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Melville is clearly enjoying himself in this picture. As director,
there is a virtuosic flourish to many of the extended shots and the
night-time cinematography. As actor, the constant smirk on his
character's face is surely that of Melville himself, playing out his
personal fantasy as a film noir character in his favourite city.
When the story arrives, it's revealed to be an ethical dilemma: our two principals (Melville as an Agence France Presse journalist and Pierre Grasset as his photographer buddy) discover a French diplomat and ex-Resistance hero dead of a heart attack in an actress's apartment. Do they report the truth, cover it up to preserve the guy's reputation or sensationalise it even more to make a fortune from the exclusive?
Melville was by no means a great actor, but his baleful eyes, bland smile and spiffy bow tie in this film give him a kind of sleazy charm that brings to mind Peter Lorre. His character's name (Moreau) is a pun on "moraux", which means moral, and indeed he is intended to be the moral centre of the film. There are moments, though, when he seems genuinely sinister: when he peeps on a bare-breasted dancer in her dressing room (the scene was censored in the UK), and when he looms threateningly over another girl who has just attempted suicide.
"Deux hommes..." is the most New Wave of all Melville's films. The raw, documentary-style shots, the improvised feel to some of the scenes (Melville makes frequent mistakes when speaking English), the use of real locations and untrained actors (including Melville himself), were jarring to audiences and critics at the time. In the light of Godard and Truffaut we can now better appreciate the type of film-making that Melville helped to inaugurate. Nevertheless, Melville regarded "Deux hommes..." as a failed experiment, returning in his subsequent films to a more classical approach.
'Nothing seems real. You don't exist. I must wake up' moans the failed
suicide and actress, as she is gently pressured by journalist Moreau into
revealing the whereabouts of her lover, missing UN diplomat, womaniser and
Resistance hero Fevre-Berthier. Melville's most realistic film, shot amid
the bright-neon signs of New York, is also a pure dream, its narrative
unreeling over one very dark night, swamping its protagonists into mere
silhouettes or fragments, as they walk and drive and drive and walk in an
echo-laden, empty silence, punctuated by fierce jazz squalls.
'Deux Hommes' is generally considered one of Melville's least successful films, and the director rejects it in his famous interviews with Rui Nogeuira, claiming that its failure made him seriously rethink his way of making films. It's not easy to see why it should be so disapproved of. The narrative is brisk if conventional, as it follows a traditional detective story route of problem, investigation, solution. Perhaps what is most objectionable is the film's theme, the idea that sometimes it is honourable and proper to conceal the truth from the public.
I may be biased - this was my first Melville film, eight years ago, beginning a love affair that is even more intense today - but I think 'Deux Hommes' is pretty good, for a number of reasons. Most immediate is Melville's use of light and darkness, the way he works between blazing neon and dense obscurity, as he does between noise and silence or sharp montage and Wyler-like deep-focused long-takes. This visualises the theme of the film, the darkness of the 'victim''s absence brought to light by the investigative journalists, with truth thrown back into the darkness.
Although Melville's heroes seem less 'deconstructed' here than in his most famous films, he uses subtly elaborate means to undermine them. Throughout, they are in a position of power, moving with ease through the different worlds of New York, from burlesque houses and brothels to expensive bourgeois apartments, linking two seemingly disparate realms. When interviewing people who knew Fevre-Berthier, Moreau remains rigidly framed, while his interlocutors are shot from different angles, cut up, fragmented, figuring his unbreakable integrity, and their dissimulating multiple identities.
