Sunday, August 21, 2016

Two Men in Manhattan (1958)

This is the sort of movie that's main value is to satisfy the cinephile's need to find the unknown and unheralded works of a great director. Jean Pierre Melville's 1958 merger of French and American aesthetics and ideologies is ok in and of itself, but for anyone obsessed with his body of work it's a must-see. I suppose you've got to love the way he suggests a juicy pulp noir with a plot involving a French reporter and his sleazy buddy photographer as they attempt to track a missing French diplomat in New York, only to offer a fairly mundane journey into Manhattan nightlife that anticipates the calm coolness of the New Wave crime films that would emerge in full swing a year later with Godard's Breathless.

There's surprisingly little tension in the film, both in terms of characters and plot. There's also not any real sense of danger (the bulk of the movie consists of the main characters questioning various women, such as a singer, an actress, and a dancer, who may have connections with the man in question) and when the French ambassador is finally discovered, you almost laugh at how unremarkable the secret behind his disappearance really is. There's potential for a great examination of media exploitation for personal gain, as the French reporter, played by Melville himself, is at odds with the photographer, who wants to manipulate the events behind the diplomat's disappearance for personal gain. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in a great discussion on the DVD's Bonus Features, the movie presents a dichotomy between The French and American attitudes with regards to public scandal. In France, you remain hushed, but in America you muckrake your way to glory. It's not that the film sidesteps these issues, but it also never really commits itself to the issue the way, say, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole did.

Two Men in Manhattan is a minor film with minor pleasures. It paints Manhattan as a city that seems to stay awake just for these two ambitious scoundrels. There's a certain artificial and sometimes surreal quality to the nightlife painted here, as if Melville created a New York he imagined that in fact does not really exist (most of the interiors were actually just sets made in France). Perhaps the most American-obsessed of all the great French filmmakers, Melville finally got to make a film about America, yet it remains stubbornly French. Watching it, you sense Melville either gave up on the film, or didn't even fully commit himself to begin with. Unlike a lot of great directors, Melville's most popular works are, I think, his best. If you've never seen Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows, Le Samurai, or Bob Le Flambeur, start with those. Then perhaps check out Leon Morin, Priest, and The Silence of the Sea. Seen within the context of his great work, I think there's some real enjoyment to be found with Two Men in Manhattan. Outside of such a framework, it doesn't offer much.

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