Two Men in Manhattan (Deux hommes dans Manhattan, 1959) fascinates. A mid-career effort from director-actor Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows, Le Cercle rouge), as a movie it's only so-so, treading as it does familiar, well-worn noir territory, if agreeably so.
Instead, the mildly interesting plot exists mainly to serve the movie's real purpose and attraction, Manhattan itself. For this French production all of the exteriors were made on location, in New York, mostly at night. As Melville and co-star Pierre Grasset were unknown in America, the locals mostly ignore the French crew, even as scenes play out in heavily populated areas like Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and even aboard crowded subways.
These location scenes, shot by Nicolas Hayer (Orpheus) and/or camera operator Michael Shrayer (the IMDb says Hayer, the liner notes credit only Shrayer), are extraordinarily beautiful, authentically capturing the city better than 99% of Hollywood films and more like the still photographs Stanley Kubrick took during his Look magazine days. Photographed in gorgeous black and white, the results are also quite similar to the more romanticized New York Gordon Willis later achieved on Woody Allen's Manhattan, and it's certainly possible Two Men in Manhattan might have been an influence. Seen today it has the additional quality of a cinematic time machine.
Conversely, virtually all interiors were done in France, obviously so, either on soundstage sets or inside French buildings pretending to be American ones. Expatriate Americans, mostly nonprofessional actors, appear in supporting parts giving widely varying performances, from pretty good to hilariously awful. And there's a terrific jazz score by Christian Chevallier and Martial Solai, including one outstanding song, "Street in Manhattan."
Cohen's new Blu-ray, licensed from Gaumont, is a thing of beauty, a flawless transfer that does this beautifully shot film justice, and it includes a couple of good extra features.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the search for a missing French U.N. delegate, Fèvre-Berthier. World-weary, raccoon-eyed Moreau (Melville himself) is a journalist at the Agence France Presse (AFP) and assigned to find the delegate, whose absence from a United Nations ceremony (attended by, in stock footage, Eleanor Roosevelt) becomes news. Moreau teams up with morally rudderless Delmas (Pierre Grasset), a cynical, alcoholic tabloid photographer.
Most of the picture follows the pair as clues lead them from one location to the next, from "Mercury Theatre" stage actress Judith Nelson (Ginger Hall) to white jazz vocalist Virginia Graham (Glenda Leigh), and black cabaret dancer Bessie (Michèle Bailly), the latter a Josephine Baker type not shy about undressing in front of the pushy French newsmen. All the while they're followed by someone at the wheel of a mysterious Ford Fairlane, whose presence is usually announced with a loud blast of music on the soundtrack.
The basic conceit of the plot is that once it becomes clear Fèvre-Berthier has met an untimely end, Moreau and Delmas become more ruthless in wanting to get at the truth with the latter, realizing there's a fortune to be made with his first-on-the-scene photos, ready to cross the line into morally unethical behavior that Moreau resists.
The movie was shot in New York during November 1958, Christmas shopping season, and finished in France February-April 1959, on what apparently was a puny budget by French standards. (The interior sets do look pretty cheap at times.) During the opening credits the camera rides through Times Square and beyond, and later the two newsmen share a scene there. Marquees advertising The Geisha Boy, Separate Tables, I Want to Live!, A Night to Remember, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness are plainly visible, and in another scene the characters walk past a long line of Broadway show posters. Even the cigarette billboard ads and neon-lit automats, drunk bars, and coffee shops are great fun to see.
But equally interesting is that because few passersby show any interest in Melville's camera, because the locations, famous and common, are all so interesting, the viewer gets the sense of what everyday life in Manhattan really was like in late 1958. Melville clearly loves the atmosphere and soaks it up like a sponge.
The filmed-in-Paris interiors don't convince. Unlike Italian films shot the same way, where the location scenes contrast singularly Italian-looking interiors and set dressing, in Two Men in Manhattan the problem is more of general utilitarian blandness. Delmas's cramped, cluttered apartment is pretty convincing but other locations - a hospital, nightclubs, backstage at a theater - are generic and they all use the same style of English signage.
Melville and Grasset roam about the real Manhattan, but most of the other speaking parts were shot back in Paris, with English-speaking Frenchmen and expat Americans who, presumably, could take direction in French or at least looked right. Vocalist Leigh is a good actress and a terrific singer and yet her movie career seems to have been limited to a film or two; I wish I knew more about her. On the other hand, call-girl Gloria (Monique Hennessy), whether it's her own voice or she's dubbed by somebody else, would be right at home in an Edward D. Wood, Jr. production.
Gloria appears in a scene set at a "Franco-Asiatic" brothel, a bizarre fusing of Chinese prostitutes and their madam, French furnishings, and Gone with the Wind southern hospitality. Indeed, Two Men in Manhattan blurs a lot of lines, with the picture part American noir tribute, Manhattan valentine, French New Wave film, and even partly an homage to French Resistance fighters, of which Melville himself was one. The jumble bemused the relatively few who saw Two Men in Manhattan when it was new, for as Melville scholar Ginette Vicendeau notes in the Blu-ray's booklet essay, it "was too close to the New Wave for its detractors, but not close enough for its fans."
Video & Audio
Two Men in Manhattan is presented in 1080p and its original 1.37:1 standard screen format, and must have been transferred from original camera elements, so richly textured is its inky, film-like look. The 2.0 LPCM mono, French only with optional English subtitles, is very good for its age.
Supplements include a casual, multigenerational conversation about the film with critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. That's in high-def, too, as are the original French and reissue trailers that accompany it.
A must on Blu and a priceless treat for Melville fans and especially lifelong and one-time New Yorkers, Two Men in Manhattan is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.