1950s, 2.5/4, Crime, Jean-Pierre Melville, Review

Two Men in Manhattan

#12 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.

This is a serious step back for Melville. It’s not bad, but this is the film that feels like it was a promising young filmmaker’s first film not the follow up to Bob le Flambeur. The exteriors were filmed in New York, and the interiors were filmed on sound stages in Paris, creating a curious mixture of the grungy exteriors with pristine interiors. However, the duality of the physical production is a small part of what affects the film negatively. It’s a noir mystery where the actual mystery is not very well built to the point where it feels like our main characters are just kind of wandering around. It begins to redeem itself by the halfway point, but it can’t quite do enough in the end to safe the whole thing. Almost, but not quite enough.

A French diplomat to the United Nations has gone missing after failing to show up for a vote at the UN. A French publication sends their ace reporter Moreau (Melville) out to find him. Moreau picks up the alcoholic photojournalist Delmas (Pierre Grasset) to help, using three pictures he took of Fevre-Berthier, the diplomat, with three different women. This is the basis of their entire search over the course of one night, three pictures Delmas took. Is this this entirety of Fevre-Berthier’s social life away from his wife? Were these pictures taken when he and any of the women just happened to be standing near each other? It’s the sort of shortened setup to a film that a mystery can get built on, but the execution of it, with Moreau waking Delmas up and Delmas immediately grabbing these three pictures feels so staccato without any real effort to build any sense of reality or atmosphere even.

It gets a bit weirder as the two men go from woman to woman, each easily found, and each giving the pair brushoffs in oddly short scenes that are filmed in quick, staccato fashion. There seems to be no flow from one to the next. There’s no delving deeper into the mystery with each one. They each seem completely disassociated from the rest, and three of the four women they go to see (the fourth is a prostitute who specializes in diplomats that Delmas knows) don’t contribute anything. I think I can see what Melville was trying to do, though.

These interactions are supposed to be thematic in point. They’re too short and don’t actually do what I think they’re supposed to do, but they’re supposed to be about a modern form of a moral code that undergirds a lot of Melville’s work. Each woman seems to be a purported element of the double life that Fevre-Berthier was leading. I couldn’t tell you what each of the women are supposed to actually represent (especially the prostitute that doesn’t actually know Fevre-Berthier), but I think that was the idea.

The movie feels kind of aimless with Moreau and Delmas going from woman to woman until they settle in a diner and hear the news about how Judith Nelson (Ginger Hall), the first woman they met and an actress in a play in the city, attempted commit suicide during the intermission of her performance. It’s here that there’s suddenly some drive as the pair go over to the hospital, talk their way into her room, and get some key pieces of information out of her like the fact that Fevre-Berthier is dead in her apartment. The two main characters begin to differentiate here as well.

Up until this point, they were mostly interchangeable except that Delmas would pull out a flask and drink from it now and again. The clipped conversations with the women really didn’t help this, but when confronting Judith, they take markedly different approaches. Moreau is the good cop, and Delmas is the bad cop. When they get to the apartment and find Fevre-Berthier dead on Judith’s couch, fully dressed and rather uncompromising, Delmas decides that his fortune is to be made here if he wants it. All it will require is changing some things, like pulling Fevre-Berthier’s body onto a disheveled bed and prominently featuring Judith’s picture alongside him in a far more sensationalist photo that he could sell to newspapers for significantly more money. Moreau’s boss comes down, Moreau puts the body back, and the two demand that Delmas give up the negative of the photo he took.

This contrast between how Moreau deals with the situation and how Delmas tries to take advantage of it is the most interesting thing in the movie. I really wish that the first half of the film had been working towards this. Maybe cutting out at least a couple of the other women to allow more focus on the woman who does matter while giving our two main characters the time to talk about stuff would have helped.

We also get the addition of Fevre-Berthier’s daughter Anne (Christiane Eudes), who had been tailing Moreau since his got his assignment at the magazine’s office, tagging along when Moreau discovers that Delmas hasn’t actually given over the film and was probably going to find a major magazine to sell it to that very night. I think she’s there to help focus the human element and effects of what Delmas is going to try to do, but, again, I wish she was more prominent early, maybe tagging along for some part of the search, offering tidbits about Fevre-Berthier’s reasoning for having a mistress in the first place.

The second half is far more interesting than the first, but I don’t think it quite saves the film as a whole. Even if the second half were outright great (it still feels a bit unfocused), it probably wouldn’t save the film from its first half which really is just meandering and kind of pointless. After the successes of Quand tu liras cette lettre and Bob le Flambeur, I really wouldn’t have expected this kind of reversion to a less assured type of filmmaking and storytelling. I don’t want to say that this feels like a hastily assembled production in order to justify an expensive trip to New York, but is kind of what it feels like.

However, I think I’m overselling my issues with this movie. It’s okay. It’s not bad. Melville, in his only starring role, plays his ideal man, a man of cool savoir-faire and specific morals, with the right kind of detachment. The halfway point onward is really quite good with suddenly some stakes and a sense of purpose for our character injected into the action. I think the film is alright, but the stepdown from the heights of his previous two films makes Melville’s fifth feature film as director a disappointment.

Rating: 2.5/4

5 thoughts on “Two Men in Manhattan”

  1. Wait, a DIPLOMAT goes missing and a French reporter is sent to find him.
    Not a police officer, not an agent, not a local detective…a reporter.

    I have a problem with the basic story premise, let alone how badly its executed, apparently.


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