Judge Clark Douglas' investigation of Manhattan led to the discover some very interesting smells.
Melville's love letter to New York City.
When you watch most of Jean-Pierre Melville's films, it's completely evident that he's in love with American crime movies. Time after time, Melville offered distinctive takes on the genre that leaned heavily on established conventions while simultaneously demonstrating a level of artistry that few similarly-themed American movies could match. However, in 1959—a relatively early moment in Melville's career—he took his fondness for American crime movies even further by actually making an American movie. Okay, so it stars two Frenchmen and most of the dialogue is in French, but the New York setting is the film's most dominant character.
The plot is an exceptionally simple one. A French United Nations delegate goes missing, and it's up to two French journalists named Moreau (Melville himself, in his only lead role) and Pierre (Pierre Grasset, Rififi) to find him. So begins a series of Chandleresque encounters with a variety of colorful characters—crooks, prostitutes, actresses, businessmen, politicians and so on—as the reporters come closer and closer to unraveling the truth behind this mysterious situation. It's a straightforward tale that should feel charmingly familiar to fans of film noir.
However, the movie's focus isn't on its plot or characters so much as it is on reveling in the atmosphere of American crime movies. There's dirty, slinky jazz all over the soundtrack, shadows in every other shot, raincoats and fedoras all over the place, hard-boiled dialogue—for the most part, Melville is reminding us over and over again of just why this particular sort of movie is such grubby fun. It's a little racier than the average American film of the era (there are brief flashes of nudity here and there), but otherwise the film does a superb job of making it feel as if Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart might wander onscreen at any moment.
One of the most distinctive and strange elements of Two Men in Manhattan is the manner in which it asks actors who clearly aren't comfortable with the English language to play distinctively American characters (specifically, no-nonsense New Yorkers). The off-kilter manner in which some of the brusque dialogue is delivered is amusing and more than a little surreal (particularly a visit with a caustic call girl midway through the proceedings), but it only adds to the feeling that the film is most assuredly a French director's affectionate love letter to American cinema.
The two leads handle their roles with aplomb. Melville is obviously best-known for his skills as a director, but he seems at ease in front of the camera. He has a little half-smile that seems to betray how much he's enjoying himself, and he shares an easy rapport with Grasset (a good actor who only appeared in a handful of films over the course of his career). The other actors range from mediocre to exceptional, but Melville places such a strong emphasis on the general atmosphere of the film that the quality of the performances hardly seems to matter. Melville would later claim that Two Men in Manhattan was his weakest film—it's certainly his slightest—but that's really not much of a insult when you consider the rest of his filmography.
Two Men in Manhattan (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/Full Frame transfer that highlights Melville's exceptional visual work. Blacks are deep and inky, shadow delineation is exceptional and detail is generally solid throughout (though there are occasional moments of softness). Some exterior shots are on the rough and grainy side, but it's not too much of a distraction. The LPCM 2.0 Mono track is effective, too, presenting the jazz-heavy score with robust clarity. Dialogue (roughly 75 percent of which is in French, with the other 25% being in English) is clean and clear. Supplements are limited but engaging: an excellent 35-minute featurette that offers an in-depth discussion of the film from critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a pair of theatrical trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by Ginette Vincendeau.
Two Men in Manhattan is certainly minor Melville, but genre buffs and those interested in seeing the director indulge his fetishes should have a good time. The Blu-ray release is stellar.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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