Friday, December 13, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Two Men in Manhattan (1959) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville   
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring: Jean-Pierre Melville (Moreau), Pierre Grasset (Pierre Delmas), Christiane Eudes (Anne Fèvre-Berthier), Ginger Hall (Judith Nelson), Colette Fleury (The Secretary), Monique Hennessy (Gloria), Glenda Leigh (The Singer), Jean Darcante (Rouvier), Michèle Bailly (Bessie Reed), Paula Dehelly (Mme. Fèvre-Berthier).
Watching Two Men in Manhattan you get the sense that Jean-Pierre Melville make a film set in America. Melville after all loved America – he loved American gangster film, and changed his last name to Melville to honor the writer. There really isn’t much to Two Men in Manhattan except for its style – taking place all over the course of one night., it tells a simple, straight forward story in just 84 minutes. The film has great style – and that’s about it. It’s also more than enough to make it an enjoyable film – even if an undeniably minor one in Melville’s filmography.
The film stars Melville himself as Moreau – a French journalist living in New York, who called in when the French delegate to the U.N. goes missing. He is to find out what happened to him. He enlists Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset) – a photojournalist who knows all the ins and outs of New York – all the seedy places in the city. And together, the pair head out into the night to figure out what happened.
They talk to all the women in the diplomat’s in his life – all except (tellingly) his wife and his daughter. There is the Broadway actress, the jazz singer, the burlesque dancer, the prostitute, etc. The exteriors of the film were shot quickly by Melville on location in New York, before he returned to France to shoot the interiors. The film does indeed look great – and moves swiftly from one location to the next. It is a film that is made up of stops and asides – Melville literally stops the film completely to simply watch the jazz singer perform an entire song.
In terms of its theme, Two Men in Manhattan isn’t a particularly deep film – and it isn’t nearly as dark as Melville was going to become in the 1960s (or even as he was, even while smiling, in Bob le Flambeur). It’s a little odd to watch the film about two journalists take the stance it does – Delmas may be a scuzzy photographer – paparazzi before they had a term for that. And yet, while he goes too far (way too far) at times, and breaks a lot of rules, the walk back the film does go too far. His instincts – of getting the truth out there – are correct. The film is almost naïve in its view there.
In general, Two Men in Manhattan feels much like what it is – a quickly tribute to film noir by a French director, who admired the American directors. The style is there, but the story is simple, and the characters are barely paper thin. The film then is all style, all effortless cool by Melville, all surface. It’s fun – it’s good. And it’s good to see a film that has essentially been forgotten by a master like Melville – even if when you see it, you understand why it isn’t better known. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – most B-movies of the 1950s wish they were this good. It just isn’t quite what Melville was about to go on and do in the 1960s.

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