But Moreau, for all his supposed decency, is never as powerful as he thinks. His firm point of view is often broken up by unmotivated angles that problematise scenes he dominates. He is frequently swallowed up in darkness, his authority literally disappearing. God-like camera angles looking down on him mirror the car that follows him - unlike a conventional detective, he has less information than we do, and so is emasculated. His body is sometimes broken up by Melville's compositions, particularly when the pair come out of Capitol Studios, and are shot from inside a car, watched by an unseen stranger, or in the climactic chase, as he keeps getting out and back into the car, his head repeatedly lopped off.
this undermining is linked to the theatrical metaphors strewn throughout. The four women interviewed are all linked to performance - an actress, a singer, a call-girl pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, and a stripper. Dalmas mimics Fevre-Berthier, and invents a different death for the victim, just as Moreau and his boss finally do. The men play the role of brother and friend to sneak into the hospital. They repeatedly enact what they're going to do or see. Throughout the film we get shots of the surface of New York, as if nothing has changed, but once we have penetrated the world beneath the glitter, it is impossible to take these signs, or these men, in the same way again.
Unusually for a Melville 'crime' film, the protagonists are detectives and not gangsters. However, Melville uses similar tropes to his gangster films to further undermine his heroes. The hospital scene is familiar from these films, the shaking up of someone with information, Moreau waiting outside like a boss, while his henchman does the dirty work. Moreau, throughout the sequence, with his 'gentle' persuasiveness, becomes genuinely sinister.
As they wait with the corpse in his lover's apartment, Moreau and Dalmas are visited by the editor, the 'Boss', wearing shades - his dealing with the body, his wearing shades indoors, his re-arrangement of the truth are all gangster staples, and yet he is the editor of a reputable magazine, determined to bury the truth about a Churchill-praised Resistance hero.
Melville is often acclaimed/reviled as France's greatest Americophile. It is here significant that Melville the director is also the lead actor, because just as the actor goes through a real geographical space, the director goes through an imagined cultural space of favoured American landmarks, Time Square, Broadway, Mercury Theatre, Time Magazine, Capitol Studios etc. The anti-hero's name is Delmas, a reference perhaps to John Dalmas, Chandler's prototype Philip Marlowe.
This kind of allusionism further destabilises the film's realism, as do narratively irrelevant shots of cigarette packets, the brand smoked by Melville's one-time friend Godard. Melville is always pushing back the limits of his genre, the hilarious, 'A Bout de Souffle'-like jazz-warnings to remind us of the car following our heroes, the car-lights seem to wink at us, as if we're both in on the joke on the heroes. In a very striking scene, flagrantly breaking 'plausibility', Moreau gets into the driver's seat with the address card of their next destination. The soundtrack suggests they start up and drive off, but the camera stays in an immovable car on the driver holding the card. In the penultimate scene, as Delmas lays slumped on the floor, the band that had been the act become the audience; a trumpeter approaches and blows with mock-melancholy.
There is so much more in this deceptive, short film that deserves a reconsideration, especially for its incredibly detailed technique that never forces itself, but is very rich. But the film works best for me as a (Hustonian?) study in failure, of the film's other hapless womaniser, Delmas, a great talent doused in impotence and drink, prepared to do vicious things for a break, a man who could have had everything, but seems shell-shocked by life, who can only find beatitude through alcohol. Rather him than the deeply creepy probity of his partner.
The main character in this film is Manhattan, as imagined and idolized by Melville. This impression is strengthened by the mostly unknown cast and the director himself playing the male lead. The rudimentary plot is mostly an excuse for Melville to feast on his favorite scenes and images: shiny cars driving through nocturnal city streets, neon signs and all-night bars, sultry women and smoky jazz music. The emotional tension of the film comes from the familiar Melville treatment of men's code of honor and loyalty tested by their weakness, here mostly the temptation of women, money and whiskey. Recommended for fans of Melville and stylish noir films.
Melville keeps the story going pretty well, but this is a weak film
compared to his best efforts. Shot partly on location in New York, and
also in a Paris studio, with many of the supporting players having had
to learn their parts phonetically (Monique Hennessy is particularly
clumsy with her lines), this is a noir that shows its low budget and
lack of inspiration in places. The attempt to find the missing diplomat
ends in a woman's apartment. We get a five minute speech from the two
reporters's boss about how great Fevre-Berthier was, it's a dull scene.
