A Delightful, Idiosyncratic Product of its Time
The Cohen Film Collection is currently doing the movie gods’ work by concentrating on restoring classic world films that have otherwise remained obscure and difficult to find. Their latest project was a restoration of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime film, Two Men in Manhattan, which features the director’s only starring role.
Melville plays Moreau, a journalist investigating the mysterious disappearance of a French delegate in New York City. The film spans over a night during which Moreau visits various New York City landmarks including the Village and a Broadway show. He’s accompanied by a photographer by the name of Pierre (Pierre Grasset) who takes pictures of everything he sees, almost anticipating our current obsession with Instagramming and Facebooking everything we can.
In many ways, the film seems very ahead of its time, given that it plays out like a bizarre satire about what investigative journalism would derive into in the age of paparazzi and non-stop news. It doesn’t help that Pierre seems to be as suspicious as the people they find and interrogate during the night. Yet Two Men in Manhattan is a delicious snapshot of its time, being Melville’s only American production, it turns out to be a parody of sorts that touches on the sensitive subject of how the French perceived America. Most of the film was actually shot in France, which gives the “New York” setting an air of surrealism, with most of it looking as a city as imagined by drunk poets and tourists.
All the streets and rooms seem to be covered by an eternal cloud that recalls the foggy London in which Sherlock Holmes solved his mysteries, but could very well be nothing other than cigarette smoke. Even if the film works wonderfully as a crime picture, it also turns out to be funnier than expected, with both Melville and Grasset bringing their delightful idiosyncrasy into their characters.
Melville might not have been the most astonishing of actors, but he knew exactly where to take his character in terms of combining sex appeal and just enough seriousness to pass off as a real detective. Grasset—with his character’s drinking problems and overall insensitive demeanor—seems to be the very definition of “shady”.
Melville is known for having inspired the filmmakers who would start the French New Wave, but his name seems to have vanished when set against the Truffauts, Godards and Rohmers. It hasn’t been until the past few years that critics and audiences have started unearthing his impressive filmography, which not only served as inspiration to the younger generation, but actually works like a guidebook, of sorts. His use of zooms and unexpected camera moves in Two Men in Manhattan anticipate the actions Godard would become known and praised for, while his sincere sense of humor and expressive performances are directly related to the magnificent work of actors in Truffaut’s greatest films.
Even the smallest characters in the film have details rich enough to suggest fascinating backstories that would make great films by themselves. There are very few female parts—mostly because their only clues in the case are pictures of women—but they turn out to be among the most memorable in the whole film, including the delegate’s wife, who exudes an air of seduction and sexual adventure, while a young actress who is considered a suspect recalls the playful femme fatales of some of the best American film noir.
Two Men in Manhattan flirts beautifully between intense drama and unexpected lightheartedness. It’s one of those rare films where the resolution of the mystery isn’t as exciting as the means to get there. Melville would go on to direct more “important” films in the course of his career, but this film in particular remains a treasure waiting to be discovered by audiences. Not only will it help understand how American cinema—as filtered by the French auteurs—helped redefine world cinema, it also captures Melville at a precise moment in time when he was polishing his technique.
The Cohen Media Group’s restoration is flawless, with the Blu-ray looking as pristine as the movie might have looked when it premiered. That’s especially important here, since the cinematography is such an essential part of telling the story and it adds several layers of depth (both literal and figurative) to this often wacky universe in which Times Square is accompanied by feverish jazz and lens tricks The only bonus features included are a conversation between critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, as well as an essay and trailers.