The year is 1959 and French director Jean-Pierre Melville is coming off a modest though far from recognized success with Bob le Flambeur, a heist film indebted to the American gangster films of the 1940s and ’50s, but with a stylized aesthetic energy that would prove influential on the nascent nouvelle vague. Like Melville, the critics turned filmmakers affiliated with Cahiers du Cinéma at the turn of the ’60s who took an interest in the craftsmanship of the Hollywood studio system would parlay their enthusiasm into wryly subversive takes on such associated genre tropes. Appropriately, with his next film, Melville would attempt to more fully and authentically bridge these contrasting impulses. The result was Two Men in Manhattan, a moody, jazz-laced take on New York City noir narratives with a distinctly French bent, preemptively solidifying a lineage that was just then taking root among Melville’s national cinema.
In lieu of fully decamping to the States for a prolonged location production, Melville instead captured exterior images of New York City’s bustling, phosphorescent nightlife during a quick trip overseas before returning home to shoot the interior scenes, and thus the bulk of the film, on sound stages. Further, Melville cast himself as one of the two leads, the only such time he would do so. As a journalist commissioned to locate a missing United Nations delegate in the wake of a controversial summit meeting, Melville’s Moreau, alongside Pierre Grasset’s hard-drinking photographer Delmas, quickly embarks on a nocturnal tour through both the city’s finer and fouler locales. With only three pictures of the delegate’s rumored mistresses to go on, Moreau and Delmas end up piecing together their own narrative out of professional necessity, vaulting from one unexpected establishment (a brothel) to the next (a hospital), questioning these women until a lead turns into some form of a discovery.
Melville, working as director of photography alongside Nicholas Hayer, shoots in evocative shades of black and white, his monochrome palette milked for maximum moonlit anxiety. Like his characters, Melville’s camera remains curious, lurking before pursuing, then observing and documenting fissures in the sincerity of these suspects. Turns out, however, the real ethical quandary is left for Moreau and Delmas to consider as the fallout to their investigation pits the two against one another in a dispute over integrity and prosperity. Like many of Melville’s best-known films, then, Two Men in Manhattan is a moral tale, and yet he outlines the comedic and dramatic beats of Moreau and Delmas’s night flight as an artist might improvise a piece of music, with asides (an actual solo vocal performance by Glenda Leigh) and unexpected new themes (the delegate’s political past as part of the Resistance, a personal touch for Melville who himself identified as such during WWII) peppering the forward march of the narrative.
Two Men in Manhattan would prove influential, and not solely for a younger generation of French filmmakers, but also for Melville, who took the film’s paltry box-office take and negligible notices as inspiration to expand his ambition, employ more bankable stars, and ultimately perfect the strain of genre film with which he has subsequently become so synonymous. But there’s something quaint, modest, maybe even a little naïve about Two Men in Manhattan, lending it a unique feel among Melville’s later, probably greater, and certainly graver achievements. Two Men in Manhattan may have unknowingly brought the first phase of Melville’s career to a close, but it doesn’t represent reconciliation on the director’s part so much as transition, gilding his rough and tumble aesthetic with a social consciousness that would carry well through the coming decade.
Cohen Media Group debut Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan not only on Blu-ray, but as a digital home-video release, and the results are quite pleasing. Very few, if any, damage is noticeable on the print, and the 1080p transfer, despite having to handle almost exclusively nighttime photography, avoids intrusive noise. Instead, grain is present and contrast is kept in check, with the location and soundstage scenes blending as well as possible considering the film’s patchwork construction. Audio, meanwhile, is presented in its original form, with a linear 2.0 mix adequately handling the mostly dialogue-driven film. Christian Chevallier and Martial Solal’s wonderfully evocative jazz score is kept upfront in the mix, lending the home-video presentation an appropriately swaggering momentum.
Save for a pair of trailers (for both the original and re-release versions of the film), video supplements are relegated to single 40-minute conversation between Chicago film critics Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Jonathan Rosenbaum—which, all things considered, proves to be ample. The two discuss Melville’s Jewish roots and the effect his politics had on his filmmaking output, while placing Two Men in Manhattan in the artistic context of a career that was set to become both more popular and more critically recognized in the coming years. Rounding out the package is a small booklet with an essay by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who, among other things, helpfully elucidates a bit on Melville’s time spent in the Resistance.
Cohen Media Group continue their winning streak with the digital home-video debut of Jean-Pierre Melville’s little seen but influential 1959 tribute to American film noir.