If you are looking for a noir with verve and great music, why not try Ascenseur pour l'echafaud, with REAL actors and Miles Davis's great score.
French director Jean-Pierre Melville is known for directing several
classic films such as Bob le flambeur (1956) and Le samouraï (1967),
but he also did some acting over the course of his career. However, his
only starring role was in his own 1959 crime film Two Men in Manhattan,
where he plays a journalist named Moreau who is assigned to find out
why a French diplomat named Fèvre-Berthier was absent from a United
Nations council meeting. With his photographer friend Delmas (Pierre
Grasset), Moreau suspects a female lover might be involved and follows
clues from woman to woman in the night of New York City, a place that
never sleeps. There also seems to be a car following Moreau and
Said to be a combination of American film noir and the budding French New Wave movement, Two Men in Manhattan very neatly utilizes the good sides of both styles. The urban street views and skyscrapers look excellent in the glow of the bright ad signs on store marquees and the dark, stark lighting set up for interior scenes is a joy to the eye too. The laid-back jazz soundtrack is highly enjoyable, creating a mood softer than in hard boiled detective noirs, even though the seedy locations would fit in such flicks seamlessly as well.
A lot of the film's charm lies on the shoulders of the two protagonists, who suit their roles splendidly. Melville's sad-looking appearance matches his character's melancholic but righteous attitude perfectly, while Grasset makes a great pairing for him as the greedy and amoral Delmas, prone to drinking and sleeping around. Ultimately their opposing approaches to the ethics of journalism are what create one of the main themes of the film; namely, examining the responsibility of the press when publishing stories of delicate nature. Besides the lead duo, the supporting actors do a good job too, from a suicidal stage actress Judith Nelson (Ginger Hall) to a jaded cabaret dancer Bessie Reed (Michèlle Bailly) and a jazz singer Virginia Graham (Glenda Leigh) who we get to see recording a haunting song in a studio.
All in all, when a film successfully combines a totally smooth and cool atmosphere with suspense and humour like Two Men in Manhattan does, it just cannot be anything but highly enjoyable. The movie is simply thoroughly entertaining, but since the technical elements are also very skilfully created, there is no reason to skip this one if you're even remotely interested in film noir and French cinema.
Two Men in Manhattan pushes the envelope on everything but quality.
Sure, it has lesbians, bare breasts and loads of sex references, but
does it help? Say hello of Jean-Pierre Melville's cheap and
The master of French crime goes to what might be the noir capital of the world. We see New Yorks streets at night, and our entertainers throw in a heave jazz score as well - the making of a masterpiece? I wish.
From the moment the first credit popped on screen I got the feeling that something was wrong. I shrugged it off, but just as soon as I was ready to embrace yet another great Melville film we are thrown into a whirlpool of disfigured English. Apparently it's only purpose is to show as that we are at the UN. The dialog was clearly not of any importance, and the sound department sure made that clear.
I'm sure this introduction isn't as long as it felt like, but that's hardly no excuse. To make things worse we get to spend our first few scenes with the most unimaginative and unimportant small talk. For the next 30 minutes or so I wasn't even sure if there was a plot. Sure, they are looking for a guy but beyond that it felt so empty and devoid of any real direction.
And did you expect great visuals? This whole deal feels like a cheap 40's docudrama after it had a stroke. One possibility is that Melville was testing out some new wave aesthetics, another is that he got drunk and let his assistant do the film for him.
Not to say it's entirely bad. The cinematography is more or less there, despite the fact that the compositions couldn't be blander. Had it been some unknown director who was behind this I'd just brush it off as the mediocrity it is - but despite the fact that it isn't really bad it almost feels like a stab in the back from Melville. He had everything he needed, but decided to go to autopilot. All I can say is that there's most certainly a reason why this is his least known.
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