaniment, and (3) a gallery of interesting women. Our heroes visit several potential lovers of the delegate. The lesbian secretary Françoise Bonnot (Colette Fleury) refuses to play their game of "cherchez la femme". They then catch actress Judith Nelson (Ginger Hall) between scenes at the Mercury Theater (!). She sees through their pretense of interest in her career. We're treated to a vocal performance at a recording session by Virginia Graham, a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh). The boys then visit Gloria (Monique Hennessy), a blonde prostitute in a house with a Parisian-Chinese theme. Their final stop at the burlesque house finds topliner Bessie Reid (Michèle Bailly) rightfully contemptuous of their solicitation -- the impish Delmas takes the opportunity of sneaking nude shots of her. The film plays up the pulp fantasy of a sexy babe being in on every turn of the plot. The French idea of stimulating entertainment is compatible with the noir universe.
Finally, there's Fèvre-Berthier's daughter Anne (Christiane Eudes), who learns that Delmas intends to make money by destroying her father's reputation. Can Anne spark sentimental feelings in the mercenary photographer?
Some of Melville's broad strokes are awkward, such as a scene with some burlesque performers that's pure amateur hour. But many individual moments carry a feeling of truth. The director's experience in the resistance is reflected in the script's 'time out' to honor the delegate's service record, a patriotic scene in a very un-patriotic context. An N.Y.P.D. cop at the diner is shown being gentle to a drunk, and then playing with a kid, also a nice touch. Melville and especially Pierre Grasset are nicely imagined associates, not quite friends but trying in their own way to follow a code of loyalty. Their relationship is similar to, if much less idealistic, than that of the two aging gunfighters in Ride the High Country. They share a professional respect, but their ethics don't meet eye to eye.
Two Men in Manhattan hinges on this ethical-professional dispute. Delmas rushes to get full value for his pictures from the yellow press, knowing that he'll blow the careful cover-up just engineered by Moreau and Rouvier. It's almost nostalgic, the way loyalty and personal integrity still mean something in 1958, before all of life became fair game for the tabloid vultures. Two Men in Manhattan is not one of Jean-Pierre Melville's complex French crime pictures with gunplay, double-crosses and cops 'n' robbers intrigues, but it has got something special all its own.
The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Two Men in Manhattan is a clean, sharp HD encoding of this slick B&W production. At first we're upset to see this 1959 film formatted at 1.37:1, but the title design and the screen compositions indicate that the flat AR is correct. The audio is very clear as well, with the jazzy soundtrack sounding like an LP just dropped onto the turntable. We're told that the primary performing talent is pianist Martial Solal, who also wrote and performed the jazz music for Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle. Christian Chevalier and Jo Warfield wrote the jazz song warbled by Glenda Leigh, "Street in Manhattan".
The Cohen people have been providing good, authoritative extras -- the documentary on last month's The Damned is terrific -- and have not shirked their duty on this rarely screened Melville thriller. Critics Jonathan Rosenblum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky takes seats in the Music Box theater to discuss the picture in detail, and their half-hour talk is very illuminating. We're told that the set for the midnight café visited in the film was built to be an exact duplicate of a set in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, which happens to be Melville's favorite movie. Rosenblum holds the Jean-Pierre Melville book by Ginette Vincendeau in his lap throughout the discussion. Ms. Vincendeau provides a brief but thorough essay on Melville and Two Men for the disc's insert pamphlet. She dubs the parade of Manhattan night women an erotic tour of the city, and tells us that Monique Hennessey's blonde prostitute character is a parody of Marilyn Monroe.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Men in Manhattan Blu-ray rates:
1. The Frenchmen traverse Times Square 3 or 4 times, giving us a vivid look at what was playing in the first-run theaters on this particular week in November, 1958: The Geisha Boy, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, A Night to Remember, Wind Across the Everglades, Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys and Separate Tables, just for starters. And that's not counting the posters for Broadway shows. What is the exact night of shooting, from the evidence of the theater marquees? This is clearly a job for John McElwee over at Greenbriar Picture Shows.
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T'was Ever Thus.