|The Plot: When a French UN deligate, Fevre-Berthier, goes missing the French Press Agency at the local embassy sends out a reporter to track down the missing deligate. True, there are better men on the police force looking for him no doubt but Moreau (played by director Jean-Pierre Melville himself!) knows the dirty underbelly of New York City like few others. With his photographer in toe (Delmas, played by Pierre Grasset, a decent sleuth in his own right but has some problems with his drinking) this reporter wanders out into the night searching for any clues to the whereabouts of this diplomat. He is told that the common belief is that Berthier is hold-up with one of his female acquaintances but there are at least three to go through. With this knowledge the men pay visit to any woman in Manhattan that may hold the key to finding this very important politician. Things aren’t so simple though, as the two are being followed by some mysterious person who hides away in their vehicle. Could there be foul play at foot and will this team of journalists hold to their integrity, to their greed or their decency when they find out the truth of this case?|
The very first thing I noticed about Two Men… was something that I’ve found pretty commonplace in a lot of Euro arthouse fare, it’s that super jazzy noir musical accompaniment. As soon as the credits start rolling it’s in your face and demanding your attention, setting the mood. There’s no denying the influences of Jean-Pierre Melville, the man’s love for Film Noir is so prevalent in every frame. With characters who wear sunglasses at night time in office buildings while wearing heavy trench coats and incredibly sleek hats. If I were alive during this time, I think my ideal of just about the coolest thing on the planet to do would revolve around wearing these same wardrobes and running around New York playing a detective while jazz music plays over in the background. Even to this day though, the concept is still fairly cool and ignites a form of youthful daydreaming. New York is such an enigmatic backdrop where, for those of us who have spent no time in the city, everything seems so happening and mysterious. You have to imagine in 1959, it had to seem just as equally spectacular and alluring to Parisians. Melville does his best here to capture the city as a character, which isn’t hard to do with New York city but he manages to do so while still keeping it such a firmly French film.
The cinematography and visual aesthetic of the film, much like Le Samourai, isn’t really what I would consider a shocking approach to the subject. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! The film is shot incredibly well to be sure, but it lacks any kind of flashiness that some filmmakers of the time would become well known for. Melville keeps things toned down and delivers most of his flash through excellent use of shadows and lighting throughout. The camera is treated as a tool simply to deliver a story and Melville’s writing is really center stage here. Very similar to the Film Noir that Melville looks to emulate. Now, that word emulate comes off sounding like a cheap workaround for saying “rip off”, but that isn’t the case believe me. If you watch this alongside any number of American suspense stories from the forties and fifties, you’ll find all the differences in the world that you could be looking for. It’s that European sensibility, where not everything is focused on the plot or the continuation of it. That free form of storytelling where although there is obvious direction to a scene, some times there are moments just meant to build atmosphere or see where things might lead. The dead ends that our characters run into are just a part of that and it gives a feel of cinematic-sailing, where we’re not sure just where things are heading but we’re comfortable and enjoy the ride. The differences between the complexities of something like Double Indemnity and this film couldn’t be more apparent.
What separates Two Men in Manhattan (as well as a lot of older European fare) is the focus it has on such a small story, but is delivered in such an epic scope that it takes on something so much more than being just a tale of two journalist. It brings up a lot of questions about journalistic integrity, during its final half hour in particular, while also examining the human factor of greed and self servitude. Although it’s certainly a very linear story and at times it’s difficult to get into the mindset of our leading men. Since it’s such a procedural story, with our characters going from one possible witness to the next, it is through hints dropped to the viewer about the integrity and merits of each man that we begin to understand them more and more. When the inevitable conclusion comes our way (I’m keeping this spoiler free mind you!) and each man goes a certain way, it creates a really interesting moral dilemma for the audience. However, there is growth here from our characters and it becomes something really powerful in the final moments. I won’t go into it too much, but if you’ve ever turned a film off with a smile on your face and feeling truly happy about what you’ve just watched; then believe me you’ll have a similar feeling with the conclusion of this film.
Although I do think Melville has done better, this may be a bit of an underrated entry into his catalog. Sure, some sets are obviously sets along the way, likely shot back at home in France rather than here in the states – but it’s all part of the charm of an older film. It’s everything you could hope for from such a brilliant filmmaker and from a noirish suspense story. There are biting dames on display, long coats and meditations on life as we know it. If you love films that take place over a very specific time frame, love Melville/arthouse in general or you’re looking for something to break up the monotony of your year long Umberto Lenzi viewership – definitely give this one a gander some time.